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Are Shipping Containers Safe to Live In?

07 May 2024

Category: 

ConversionsTips & Guides
one storey shipping container home

Many people are turning to shipping containers as affordable options to build a home. Not only can they be very cost-effective, but they are also durable and highly customisable. 

But how safe are they? If you are considering using a shipping container as your home, read on to learn everything you need to know about safety and security concerns tied to using a shipping container as a home. From structural integrity, to build quality, fire resistance, and more – we’ll cover all the bases to give you peace of mind. 

How safe are shipping containers?

Made from heavy-duty metal such as Corten steel, shipping containers are built to last, making them extremely durable and weather-resistant. Not only that, but since they were originally designed to transport and protect precious cargoes on round-the-world trips, shipping containers are airtight and secure, offering the same level of security as any brick-and-mortar building. 

However, when purchasing a shipping container to be used as a residential building, it is advised to avoid shipping containers that are untreated. These containers may be coated in hazardous paints that could contain toxic substances. You should always purchase a shipping container from a reputable supplier that can provide the full history of the unit. 

What makes shipping containers safe to live in?

Shipping containers are widely regarded as safe and practical choices for living spaces, primarily due to their superior build quality and structural integrity. Their robust construction not only ensures durability and security, but also makes them highly customisable. This adaptability allows for modifications in temperature control and other living comforts, making them an increasingly popular option for modern, secure housing.

Structural integrity

Designed to withstand rigorous and long journeys, shipping containers are known for their exceptional strength, primarily due to their construction from heavy-duty Corten steel. This gives them the structural integrity needed to be transformed into all types of buildings, including homes.

two storey container home

With regular maintenance, shipping containers can remain in great condition for up to 30 years, and with the addition of cladding, this lifespan can be extended to as long as 50 years. 

Security

When it comes to security, container homes can offer the same level of protection as traditional houses. One effective approach to making sure they are safe and secure living spaces is by installing high-quality security doors and windows. Fitting quality windows and doors not only provides safety, but also helps to further weatherproof the unit for those colder months. 

Quality

Quality is perhaps the most notable attribute of shipping containers. Their design for enduring the toughest weather conditions at sea and on land, combined with the durable, high-quality materials they’re made from, vouches for their longevity. 

If you are buying a used shipping container for a long-term home, it’s important to be cautious with heavily used containers, as their extensive wear can significantly affect their quality and longevity as a building. Extra care should be given to units marked ‘as is’, which often indicates harsh previous usage and potentially a lower grade of quality.

To guarantee the highest quality in your shipping container home, we advise opting for new or ‘A Grade’ used containers. 

Fire resistance

Shipping containers inherently possess a high degree of fire resistance due to their Corten steel construction. Steel, being a non-combustible material, provides a natural barrier against fire, significantly reducing the risk of fire spreading when compared to traditional building materials like wood. This makes container homes a safer option in terms of fire hazards.

 To maximise safety, it’s important to complement this natural resistance with appropriate fire safety measures, such as fitting smoke detectors and using fire-resistant insulation, further enhancing the safety of these structures

Impenetrable to pests

Shipping containers are remarkably resistant to pests, a feature that adds to their appeal as living spaces. The solid steel construction creates an impenetrable barrier, effectively keeping out rodents, termites, and other common pests that typically infiltrate traditional homes. 

This pest resistance not only helps in maintaining the structural integrity of the container but also ensures a healthier living environment, free from the concerns of pest-related damages or infestations.

Modified for temperature control

A common misconception about shipping container homes is that they are too hot in summer and too cold in winter. This falls far from the truth, as just like standard buildings, shipping containers can be easily modified for temperature control.

By incorporating insulation, ventilation systems, and possibly HVAC units, containers can be transformed into comfortable homes that remain cool in summer and warm in winter. This adaptability in temperature regulation is essential for creating a pleasant and liveable environment, regardless of the external weather conditions.

Do shipping containers contain harmful chemicals?

When undertaking a large-scale project such as building your home, you must consider every factor, including building materials, fittings, plumbing, electrics, and everything in between. One essential aspect is ensuring that your chosen materials are free from harmful chemicals – shipping containers are no different.

When buying a shipping container or moving into a prefabricated unit, you should check that no harmful chemicals are left over from their original manufacturing and usage. 

This could include:

  • Chromate and phosphate-based paints
  • Insecticides and pesticides
  • Heavy metals (such as lead and cadmium)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Fortunately, these hazardous materials can be effectively removed or encapsulated during the conversion process of a shipping container into a living space. This process ensures that the final structure is safe for long-term occupation, safeguarding the health of its inhabitants. 

Harmful paint coatings

Shipping containers often come with paint coatings that consist of harmful chemical components, potentially toxic to humans if present in large quantities. This is primarily because these containers are designed for durability and long-term exposure to harsh marine environments. 

The paints used are typically industrial-grade and may contain a range of chemicals designed to prevent corrosion and withstand extreme conditions. Commonly, these coatings can include substances like lead, chromates, and phosphates.

When repurposing shipping containers for residential or other uses, it’s important to address these potentially harmful paint coatings. This can involve removing the original paint and applying a new, safer coating, or sealing the existing paint to prevent exposure.

Removing these substances often requires a professional service, as doing so yourself can be very labour intensive, require specialised equipment, and all the necessary safety gear. Attempting to remove this coating without the correct equipment and without following the necessary precautions could put your health at risk. 

Toxic floors

The flooring of shipping containers often raises concerns about toxicity, especially when these containers are repurposed for residential use. Originally, these floors were built to be exceptionally durable to withstand heavy loads and the rigours of maritime shipping. 

The original floors in shipping containers are usually made from marine-grade plywood or bamboo which is typically treated with a variety of chemicals and pesticides to prevent rot, insect infestation, and mould growth. Most commonly these are chemicals such as basileum, tailileum 400, and radaleum. 

When converting a shipping container into a living or working space, addressing the issue of toxic floors is essential. This can involve removing the existing wood flooring and replacing it with a safer material. Alternatively, the wood can be sealed with a non-toxic sealant to encapsulate the chemicals. Ensuring proper ventilation during and after the renovation is also crucial to minimise any off-gassing of residual chemicals. 

How to make your shipping container into a safe living environment

To reduce the risk of chemical exposure in a shipping container home, it’s important to consider certain precautions before you start your conversion project. These can include the type of container you plan to use, inspecting the container for harmful materials and paints, but also making sure the materials you intend to use in the conversion process don’t contain any toxins. 

Opt for new over used containers

If your budget allows, you should always look to purchase a new shipping container rather than a used unit if it is intended to become a residential space. New units are less likely to have been exposed to toxic and potentially dangerous chemicals than used ones. 

Remove existing paint

Always remove the existing paint coating to reduce any presence of harmful chemicals that may have been used during the initial manufacture of the shipping container. Removing the existing paint and repainting your container also allows you to give your home a stylish new look that aligns with your style and decor. 

Use low VOC paints and sealants

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals found in many traditional paints and sealants that can evaporate into the air at room temperature, potentially causing indoor air quality problems and health issues, such as headaches, dizziness, and respiratory issues.

Using low-VOC or zero-VOC paints and sealants on your shipping container home can limit any toxic chemicals in your new living space. They contain significantly lower levels of these chemicals than traditional paints and sealants. 

Low VOC paints and sealants minimise any health risks by having reduced levels of these harmful compounds. They are specifically formulated to release fewer airborne chemicals, contributing to a healthier indoor environment. In addition to being better for your health, they are also more environmentally friendly.

Seal the container

Sealing a shipping container is an important step in converting it into a safe living space. Proper sealing ensures weatherproofing, insulation efficiency, and prevents moisture buildup, which can lead to mould and structural damage.

Try to use the highest-quality sealant available for the interior of your shipping container as this will guard against any residual chemicals from entering the living space.

To effectively seal a shipping container, start with a thorough inspection and repair any cracks, holes, or rust spots using appropriate materials like metal patches or welding. Afterwards, apply waterproof sealant on the roof and walls, and ensure windows and doors are properly framed and sealed. Make sure to seal original or new flooring appropriately and use high-quality insulation to cover all gaps. Lastly, install adequate ventilation systems for air quality and to manage condensation inside your shipping container

Don’t forget to conduct regular maintenance checks for any signs of wear or leaks, especially after harsh weather, to maintain the container’s integrity over time.

Test for toxins

Testing for toxins in a shipping container before converting it into a living space is important to ensure a safe living environment. The best way to do this is to hire a professional to conduct comprehensive tests, including checking for chemical residues, harmful compounds in paint, and pesticides in the original wooden flooring. They will also perform air quality testing to detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and, for older containers, test for asbestos.

Maintain good ventilation

Ventilation is key to a healthy home and should be a key consideration when converting your shipping container into a home. Proper ventilation can help avoid any buildup of chemicals or harmful substances that could become dangerous over time. 

Conclusion

Shipping containers are an excellent choice when building a home using alternative materials. Not only are they strong, long-lasting, and durable, but they can be easily modified for temperature control, ventilation, and other additions that ensure comfort and safety. 

To ensure your shipping container home is as safe as possible you should take measures to remove existing paint and flooring, especially if buying a used container, although it is highly recommended to buy a new unit if it is intended to be a home. When removing paint and flooring, installing windows, doors, and sealants, and any other modifications that may be needed, it is advised to use a professional shipping container service that can guarantee safety and a high-quality finish. 

To learn more about the various customisation options we offer, and see how we can adapt a container to perfectly suit your requirements, check out our shipping container conversions.

Looking for professional help to convert your shipping container into a home? Contact our team of highly skilled professionals today, and let us bring your vision to life with our expertise and custom solutions.

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