What is a Shipping Container..
and How to Buy One

By Yolanda

When I tell people that we sell and deliver shipping containers, they get a puzzled look on their face and ask “what’s a shipping container?”.

Basically it’s a big metal box used to move goods across the ocean. Let me give you an analogy to explain.

I’m a military kid and I served in the military. One of the not so fun thing about military life is moving. Typically people from the moving company show up at your house to pack all your stuff into boxes. Then they load the boxes and your furniture onto a truck and the truck delivers your household goods to your new home.

Manufacturers do the same thing. They pack their products into boxes, pack those boxes into bigger boxes, and those bigger boxes get packed into an even bigger box (the shipping container) to be delivered to another location.

Most shipping containers are transported on ships across the ocean (that’s what they are designed for), but containers are also used to move goods by truck or train.

It’s a Box… So What?

Yes, a shipping container is just a box made out of steel. But it’s more than just an ordinary metal box.

Wikipedia defines a shipping container as “a container with strength suitable to withstand shipment, storage, and handling.” Shipping containers are specifically designed and built to withstand the wear and tear of the ocean, the salt water, waves, sun, and wind.

They have to meet certain criteria to be certified for shipping. These standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Engineers at the manufacturing facility inspect and certify that each container meets these standards. When a shipping container is certified, it receives a CSC plate. CSC stands for Conference for Safe Containers. This conference, held in 1972, adopted the standards for certifying containers.

Shipping containers get their strength from their frame. When shipped, they are stacked on top of each other and anchored at the corners with twistlocks. Here are two short videos from ALL Things Containers that explains how twistlocks work.

Shipping containers can hold a lot of cargo. And their size makes them adaptable to all sizes of goods, from vehicles, parts, and smaller items like household goods and toys.

Shipping container are also modular which, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, means they are “constructed with standardized units or dimensions for flexibility and variety in use.”

The weather resistance, strength, size, and modular characteristics of shipping containers makes them useful for other things such as building projects.

What Did You Call Me?

(Other Names for Shipping Containers)

Shipping containers are known by several different names.

Some names you’ll hear are box, ISO container, container, cargo container box, Conex (which stands for container express), or maritime container. These names refer to shipping, because that’s what containers are primarily used for.

Another name for a shipping container is ISBU, which stands for Intermodal Steel Building Unit. This name hints to their use in construction.

Most containers are used for shipping first and then for building. But some containers are purposely built to be ISBUs.

Common Shipping Container Dimensions

Shipping containers come is a standard width, but have different lengths and heights.

The standard width of containers is 8 feet. This width allows for transportation on trucks and trains.

The most common shipping container lengths are 20-foot and 40-foot. They also come in 10-, 45-, and 53-foot lengths.

The standard height is 8 ½ feet. You can also get high-cube (HC) containers which are 9 ½ feet tall.

What Happens to Shipping Containers That Aren’t Used Anymore?

The shipping industry calls a 20-foot container a TEU, or a Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit. So a 40-foot container is equivalent to 2 TEUs. Cargo ships are actually described by the number of TEUs they can carry. Some can carry as little as 600 TEUs and other can carry over 20,000 TEUs.

That’s a lot of containers! And there are a lot of shipping container ships.

Eventually shipping containers are taken out of service. When that happens, the containers are sold. That means there are lots of containers for sale when you consider the number of containers there are.

But why would anyone want a shipping container?

Because their weather resistance, strength, size, and modular characteristics of shipping containers makes them useful for other things such as building projects.

That means every day people and businesses can buy them.

How to Buy Containers

Most shipping containers on the market are no longer used for shipping. But there’s no such thing as shipping container store.

Instead you can buy shipping containers from a dealer, like our company. Most shipping container dealers get their containers directly from the shipping depots. Some dealers keep containers stored in their holding yard.

Keep in mind that you don’t really have a say about the color of the container you get or what your container looks like, especially if you’re buying from large dealers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask. Small dealers with yards may be more flexible depending on the containers they have in inventory.

You need to know two things when buying a container, the size and condition. These qualities affect the price of the container.

1. Container Size… Length and Height

Once you know why you want to use a container, you have to decide what size you need. Remember, all containers are 8 feet wide. So you have to choose the length and height.

Twenty and 40-foot containers are the common lengths you’ll see for sale. Forty-foot containers are, of course, more expensive than 20-foot. Uncommon sizes probably have to be special ordered and most likely cost more.

High cube (9 ½ foot tall) containers are more expensive than standard height (8 ½ foot tall) containers.

2. Container Condition… the Difference Between New and Used Containers

Containers are also described by their condition, “new” or “used.” Someone at the port inspects each container to determine its condition.

These descriptions refer to the amount of wear and tear containers received during shipping. Wear and tear show up as rust, scratches, dents, scuff marks, faded or chipped paint, and repairs.

New Containers

A “new” container is NOT brand new. It just means the container has been used just one time to ship goods. The container is then sold as “new.”

These “new” containers are usually call “New One-trip.” They are also known as Grade A containers.

There may be wear and tear on new one-trip containers, such as dents and scratches, but it’s usually minimal and the container looks “pretty.”

Used Containers

Use containers are just that… used. They come in three categories, “cargo worthy,” “wind and watertight,” and “as-is.”

a. Cargo Worthy (CW) – The “Good”

Cargo worthy containers have been used several times to transport goods and are still good for shipping. The shipping company just decided not to use that container anymore.

The exterior and interior of cargo worthy containers will show signs of wear and tear, including rust and repairs, but the doors will still work. These are known as Grade B containers.

The “looks” of cargo worthy containers will range from pretty to somewhat ugly. It just depends on how much wear and tear the container endured when being used to ship goods.

b. Wind and Water Tight (WWT) – The (Somewhat) “Bad”

Wind and watertight containers are Grade C containers. They are no longer used for shipping but are still wind and water resistant.

There is more wear and tear on these containers than on cargo worthy containers. The roof might be damaged, but doesn’t leak. The doors also work. These tend to be ugly… usually more ugly than an ugly cargo worthy container.

c. As-Is Containers – The “Ugly”

As-is containers haven’t been assessed for their condition. They are the ugliest of the ugly.

There is significant amount of damage on these containers… lots of rust, doors might work, dents, bad repair jobs, holes, and possibly leaking roofs. They may be unrepairable, if not difficult or worth it to repair.

These can still be useful containers, but be cautious with non-rated containers especially is you need a container that can withstand some degree of weather.

Container Cost

The three components that make up the price of a container are:

  • The price based on size and condition,
  • Delivery (usually based on the mileage from the depot to your location), and
  • Taxes, depending on your location.

Outside of knowing how to shop for a container, there is one more thing you need to check… zoning.

Before You Buy a Container

You may or may not be allowed to put a container on your property depending on where you live.

Shipping containers are still relatively new and many locations are not comfortable with the idea of containers, especially for building purposes. There may be restrictions on where you can put a container and even what you can use a container for.

And don’t assume that just because you live in a rural area, you can put a container on your property.

Always check the zoning laws in your area before you buy a container. If you don’t, your local authorities may “politely” ask you to remove the container.

This happened to my brother-in-law. He bought two containers for his back yard that he wanted to use for a shop.

Although he lives in a rural setting, he was still in the “city limits.” The city told him he had to move the containers. Fortunately he was able to sell the containers, but he lost money getting them delivered to his property… not to mention the headache. He ended up building a shop.

Now You Know What a Container Is and How to Buy One

The weather resistance, strength, and modular design of shipping containers makes them suitable for all kinds of uses… from storage to store fronts to elaborate homes.

And their availability makes them an attractive alternative to traditional building. But their size and condition can be challenging to work with.

However, just like anything else, you can leverage the strengths of containers and embrace the challenge of their weaknesses.

Just make sure you buy the right container for what you want and that you check the zoning laws in your location.

Contact Us

At Roadrunner, we’re dedicated to helping you find the perfect container to fit your requirements. We appreciate your consideration and are eager to meet your needs.