I used to ship my goods by truck, and I didn’t use shipping containers. When gas prices rose out of sight, I realized my profits could totally disappear. I looked into shipping by rail in containers. I discovered that containers eliminate manual sorting, warehousing, and maintenance costs and that they reduce theft and damage. Additionally, I found a container with the perfect shipping container dimensions. Switching to containers saved my business.

Shipping Container Dimensions

What Kinds of Containers Exist?
  • Standard/general purpose/dry storage container – The 20’ and 40’ ones are the most common type of shipping container that is used world-wide. These also come in 10’.
  • Flat rack container – The sides of this container fold down so that various kinds of goods can be shipped in them.
  • Open-top container – This container has a top that can come off, accommodating any height of materials to be easily shipped in it.
  • Tunnel container – These containers have doors on each end, which makes them easy to load and unload.
  • Open side storage container – One of the long sides of this container has doors that open wide enough to provide wide access to the container.
  • Double doors container – Like the open side storage container, this container opens on one side to give wide room to load and unload the container. They come in 20’ and 40’ length.
  • Refrigerated ISO containers (“reefers”) – These containers keep perishables such as fruits and vegetables cool for the duration of their transportation.
  • Insulated or thermal containers – These containers keep the temperature at a higher temperature. The material is enduring high temperatures over time.
  • Tanks – These containers are made of strong steel or another anti-corrosive material so they can transport liquid materials. They’re common in the shipping industry.
  • Cargo storage roll container – This container that is foldable. It is a specialized container the is made to transport stacks or sets of materials.
  • Half-height containers – These steel containers are half the height of full-sized containers. They are made for easy loading and unloading of things like coal and stones.
  • Car carriers – These containers safely transport cars over long distances. Their sides collapse for safe loading and unloading.
  • Intermediate bulk shift containers – These containers are made for intermediate shipping of goods to a destination where they’ll be further packed and shipped.
  • Drums – These tubular containers are made from various materials, such as hard plastic, fiber, light weight metals, and steel.
  • Special purpose containers – These are used for the transportation of high-profile services such as arson and weapons transportation. The material composition and construction of the container used depends on what they will transport.
  • Swap bodies – These European containers do not meet ISO standards, but they are widely used because of their strong bottom and convertible top. The convertible top makes it suit the transportation of many types of products.
Evolution of Containers and Current Sizes, Capacity, Weight

Shipping containers have existed for centuries. By 1830, they were still fairly small rectangular timber boxes, but European railways started to ship things across the country in them. At the end of the line, companies transferred these early dry storage containers to horse-drawn carts to take to their final destinations.

After the 1929 stock market crash, railroad companies exploited the increased capacity that containerization provides and developed the containerization industry to revitalize business. The Europeans standardized containers, strengthening the wood containers with steel frames. Americans opened the world’s first container terminal in 1932.

The Europeans created the first international standard for shipping containers in 1933 for shipments between European countries. The United States did not have a standard for shipping containers then.

Standardized steel shipping containers that could also be stacked two high finally came along in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were used in both the UK and the US. Since the early 1950s, companies have continued to improve steel shipping containers.

Today, the basic dimensions and the permitted gross weights of standardized intermodal containers are basically determined by the two ISO standards of ISO 668:2013 and ISO 1496-1:2013.

Ninety percent of the world’s shipping containers are 20’ or 40’ general purpose or dry freight containers. Other standard lengths for intermodal containers are 40’ high cube, 45’ high cube, 48’, and 53’ and the widths are between eight feet and eight and one-half feet. Empty weights range between 4,850 lbs. for a 20’ container and 11,110 lbs. for a 53’ container.

Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian Tire began to use 60’ containers in May of 2017, increasing the volume of goods shipped per container by 13%.

Small containers that resemble those of the 1950s and 1960s are still used by the U.S. military. They are called Bicon, Tricon, and Quadcon because these containers are half, one-third, and one-fourth the size of a 20’ container in length. They correspond with standard sizes 1D, 1E and 1F in ISO 668. All of them are 8’ high. While these smaller ones pass standards, they have to be coupled in particular ways when transporting them because of their odd dimensions.

The general purpose shipping containers are known by various names, including intermodal container, dry storage container, cargo container, freight container, sea container, ocean container, sea van, sea can, c can, and Conex box.

Shipping Container Structure

Most shipping containers are constructed of corrugated walls on the top and bottom sides and then welded to the end frames and rails. Materials can be fiber-reinforced polymer, aluminum, or steel. Steel is the most commonly used material.

Shipping Container Wall Description – The walls are made of rolled steel that has been cut into sheets that have been sandblasted and primed. The primer removes rust, dirt, and contaminants. The treated steel sheets are corrugated to provide strength. The corrugated wall sheets are welded together and then square tubing is welded on top of them. They’re primed again and painted.

Shipping Container Roof Description – Roof panels are made the same way the walls are, being made of rolled, sandblasted, primed, corrugated steel that is then assembled and welded.

Shipping Container Floor Description – Wooden floor panels are assembled so as to create the floor’s frame. They’re varnished and prepared for installation. The assembler drills holes through the wood floor and then secures it to the container’s floor. He makes the floor waterproof and tests it for watertightness.

Shipping Container Door Description – The door assembly is made separately from the corner post assembly. The door assembly is installed onto the floor frame before the wall panels are installed. The door assembly and corner posts are welded. The assembler installs the door’s hardware and rubber seals.

Shipping containers have enabled the world to economically transport goods across the country or over oceans to far parts of the world. But due to trade imbalances, the U.S. quickly acquired a much larger amount of empty, used containers than the foreign countries did. By as early as the 1980s, this excess of containers led to repurposing innovations such as homes and other buildings.

Why not? Shipping containers are:

• Affordable – They cost just a couple thousand dollars or so plus the cost to ship and retrofit them.

• Ecofriendly – They are a recycled product that puts these steel boxes to good use. They also cut down on the use of trees and other natural resources commonly used in construction.

• Strong – Having been created to withstand long journeys on the high seas, they are strong and watertight.

• Unique – They are unique after you put your own touch on them.

• Flexible – They are flexible in that you can have a factory-fitted out and then ship them as they were created to be shipped to their final destination. Or you can place a container where you want it and work on it for months or years yourself.

The downsides include:

• Room width – No matter the length, most of them are just 8 feet wide before adding insulation and walls that may leave you with just 7 feet of width. That just meets code – Section 304 of the International Residential Code states that all rooms of a residence must have at least 70 square feet of space with a width of at least 7 feet. Some people use two shipping containers side by side and cut out parts of the side walls

• Insulation location – Insulation must be placed either inside or outside of the corrugated walls, which is unlike conventional walls where builders sandwich insulation behind the walls. You’ll need to consider the tradeoffs of each option.

• Utility spaces – You may have to expose all of your ducting, plumbing, electrical and mechanical lines since you won’t have space behind wall board or much ceiling clearance.

• Building code confusion – Some building officials are confused by codes as they apply to shipping container buildings. Code interpretation is a big factor.

• Local experienced contractors – Even though working on shipping containers is not hard, it is different from normal building contract work. You’ll want an experienced contractor to do things on your container that you cannot do.

• Controversial appearance – You’ll find people who are curious and positive about your creation, but you’ll also find people who don’t like anything new and don’t appreciate what you are creating.

• Safety and health concerns – The off-gassing of floor treatments and the container’s paint may concern people. But they can be encapsulated to ensure you don’t breathe them in.

Summary (Click here for a shipping container summary video)

Shipping containers have come a long way in the last century, having evolved from small unique wooden boxes to containers with standardized shipping container dimensions, made for various purposes. Containers can be transferred from one mode of transportation to another and from country to country without hassle.

Standardized shipping containers reduced transportation costs after World War II when a lot of international trade and globalization began. They did the same thing for my company but on a much smaller scale. I’m so glad that circumstances forced me to look into using shipping containers. Fast forward to today and we now build custom shipping container buildings for almost any occasion