We get it. Steel shipping containers are no different than your other essential business assets and tools. And containers are a significant investment. Worth every penny? Yes. But due to their cost and their importance, we get this question all the time: “How long will my shipping container last me?”
So whether they’re functioning as a storage solution or they’re about to become the internal structure of your next home building project, let’s talk about the average shipping container lifespan.
*Note: The following numbers represent averages and each container’s lifespan will be different depending on their specific condition, usage, and environmental variables.
A standard steel shipping container will, if left to its own devices and not overly exposed to the elements, last well over 25 years. Some suppliers estimate that 25-30 years is a reasonable estimate if your container has been maintained and experienced minimal use in the shipping and transport industry.
The initial phase of use for used shipping containers that are now available for sale can be about 10-12 years in the shipping and transport industry. If you’ve purchased a significantly used container, you might expect to get another 10-20 years of usefulness from it depending on what condition you purchase it in.
*Always consult with the shipping container supplier to get their best estimates and recommendations before you make your purchase.
The length of time a container has been used in trans-oceanic shipping can greatly affect the lifespan of a container due to the salt water and harsh conditions experienced in ocean environments (see more on this below). In contrast, shipping containers that have been used in shipping but experienced minimal ocean transport tend to be in better condition.
If you want one of the longest-lasting containers for sale on the market, especially if you’re planning on constructing a modern home, you should look into what are called “one-trip” containers. These are containers that are exclusively sold for consumer use after only being loaded with cargo one time (more on these from our buying guide for shipping containers).
Such containers can easily last for over 25 years if you take care of them properly and place them in a generally calm and temperate environment.
Shipping containers, at least the most popular ones on the market, are made from weathering steel, also sometimes called COR-TEN steel.
And while they are wind and water tight, they are still susceptible to rust.
That means climates that experience heavy rains, extreme moisture / humidity, and exposure to sea water will be more quickly impacted by rust. Salt water, in particular, eventually becomes quite corrosive even with the use of anti-corrosion coatings. If you’re familiar with living in the northern regions of the U.S in which winter road maintenance crews utilize salt to melt ice, your old car is an excellent example of what can happen with your shipping container.
The life of a shipping container is sometimes akin to that of an ex-NFL linebacker.
Containers sometimes experience falls and tumbles, transport mishaps, and collisions with heavy machinery on construction sites. All of this damage – weakened walls and doors, holes in floors or ceilings, and chipped protective coverings – can shorten how long your container is expected to last.
Most shipping container suppliers will inspect your container for you. It never hurts to request an inspection on your behalf to take stock of any possible damage the shipping container has experienced.
If you can’t be onsite, be sure you are working with a reputable company who prioritizes customer satisfaction before making a purchase.
This third point is simply for emphasis as it bears out what has largely been stated in this post already. That is, shipping containers that have been carted around the ocean to transport heavy goods for many years, usually at least a decade, have experienced all of the above conditions.
Shipping containers on ocean freighters will get sprayed with salty ocean water. They will experience high humidity and storms. And they’ll be exposed to direct sunlight and UV radiation.
Additionally, these containers have been carted around, lifted up, set down, and stacked. They’ve been loaded, unloaded, transported by crane and truck, and then reloaded onto ship decks.
If you’re worried about acquiring a container that looks pretty, be sure to purchase the newest container available to you.
The largest pro to buying a heavily used container, however, is that it will be significantly cheaper than a newer, one-trip container. And they’re estimated to last another 10-15 years!
Insulators, as we mentioned in our previous blog post (insert link once this blog is live), help to protect your container and your storage items. This includes the use of blankets, BATT materials, and specialized foam boards and sprays to help control the temperature and moisture inside your container.
In conjunction, try to utilize dehumidifiers to remove excess moisture from inside your container. These are useful in preventing unwanted condensation from forming on the walls, your moisture-sensitive goods, and in preventing “container rain.”
Try and protect the outside of the container as best you can from UV exposure and moisture.
For storage uses, most containers will come pre-coated or can be covered with special coatings to prevent corrosion and protect against the direct sunlight. In other cases, you could spray foam or apply foam boards to the outside of your container to keep the harmful sun, extreme temperatures, and moisture from the metal surface.
Some less effective, but other uses include the use of found materials such as hay bales or large tarps.
For homes and offices, consider both insulators as well as appropriate roofing and siding materials that will keep moisture out of the walls and take the elemental toll on behalf of the container walls and ceilings.
The less you need to move and handle the container, the better for its expected lifespan. Do your due diligence to plan out exactly where you want to keep the container once it arrives on your property. Consider both the logistics of loading it, unloading it, and its proximity to other useful infrastructure on your property.
Creating a well-designed foundation that slopes to move water away from your container is an effective way to protect the floor and base of your container.
AND consider using container legs to help keep your container off the ground entirely for further protection.
To recap, there are a number of conditions that can shorten the lifespan of your container and ways to effectively promote the health of your unit.
Purchasing newer containers with less damage and previous ocean exposure is the best way to get the longest expected lifetime value.
And while this post has pointed out the vulnerabilities associated with shipping containers, we should add that even without care or maintenance, these containers are extremely durable. Sometimes even lasting a decade or two under non-ideal conditions.