Shipping Containers and How to Insulate Them

I have always liked shipping containers for storage and other uses. My family has several and I have had one in my yard for many years. They are inexpensive to purchase, require little maintenance, and hold up well to the weather. In all the years I have had mine I have never had any problems with leaks or rodents.

My shipping container is currently stored under a carport to protect it from the sun. This helps to keep it much cooler. Recently I have decided to reorganize some of my storage and want to store some items in the container that are more heat sensitive. Just by painting it a light color and putting in under the carport has lowered the temperature significantly, but not as much as I would like.

shipping containers and how to insulate them
Here you can see the container under the carport.

So after looking at what one of my friends has done, I am insulating my shipping container. It turned out that the hardest part was emptying it. I lined it with two-inch foam insulation board. The board with the aluminum foil on one side. The foil is important and should go on the side facing out. I used liquid nail to glue the board to the sides and top of the container.  Only use the Liquid Nails or other glue on the aluminum foil side. Some of the glue will melt or damage the foam insulation.

The insulation is easy to work with; all it takes is a good pocketknife to cut it up. To line an 8×20′ container took 19 sheets. After I got the insulation up, I filled up all the joins with expanding spray foam insulation. This comes in aerosol cans and can be purchased in any hardware store. After this project, I will now install a small wall air conditioner. Based on my friends experience, it should stay about 65 degrees on the hottest days.

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shipping containers and how to insulate them

Because of the insulation and the fact that the shipping container is shaded, it should not cost more than $20 a month to run in the middle of summer. I may even go so far as to run the air conditioner off solar panels  in the future.

If you need extra storage space, and what prepper doesn’t, these are an inexpensive way to go. You can purchase a eight by twenty container for between $1000 to $2000.

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36 thoughts on “Shipping Containers and How to Insulate Them”

    1. I have never seen then that high, I live in Northern California, so we get them out of San Francisco. They are pretty common around here in the construction industry. I have always purchased them second hand either from a contractor or one of the larger rental suppliers that provide them to the construction companies.

    1. It will work, but it is way more expensive and you need someone with right equipment to do it. Plus I don’t like the smell it gives off.

  1. Hello Guys i suggest looking at buying NOR Containers which are Non– Operational Reefers, they are Refrigerated containers no longer in service and have a 50 mm insulated wall throughout the container. Much cheaper option then kitting out with Insulated panels, also the containers have S/S steel interiors great alternative.

  2. I agree with Michael, try and find reefers. For those who live inland from shipping ports, where containers can get too expensive to make them worthwhile, look for semi trailers. The axles can be cut off and the ‘box’ put on the ground, OR you can leave them elevated and just skirt in around them. Craigslist is a good place to start looking, to get an idea for the prices in your area. The rubber rv roofing can help to insulate or at least keep the metal from getting as hot if you’re in a desert environment, that alone can help a great deal to make them livable in the summer.

  3. I was thinking of building a guest house with shipping containers, but I’ll need to insulate it. I wasn’t sure how other people did it, but this seems like an easy way. We get some extreme weather sometimes, so I’m trying to keep it livable. Your carport is a good idea, it probably would reduce noise from rain as well.

  4. I am moving overseas and I need to rent a shipping container like this. It would make me feel better to get a container that could protect against the elements outside of the container. Do they make portable containers that are climate controlled?

  5. Instead might as well buy a REEFER container which already are insulated and made of aluminum and/or fiberglass and will NEVER rust.

    Unlike steel containers.

  6. Wouldn’t you need to add a vent like in a shed? I know someone who had one – we left our saddles in it and they got moldy.

  7. “Regular” sized Intermodal containers are 8′ x 40′. They come standard as 8’6″ high but “High Cube” (HC) containers at 9’6″ high are preferred for offices and habitation. Less than 10% of all containers in service are 20′ long and virtually none are HC. If you put in light fixtures or insulation in the ceiling, you lose 2″ to 4″ of living space and many people find that to be cramping, even claustrophobic. You may want to consider insulating on the outside of the container to save valuable interior space, but that can look tacky and kind of defeats the purpose of buying a container.

    If a “one way” 40′ container is selling for $4,000 and a heavily used one for $2,000, 20′ containers sell for $2,500 down to $1,300, not a significant reduction in price given half the space. Refer’ containers typically cost twice as much. You might look into purchasing an insulated dry van trailer that has a higher ceiling instead of an Intermodal container.

    You should be aware that a typical “one way” container is likely to be 8 or more years old as there is still a glut of millions of containers in storage, used only once or twice, resulting from the heyday of container fabrication in China, which came to an abrupt end in 2007. “One Way” is a popular description of undamaged containers so you should know that the container may have been used dozens of times. Most container factories and refurbishing yards will manufacture or retrofit an insulated container complete with walls, windows and doors at costs very competitive with mobile homes. Be sure to ask for HC. If new, you have to pay for shipping which can run upwards of $1-6,000 dollars depending on where you live and how far from China or an Intermodal seaport. Don’t get your hopes up regarding putting goods inside of a housing container to reduce shipping costs.

    Since a HC 40′ container will give more living space, at not that much more cost than a standard 40’container, those are preferred for conversion into a living space. HC refer’ containers are extremely hard to find. All standard steel containers are made with double coated epoxy paint over corrosion resistant Cor-Ten steel designed for 15 year exposure to sea water. They are not likely to rust as long as you paint over scratches.

    Refer’ containers are not made the same way and are more like American style insulated van trailers on chassis, relying on the insulation comb to provide structural strength instead of corrugated steel. Van trailers do not easily separate from their chassis but you can still purchase a highly used 40′ to 53′ insulated van for under $4,000, typically delivered.

  8. Hi guys.

    Could you explime step by step the construction one shipping cointainer house?, I want to try.

    I from Mexico

  9. Just a precaution for anyone insulating a shipping container (or anything else for that matter), you have to cover the rigid foam if you are using it on the inside. The reason is because rigid foam, if/when it catches fire, will release a chemical gas that will kill you before the last fire or smoke will.

  10. I just purchased what they call a single trip 20′ container, only ever had one load in it from Asia to here. I paid $2410.00. I picked it up from the harbor myself, I only live 100 miles from the port. I chose to pay more and go with a single trip container because I didn’t want one full of dents and rust beings I plan on modifying it and reselling. This is more of a hobby for me than anything being I run my own trucking company.

    I was talking to a guy out of North Dakota recently that said the local places that sell them in his state want $5,000 + for used containers up in his area. The further you are from a port the more expensive these containers seem to get.

  11. What about insulating the floors. The foam in the photo I seen applied to the walls and ceiling. We have purchased a used
    8′ x 40′ x 9’6″. We cannot remove the wood flooring to replace as it has a chemical spray smell. Suggestions?

    1. I just read an article the other day about the flooring. It was saying to coat it with something like a garage floor paint, or polyurethane. That will seal out the chemicals used to treat the floor. I plan on doing this to the one I’m building out and then installing a wood floor on top of it. I have a neighbor that installs wood flooring for a living and he always has a lot left over from jobs. Won’t cost me much. Beer and BBQ. Lol

      The plywood in these containers is to good to just tear out and replace.

  12. Several years ago I insulated a shipping container. The container was located in an area with no shade at all. We got it just at the beginning of summer. The container was dark brown and it was hot outside so the temperature was well in excess of 100 degrees. I painted the exterior with just a white metal primer and it lowered the temperature dramatically. I do recommend you paint the roof using mobile home roof paint. This material is very thick and will seal the box completely as well as offer some insulation. The plan was to turn it into a shop and storage for a side by side ATV we were using. Later on we just used for storage and workshop. One thing I did not do is paint the interior of the container before I started doing the modifications. Make sure before you do any modifications you go inside the box and close the door to see it there is any light coming in, if so you need to patch the roof. I would suggest you do to seal the box.

    I covered the floor with Tyvek and one-inch tongue and grooved¬¬ plywood. This was overkill and if I do it again I would paint the floor with a good tripolymer paint. This paint is very thick and will expand with the heat and cold. I would then cover the floor using just use ¾ plywood.

    I did not insulate the floor of the container. I found by raising the box off the ground just a couple of inches we never had to worry about moisture incursion. If I were to do anything with the flooring from the exterior it would be to lay the box on its side and then use the same paint as the interior floor. This would also help prevent rot in the future. I have seen a video where the person removed and replaced the floor. This took several days to complete the work, however I think this is too much. The only time I would consider doing this it if the floor wood was impregnated with some sort of poisonous chemical.

    I need to stop here and warn you about the wood you buy. The wood I bought was Douglas fir 2x4s. I picked them up at the lumber yard and put them in the box when I arrived. I stacked the wood inside the box and locked it up. I was busy the next morning and returned to the box midafternoon. The temperature was in the 80s. When I opened up the container it looked like someone had sprayed a fire hose inside. The heat had drawn the moisture out of the wood and it was like 100 percent humidity inside. To prevent this, you can do one of two things. Frame out the inside or stack the wood inside to dry, either way you will have to let the wood cure for at least a week. Leaving the door open will allow the moisture dissipate. Kiln dried wood is better but there is still moisture in the wood so I recommend you let it cure also.

    The walls were framed out similar to a new house. Since the sides are corrugated I just cut the 2x4s to the height of the wall. I then cut two-inch rigid foam to fit in between the studs. This is the time to wire in plugs if you are inclined to wire the box. The walls were then covered with ¾ plywood in order to put up shelving. The only thing I would have changed it to use ¼ or ½ inch plywood, in a shop setting ¼ inch is too thin.

    The ceiling I framed out using 2x6s so this allowed me to use four-inch rigid foam. Since most of the heat comes and goes through the roof this made the container substantially cooler. I also installed some florescent lights. I covered the ceiling with ¼ inch plywood.

    Air Vents
    All containers have small vents at the top corners of the boxes. I suggest you enlarge these to increase the ventilation. This can be done by cutting a larger opening using a reciprocal saw with a metal blade. Once the whole is cut then you can pick up a louvered vent from a home improvement store. These are aluminum and can be riveted on to the container. The one thing I suggest is you cover the inside of the vent with some window screen material to keep out the bugs. Once done paint the vent with the same paint as the exterior and no one will notice.

  13. Antonio Pedrosa


    Please send me the more information about the R-Tech Insulation Panels and where to buy them.
    Thanks !!!

  14. You said you used expanding foam in addition to the insulated sheets. Did you do that before you installed the insulation sheets? How did you use it? This is not a joke question as it has been my experience that the expanding foam will push or damage many things around it. We quit using it for air leaks in our house for this reason.

    1. Linda, I’ve been giving this some thought, and here is my best answer. After all the panels have been installed along the walls and ceiling of the container, you are going to take the foam sealant (window and door type foam) and run a very small bead along all the seams. What this does is eliminate any sort of air movement between the inside of the container and the outside wall. Air intrusion or air movement is one of the biggest problems for thermally insulating homes. If air has the ability to move from the condition space to the unconditioned space or vice versa you can lose or gain heat. It will act as a thermal bridge for heat. The big sheets of foam break thermal bridging through the material that compose the walls and ceiling of the container. Sealing the cracks completes the envelope.

      Hope this helps!

  15. Has anyone cut into a NOR container to install windows or side doors? Cant seem to find any good info online to see how its done, Thanks.

  16. Does anyone have any ideas of how to cover spray foam once it is applied inside of the container? We got a new shipping container that already is lined with spray insulation, but it is unsightly and I’d prefer to cover it. Any ideas appreciated!

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