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Aug 16

What happens when you bury a shipping container, a cautionary tale.

by Ryan @ Containerauction.com

Lots of people get the idea to build a storm shelter or bunker by burying a shipping container – it’s fast, relatively inexpensive, and durable, right? Step 1) Dig a hole. Step 2) Put a shipping container in the hole. Step 3) Backfill around the container. And by now you can probably guess where this article is going.

The latest example of what not to do showed up in the ContainerAuction.com  email last night, and comes from an undisclosed location (for reasons of security and therefore insecurity). It appears to have originally been a solid 20′ container that the owner dropped it into an 8′ deep hole with the intention of burying it. As you can see from the pictures below, the weight of the ground caused the curb side walls of the container to buckle in (no idea of how the road side walls looks). The corner posts appear to still be straight, but it’s hard to tell without getting inside and looking around. Unfortunately, that could be hard as another issue that’s apparent in the pictures is a high water table, a topic that we haven’t discussed in the past.

shipping container 1

shipping container 2

shipping container 3

shipping container 4Rather than rehashing an article that we previously published about using Gabion baskets to bury a shipping container, we strongly recommend that if you’re going to bury a shipping container it’s good idea to reinforce the sides with Gabion baskets. They’re relatively inexpensive, and you can invite your friends over for a rock gathering party.

If you need a new or used 20′ or 40′ container we’re more than happy to help you find one. If you want help burying it in the ground you’re on your own.

Note from PJ:  I really would like to thank Ryan for giving me the permission to post this information up.  In the past we have had other shipping container related posts here on the blog, which often sparked some good discussion.  

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50 comments

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  1. jeff

    Looks like might have been an already used/damaged container? Just starting the work as doesn’t look like the dug AWAY material (no excavating marks) & using untreated/plain wood? Gonna rot real quick!

    1. Ryan

      Hi Jeff, No damage at the time it was buried, or started to be covered over. I exchanged a few messages with the person that sent the pictures to me. I’m not sure if the curb side of the box was 100% covered, but you can see the water/mud line on the second picture. And I think chronologically I should have put the third picture before the send, as the third has less dirt removed.

      Agreed on the untreated lumber! Hopefully it’s just there for the short term, but I can’t think of what the plan would be.

      1. Tolik

        Fiberglass , make sure its made for marine use .

        1. Random Person

          Better idea: don’t bury a shipping container. It doesn’t work.

          1. Less random person

            Lol, it doesn’t work, it has only been done successfully by hundreds of people. All, you have to do is take 10 min googling

        2. Smarter Person

          Done by a bunch of people?

          Sure, people do stupid $&#% all the time.

          “Successfully”? Or just “hasn’t failed YET”?

    2. kimbercarrier

      How is it that a cinder block wall does not collapse under the same weight. I know several people who have a basement made of cinder block and they have no issues.

      1. Jim

        Cement Block walls can be a problem.. I know of 1 wall that caved in after the house was built and then the walls were backfilled.
        I built one myself and built pilasters into the walls with reinforcing.
        I built the house so there was weight on the walls and the vibration from the bulldozer backfilling the walls caused them to crack. The walls didn’t cave in.

        These were 8″ block walls … No doubt 12″ blocks would be stronger…

        1. Sapper

          when building a foundation wall with cinder blocks you should never build when temps are below about 40 degrees as the cement will not set correctly. Also should put rebar down the holes on the blocks and fill with cement. Also need to build foundation footings under the foundation walls using at minimum 1 foot deep trench with rebar meshed inside and then filled with cement.

          I was a building inspector in central Arkansas for a while. Foundation walls were used a LOT and I saw builders try to build foundation walls in the winter time quite a bit, every now and then they would cement the walls during a freeze and they would always have to redo it completely. Never works. Furthermore, foundation walls cannot be used with good effect in areas like coastal plains where water tables are high because the soil is unstable and your foundation will shift causing stress cracks and eventual collapse. Even with the slabs we use in Houston this is a problem.

  2. Leah

    We have considered doing something similar. Around here it’s easier to get an old school bus. I think this may have worked IF the walls had been reinforced with braces & a concrete block wall was built around it first. That would make it a lot sturdier. As for leaks, that’s easy. Shut yourself in the container during daylight & squeeze ample amounts of silicone into any places you see light. Someone just didn’t think this through.

    1. Random Person

      School buses are made of plain carbon steel and will rust to nothing in no time at all.

      You do know that the bottom of a shipping container is nothing more than plywood?

      Ground water is going to rot that out very quickly, and fill the container, no matter how much sealant you squeeze into gaps.

  3. Justin

    I think container will be good for dry state, like southern Arizona, where theres not lot of rain….. lest rot, plus people should have put rhino paint or heavy duty coating on container before they put it down underground…. from what i know Rhino paint coated on underground can last 75-150 years…and they also should build U shape beam on side and top of container to prevent from container crush in…… They should have build concrete/blocks instead of using untreated wood…..

  4. Shane White

    This may look like a simple solution for creating an underground bunker, but the reality is that these shipping containers are not designed to be buried. They are designed to be supported by the corners so you can stack them. I have heard of several cases where they have collapsed much worse than shown.

    If you want to bury a shipping container, find out how to reinforce the sides and the top.

    Be safe.

    1. PJ

      Shane
      Great point, that’s where the Gabion Baskets come into play and why that method of support/bracing is often recommended.

    2. Waywar

      Exactly, if your going to bury something that wasn’t designed for underground use you check with a professional: http://youtu.be/A3EAJex1RVo

    3. Tom

      Buy 2 containers stack the bottom of the second one on top use the rest to double up on the lower 1 You have to reinforce the container. If you can’t roll it over on its side or on its top without it caving in, DON’T bury it. After you’ve done enough BOLTING and welding extra support beams. (make sure to bolt before welding. ) roll your container upside down and use your floor for the ceiling so the wood won’t rot. seal your container with primer and sealer. Check for the best ones. The kind they use on bulk fuel tanks would probably be best. LOOKS like tar. bury container after sealing properly. purchase lots of rebar and form it around the entire container. Pour cement around it. Make sure you pour footing and slab 1st with good drainage in mind. Your really just using your container for a concrete form. When you pour the 12″ thick ceiling make sure you use plenty of temporary bracing inside the container until it cures. Make 2 exits! use an old squirrel cage blower to rig up a hand crank on for emergency air with plenty of metal filters (like the ones used on central heaters) that wont burn to filter the air from outside if need be. Me personally, I took sch 40 6″ and weaved it back and forth all across the sides before I poured concrete. LOTS OF WATER storage, You can store food in them as well but you have to cut holes in the top and bottom of the container and use elbows to come inside the container and seal them tight. unscrew the top to fill with ??? unscrew the bottom to get??? It works good!! air tight seal ! Just a suggestion. It worked 4 me ! Good Luck on your build !

  5. Jennie

    Wow. It’s a great idea but it’s gotta be safe too. Do your homework before hand!

  6. dean

    real dam simple folks you go every 3-4 foot and put in steel 2×4 beams in a square for support . i have seen these things dropped and they pop like a tin can then i would also cover top with like truckers tarp , and drop 2 foot of gravel in hole for drainage , its not rocket science folks just use your head besides something to keep your ears apart . just saying so you spend maybe 500 -1500 dollars more thats a small investment to keep your life and loved ones life intact and sorry if you dont water proof the wood floor then your a fool . then also use drain pipe to weep water away from since you have the excavator all ready there have them trench 20 ft away and little deeper . drop some culvert pipe in it and there you go french type drain .

  7. Sabrina

    I saw, on another site, where the folks burying the shipping container welded a “cage” made of I-beams or H-beams both horizonally and vertically inside the container to support the expected weight of the soil once it was completed. Wonder how that turned out?

    1. PJ

      I guess we’ll never know unless they post a follow up video. I guess the inner cage might work, almost like supporting a mine shaft but that still means there is pressure directly on the outside of the container. I would think in a best case scenario, the container itself should be free from any outside forces.

  8. May

    Shipping containers need to also be sprayed or roll on water proofing .. you should run a weeping tile around it.. and old stacked tires around the containers are a helpful way to minimise the crushing( stack tires back fill tires as you go.. relieves a lot of the pressure..

  9. Ggallman

    Alterternative – Monolithic Dome or Ecoshell. Thin shell concrete structures that can be above or below ground. Ecoshells can be constructed by placing concrete by hand. Life span measured in centuries. I have no $ relationship with them. I just like them. http://monolithic.com

  10. Justme

    If it were me, and I took the time, effort,and money to hire heavy equipment to dig a Big dam hole that deep. I wouldn’t just drop an over sized tuna can in it and bury it.

    I would capitalize on all that work, time spent, and money and install proper ( rebarred ) footings, followed up by properly rebarred, filled and sealed block walls, a concrete floor and a lid and hidden entrance all researched. to make sure it was watertight and had relativity low humidity. it also gives you time to think about amenities
    to your project while you are working like adding lighting , or a floor drain, etc.

    sure it may take more time and money but as with most of these projects, they are DIY anyway.

    I built the above mentioned project in 2009 and the cool factor is off the charts. I store food, and all the other goodies that relate to surviving something in what I call ” the salt mine” it’s 10 feet deep and humidity stands at 45% give or take 5%.

  11. Smiddywesson

    These things aren’t rugged enought to be of any assistance underground. Better to start from scratch and build a shelter right. On the other hand, you might be able to make a partially buried ammo bunker. Dig down 5 or 6 feet and put a foot of gravel under it. Build a cinderblock wall on either side, and the back. Anchor landscapping timbers at the top of the wall, on the container side (inside). Run cables around the timber through the wall and secure the other end to anchor material (more blocks) about ten feet away. Bury the anchors. Now the backfill won’t collapse the walls. It’s time to secure the roof. As previously suggested, the best bet is metal trusses, but cheap telephone poles and corregated metal will work. Water proof the roof, dig a french drain around the whole structure, and start mounding dirt up against it and on top until you have a big mound. The idea is to make a berm structure you can walk into not a completely burried structure. Now plant your grass and you are done. You might want to paint the door a nice green to attract hobbits.

    1. PJ

      My goal is to have an underground lair only accessible via a door built into the inside of a tree! Very hobbit-ish. That, or the inside of a dormant volcano where I fly an awesome black helicopter out of the top…

      1. Wayne

        The Big Island in Hawaii has many places that would fit that description. (Of course you would have to bring the awesome black helicopter)

  12. grintch

    A used 1000 gal. or so oil tank that was used above ground. seal all the holes and cut an entry hole in the CENTER of one end no bigger than needed to get inside, to avoid weakening the end.Save the cutout of the hole to make a door for the hole. use 55 gal drum(s) to create a shaft to it and a drum lid to seal it, covered with grass or a planter,

  13. Bob

    My friend buried a shipping container years ago, after several break-ins, no water issues and used for storage only. However, it has been under ground for ten years, and recently had it tested for corrosion because he wants to put one on top for his ‘man cave’ escape from the daily grind and it was deemed suitable. Its coverage of soil is from 0 ft at the front to around 5-6 ft at the rear. It was bought new and never used for shipping, he painted it in exterior household gloss to around five coats, applied by brush.

    1. Ryan

      Any pictures Bob? It sounds like a decent way to do it. Enough to be concealed, but not enough coverage to compromise the walls.

  14. Sam

    Shipping containers are very strong and can be stacked 4 high- IF DONE PROPERLY. They are made to be strong AT THE CORNERS. You cannot pile dirt on top of it and expect it not to collapse. Think of a wooden box with vertical 2 x 4s on the corners and plywood covering the outside. The corners are the only place where there is any strength. Any weight on the top needs to be supported at all 4 corners.

  15. trackermg

    I helped a friend with one and we welded 3x3x1.4″ angle every 4 feet and did parallel tie is as well. as a precaution he added a few gusset panels then sprayed all of the new metal with a bed liner material. It worked out well along with adding drainage pipe as he layered gravel around it as he backfilled. To keep anyone from driving over it he planted large shrubs with shallow root balls and that helped hde his vents etc.

  16. Chris

    Might I suggest reinforcing the sides and top by welding 4″ I beams to the walls and frame on the inside. If you weld them in the recessed portions of the wall it would also provide a good place to fasten any type of drywall or plywood

  17. Sapper

    Risingbunkers.com

    Steel bunkers designed specifically for this purpose. Much more expensive but hey, you get what you pay for. Better to build with plate steel and engineer it for underground shelter than to have some sardine can collapse on you.

  18. ed

    the mythbusters did a myth on hitlers bunker using a buried container for the test and had the same damage do to the earth weight when they buried it.

  19. Ryan

    Well onto my next idea. Haha I was considering this but it seems that it would be a much bigger headache than worth. Guess I will stick with keeping my container home above ground and insulating the crap out of it!

    Thanks Ryan

  20. keebler

    buy a small “Arch” shed” American steel shed Co make them–or a old Grain bin. “Mother Earth News Magazine” did a article about them last spring.

  21. Chris

    This is good to know. I always wanted to use a shipping container, but I wasn’t sure how well their side walls would hold up. I guess this is why some people spend the big bucks to buy the real thing.

  22. Lewis

    I was told n by a friend who is real knowledgeable that there are two classes of shipping containers….one for land transport and one for on the big container ships, which are about twice as thick and heavy AND re-inforced than the land version.

  23. keebler

    if your going to all that expence why NOT use (Superior
    concrete that will actually Hold up. jury rigging something that Might kill you or family is just plain STUPID.
    superior concrete is on Virginia 360 Amelia,Virginia,

  24. greg

    simples, just use old car tyres laid flat then fill the middles with dirt or better concrete , then layer tyre on tyre off setting each tyre layer by layer like a brick wall pattern, fill with either material and these can even be reinforced with old steel scaffold poles pushed in to the midde of the tyres and scrap ones with slight bends or rusty can be used , surround the containter with this wall of free tyres and fill the hole and u got a good sturdy containter within a container of car tyres

    1. PJ

      Greg

      Seems like a good and simple solution, it seems to be it’s all about the reinforcement around the outside.

  25. Logan

    If you want some nice protection for your metal containers I have used 4 ft wide 3 ft long and 3 ft deep metal shipping boxes that I had rhino lined for storing my dried beans and rice all along my property.

  26. James Marusek

    I am currently building an underground shelter out of a used intermodal shipping container. It is about 90% complete and I will likely finish it this year. This is a link to the status as of the end of last year.
    http://www.breadandbutterscience.com/Shelter.pdf

  27. Filmaker

    I’ve seen one article/video on burying shipping containers that looked like it might work, but first you have to build a cement ‘box’ to put it in, keeping it from contacting the surrounding earth. If you wish to view it, I believe it’s on youtube.

  28. Jeff

    I would recommend a solid poured and cured Septic system! If you have the supplies…… Such as Thick PVC and possibly a still door that opens to the inside and a hold cut during the molding process for a corrugated pipe for an escape route. Just thinking out loud really! I’ve done the research and the math on paper! 1 last thing. You will need to put at least 1 coat of sealant on! I personally would use as many coats as I could as to make sure of no leaks! Hope this was helpful!
    If anyone out there has any attempts at this and had problems it would be great to hear back!
    Thanks again!
    God Bless and Keep on doing what your heart and mind says!

  29. rusty

    they should have welded the door filled it with water and pour concrete around it then pump out water

  30. Pea

    We have property in AZ, and found that the use of a modified concrete septic tank worked wonderfully. Cost is relatively low ($5800.00 for tank, modifications, and installation, except for final cover of about 3 feet of soil) In addition to the low-ish cost, septic tanks are installed on all properties, so no one even noticed anything out of the ordinary, and the underground temps top out in the mid-fifties.

  31. Guess Who

    I was looking for a underground property and found a tank for 2,000 dollars(kind of cheap if you ask me)!

  32. everlastgenerators

    Good idea, but the main thing that it was safe

  33. jerry

    I buried 2 20 ft. side by side 75 % with 4 inches of soil on top so it will not get so hot. 2 months ago.I plan 2 buy 550 gal plastic water container.put it up next to the containers for commode and drink.gravity using a garden hose?Plan on having a propane tank for heat and cooking?

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