5 Methods to Insulate Your Shipping Container Home Blog Cover

5 Methods to Insulate Your Shipping Container Home

Posted By: March 23, 2015 In How To

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Before we look at the five methods you can use to insulate your shipping container home, the first question we need to address is whether you should insulate your container home or not. I can’t stress enough the importance of insulating your home. Although the option of not insulating might seem an attractive, cheaper alternative, in the long run it simply isn’t cost effective.

If you don’t insulate your container not only will your home be either scorching hot or arctic cold, your home will also be susceptible to condensation, which can cause corrosion or mold.

Now you realise the importance of properly insulating your home, I hope you decided to insulate!

Climate, Climate, Climate!

When it comes to the methods used to insulate your home, the one thing to bear in mind throughout this entire post is: it all depends on your climate!

For example- if you are in a very cold climate, you will need lots of insulation to keep your home warm and also, more importantly, to protect your containers against condensation. If this cold environment is also prone to lots of rain and is very moist then you would need to use spray foam insulation to create a seamless vapour barrier.

Whereas, if you are in a very dry, hot, climate, you certainly won’t need much insulation and you should focus on designing your insulation around keeping your container cool (see the section below on design or read: How Do I Keep My Container Home Cool?).

How Do I Keep My Container Home Cool

When reviewing the methods of insulation below, keep this issue about climate differences in your mind and feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!

When it comes to the types of insulation you can use, you have five major options: you can use foam, blankets (rolls), insulation panels, eco-friendly and finally, design (more about this later!).

Foam Insulation

If your budget allows, I would choose to use spray foam insulation. Using spray foam insulation ensures you get a seamless vapour barrier of insulation- this helps to prevent against things like corrosion and mold.

Spray foam is by far the quickest method of insulation, and in most cases provides the highest R rating (the R rating is how well the insulating material can resist heat flow; the higher the number the greater the resistance). In addition, spray foam is incredibly flexible and can be sprayed into gaps of any size.

The only downside of using spray foam insulation is that it’s more expensive and a lot messier to fit than most of the other insulation methods which we discuss later.

For the spray foam something similar to the DOW Froth Pak 600 would be ideal. This is a two-part mixture, and each inch of foam applied provides an R value of 7.5. If you aren’t looking for an industrial solution you can purchase hand operated spray foam such as- Dow Great Stuff foam insulation. Whichever spray foam solution you choose, make sure it’s closed cell polyurethane foam.

Spray foam insulation can be applied on both the external and internal walls of your containers; you can also spray it underneath your container to stop any moisture from the ground creeping into your containers.

Shipping Container Home- Spray Foam Insulation

Image From Larry Wade

Once the foam has set you can then decorate straight onto the foam with paint to finish off the external appearance of your containers!

Insulation Panels

Panel insulation is the most DIY friendly type of insulation and like blanket insulation, it requires stud walls to fit. You can buy the panels at predefined sizes and simply fit them in between the gaps in your stud walling. Panel insulation is quicker to fit than blanket insulation; however you normally find panel insulation is slightly more expensive.

One thing you should bear in mind, however, is that panel insulation has a high insulating value for its relatively small depth. Depending on the brand and specification, for every inch thickness they normally have an R value of 7.5. So, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money for foam insulation, panel insulation will allow you to keep the thickness of your insulation to a minimum whilst being moderately priced.

Blanket Insulation

Blanket, or roll, insulation is DIY friendly and is the cheapest of the insulators discussed here. It requires stud walls to place the insulation in, but once the stud walls have been fitted the insulation can be placed in the gaps very quickly. The most common blanket insulation is mineral, and you probably know it as rock wool.

Blanket Insulation

Image From Larry Wade

The only difficulty you will find with this type of insulate is fitting it; some types of blanket insulation are made from fibreglass so they need to be handled with care. If you are fitting this type of insulation make sure you wear the correct personal protective equipment (i.e. dusk mask, gloves, protective closing and safety glasses).

If cost is your primary concern I would choose this insulation, however if possible, I would again recommend using spray foam insulation so you can create a seamless vapour barrier.

Eco-Friendly

As we discovered in our last blog post, Why Do People Live In Shipping Container Homes, the second most common reason people live in shipping containers is because they want to build homes in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.

So what better way to continue this theme than to use eco-friendly insulation to insulate your home?

Over recent years more and more eco-friendly insulation has become available and some of our favourites include: wool, cotton, mud and a living roof.

Wool Insulation

Wool insulation is similar to the blanket insulation discussed above. However instead of using controversial materials such as fibreglass, it uses natural sheep wool which can be made for a fraction of the energy requirements used to make its synthetic counterpart.

Cotton Insulation

Again like wool, cotton insulation is a type of blanket insulation; it is made out of recycled cotton clothes.

So what makes cotton so environmentally friendly? Well, it’s a natural, renewable resource which can be grown extremely quick. The only obvious downside to cotton insulation is, it costs double that of normal fibreglass insulation.

Living Roof

Creating a living roof isn’t a direct replacement for your insulation, but it can certainly be used to help reduce your indoor temperatures during the summer.

During the rainy seasons, a living roof offers no insulation benefits, however during warm summers indoor temperatures can be reduced by up to 8 percent. Not only that- how cool do they look!?

Much better than a traditional sloped roof I’m sure.

Living Roof

Mud Walls

Mud, can be used as an insulator or it can be used to build entire houses on its own. Much similar to the living roof mentioned above, mud can be used in dry-hot climates to keep heat out.

This has traditionally been done for centuries in places like North India, where entire homes are cladded with mud.

With shipping containers, mud can be used on the containers roof and also on the containers walls. If you are using mud on the containers external walls you will need to use battens which will allow the mud to stick to the container.

Using mud is only recommended in places where rainfall is scare.

Construction

Your final option is to actually design your home in such a way that it cools/heats itself. The best example we have seen of this is Vissershok Primary School in South Africa.

Vissershok Primary School decided to extend their school by making stand-alone classrooms out of shipping containers.

During the summer external temperatures in South Africa can reach in excess of 86 Fahrenheit, so it was crucial that the containers were insulated properly to stop them heating up like a green house. The solution to this was to design the containers in such a way to use the natural environment to cool the containers down.

They built the classroom with a huge sloped roof which does two things: Firstly, it allows hot air to rise up and out of the container. Secondly, cold air blows in and gets pushed down by the roof into the classroom.

Another design used to help keep the containers cool was to place lots of small windows on both sides of the container. When the windows are open, it allows cool air to blow across the container taking the warm air out of the container.

One thing to bear in mind here is that you don’t have to use a certain type of insulation exclusively. For instance you could use spray foam insulation for the container walls and roof, and then use rock wool underneath the container to keep the cost down. You can even combine insulation on the same section, for instance you could use rock wool on the underneath of the container and then spray an inch of foam over the rock wool to create an airtight seal.

The best shipping containers use a variety of insulation methods which have been specifically chosen to best meet the needs of their local climate.

Living Roof Image from Ken Bosma
Blog Cover Modified From oatsy40


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Comments
  1. Fred

    I’ve got an insulation conundrum for you… I live in Colorado and was thinking about a mountain cabin container home. But I want an insulation scheme that takes into consideration not just summer/winter use, but also wildfire.
    Current thought is to build a 6′ gravel buffer around the container, but what can I do to prevent internal or external insulation breaking down into a flammable/explosive puddle?
    Cheers!

    • Tom

      Hi Fred!

      The gravel buffer is a good idea, however we don’t have experience of designing ‘wildfire’ resistant insulation. Most insulation will be approved to withstand certain temperatures, so most first thought would be whichever insulation you choose check with the manufacturer to make sure it can withstand extreme heat…

      Thanks for getting in touch,

      Tom

    • magnus

      What about rockwool?

      • Tom

        Hi Magnus,

        We mention Rock Wool in the article, in the Blanket Insulation section.

        Tom

    • Basil El Halwagy

      Hi There,
      There’s no such thing as insulation from any kind of fire.
      Put it this way: If the entire forest is burning around you, then A. you won’t be able to breath, you’ll asphyxiate due to the smoke inhalation.
      That’s why, during a wild fire, you abandon your home.
      Good luck to you.

      • Charles Stevens

        Assuming your not planning on sheltering in place, but concerned about your property stored in the container, rigid rock wool panels should be sufficient. They can be glued up like foam, but will withstand much higher temps befor they melt. If you are hopping to shelter in place, please reconsider, though an aluminium shipping container will reflect over 90 percent of the radiant heat and their are ceramic insulations rated for 3500 F ( even a steel container will melt first) you still are faced with smoke, and though a good HEPA filter system will extract most of the harmful particles in wood smoke you are still gambling with your life.

    • Austin

      Perlite stucco

    • Mike

      Fred,

      I would try running some sort of geothermal/radiant cooling in the walls, its a closed loop system that can dissipate the heat, I realize you’ll need and internal power source for the water pump or a stationary bike and stamina…..

  2. Judy

    Hi! I live in Guatemala. 6 weeks ago my husband passed away and our dream was to built a wooden house on top of 2 shipping containers. I still want to fulfil that dream. So we have the shipping containers in place, which will be used for our projects but ….I am looking for a floor design to put the wooden house on. Is there a special way to do this? There is a company in Guatemala city that will prefab a house for me but I am concerned about the floor. The containers are 16 feet apart. My husband had drawing a blueprint but I want to make sure it is safe. There will also be a green space on one end for a garden…containers are not cheap here and companies only want to rent/lease them.
    Also we would like to insulate them…what do you think of the tinfoil insulation…that I can get here….Thank you for any advice you can give me.

    • Tom

      Hi Judy,

      We’re very sorry to hear about this, but delighted you still want to pursue your dream!

      I’ve seen this done before and I think they framed the top of the containers and then built off of that…

      I haven’t heard of tinfoil insulation unfortunately, is there anywhere I can read more about it?

  3. mojo

    Excellent insulation and almost for free is a straw bales and clay plaster

  4. Heather

    I also live in Colorado and wonder what the best insulation solution would be for the full expression of seasons here with the extremes being: -5 in winter and 105 in summer. Though it is generally dry here, we have had an unusual couple of years, including the big flood of 2012.
    Thanks for your help.
    P.S. We would be interested in any of the above options.

    • Tom

      Hi Heather,

      If budget is no option then spray foam insulation is definitely the way to move forward!

      Tom

  5. Janet

    In your description of foam insulation you refer to the moisture protection it provides; but when discussing faced fiberglass insulation you don’t mention a need for moisture protection. Do you recommend applying a special water proof paint to the outside, and/or vapor barrier on the inside of the faced batt insulation?

    • Tom

      Hi Janet,

      Great question.

      This would depend on where you’re building the home and your budget. However I would always recommend creating a vapor barrier on the inside of your containers.

      Tom

  6. Zack

    Hi,

    I am living in Malaysia, and have been thinking about owning a container home for me and my family for years now. Since Malaysia is close to the equator, it has a relatively hot and humid climate, with rainfalls on 1-2 days per week on average. Budget is quite tight, since shipping containers themselves are not easily obtainable here. What will be the best insulation method for this? Thanks.

    • Tom

      Hi Zack,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      Without being familiar with your exact climate it’s hard to say without visiting, however most container homes in tropical environments are insulated using spray foam insulation.

  7. Matthew

    Hi there I have a 40 foot conex box and I want to put insulation panels on the inside of the container.but the liquid nail glue is not stick to the container. Can u help to how to set the glue in the container

    • Tom

      Hi Matthew,

      I haven’t tried gluing the insulation panels to the container. Instead I would use wooden battens to create a frame inside the container, then drop the insulation panels inside these wooden frames.

      Tom

  8. Bret

    I read an article (in Dwell, I believe) in which a shipping container was insulated with a sprayed on ceramic coating that also served as paint. Are you familiar with this product an if so how does it compare with spray foam?

    • Tom

      Hi Bret,

      I have heard of ceramic coating, however I haven’t had practical experience of using it personally.

      However from what I’ve heard- personally I would go with spray foam instead.

      Tom

    • ascher

      Hi, the spray on ceramic “insulating” coating was proved to be a fraud. You can research it but one person even has an uninhabitable house because his house isn’t insulated.

      • Tom

        Thank you for sharing this Ascher.

        Do you have any news articles on this you could share?

        Tom

  9. Elizabeth

    Hello,

    I live in Canada where it can go from 40 degrees Celcius in the summer to -40 degrees Celcius in the winter. I am assuming that a spray foam insulation would be better, but since I know nothing about construction I wanted your opinion.

    Thank you!

    • Tom

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Certainly, if budget is no issue I would always recommend spray foam insulation.

      Tom

  10. Geoff

    Hi Tom,

    What would the height and width internal dimensions be of a shipping container after insulation, specifically spray foam? I’m trying to design a rooms for a hostel but can’t do it without knowing what those dimensions would be. Is there a typical amount of inches off a wall the foam insulation would take off?

    Thank you!

    • Tom

      Hi Geoff,

      It depends if you use a high cube or normal container.

      Presuming you are still battening the walls, you can take 3 inches off each wall to calculate this.

      Hope this helps,

      Tom

  11. Ivana

    Hi
    I would love to have a shipping container home in New York City. Possibly upstate New York, however I am confused about purchasing land and the codes. Do you know of any direct links that could help me find out if it would be legal and okay to have a shipping container home on two to three acres of land. I have decided to use a mix of insulates because sometimes its very wet and then very dry. Global warming alot of people say is a farce but I have been here ten years. What would you reccommend as insulates I also like the multiple small windows idea too.
    Sincerely
    Ivana

    • Tom

      Hi Ivana,

      I’ve seen a few container homes built in upstate New York now!

      I’ve sent you an email Ivana with some more information,

      Tom

  12. TuckerSnoCat

    I just wanted to share how I insulated a 20′ container that I use as an insulated bedroom addition at a cabin high (11,000′) in the rocky mtns. It’s an extreme area that gets a lot of rain and more than 10′ of snow in the winter. First I glued 2″ rigid foam insulation to all of the interior surfaces except the door (floor, walls, roof). I then put 2×4 framing inside of the foam panels. The studs were screwed to the floor at the bottom, then an overhead 2×4 held the tops apart. This internal frame holds the foam firmly in place and provided space for roll insulation between the 2×4’s on the walls and ceiling which were then finished w moisture resistent drywall panels. The floor foam was covered w plywood and laminate flooring. A sliding glass door was installed inside of the container doors. This has worked extremely well and is very quiet as well – just subtracts a bit of interior volume, That’s worth it for me in this situation!

    • Tom

      Thank you so much for sharing! I hope this helps everyone else reading,

      Tom

  13. Sabrina

    Hi Tom!
    I am looking into designing my shipping container home, and I was wondering how thick the insulation should be. I live in Florida, so it has to withstand temperatures up to 95 degrees F and down to almost 35. I have the budget for spray foam, and I am okay using it, but if there is another option that is thinner or as thin that’s just as well
    Thanks so much!
    Sabrina

    • Tom

      Hi Sabrina,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      We’ve sent you an email to discuss this further 🙂

      Tom

  14. Beverly Prevatt

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you so much for sharing. I have a damaged container so I plan on putting a slant roof on it to hide the bulge. I’m in Virginia and it is either steamy hot or freezing cold. After the foam do you just put up the wood siding? I was going to use T1_11. This is going to be a kennel for my dogs. I want a safe haven for them when we have storms and we have a small container we are going to do the same for us. I’m putting windows AC, heat and TV in it but leaving walls as they are. They will have 5×10 kennels in it with chairs. They will be loven it! Thanks again

    • Tom

      Hi Beverly,

      You certainly have some lucky dogs getting their own space!

      Yes, you will want to frame the roof, insulate and then finally panel it.

      Please let me know how you get on, I’d love to see it once it’s finished!

      Tom

  15. Warren

    Hi Tom

    I’m am looking to create a prototype container home very shortly. I am stuck on what insulation to use. It will be in tempture of around 30c to 34c. I was hoping to use 50 to 75mm wool isulation. There also will be air conditioning. There is a tight budget but I need to get this correct first time around

    Please help

    • Tom

      Hi Warren,

      Send me a quick email and I will follow this up for you,

      Tom

  16. Bob barbour

    Hi,

    I have just built a studio office at my workshop using a 20 foot container, and it was an easy enough build. I have finished it in a traditional way , as I’m not too keen on a construction that finishes the job, “still looking like a shipping container”

    • Tom

      Fantastic news Bob!

      We have sent you an email 🙂

      Tom

  17. Amber

    Hi Tom!

    Fantastic article! I’ve done a lot of research about container homes in preparation for building my own, and recently I contacted a company for a consult and I was advised that the best method was to buy an already insulated (reefer) container. I was told that it was more expensive than the regular containers but still far cheaper, effective and time and material friendly than insulating a regular container. I honestly hadn’t even considered this possibility and can’t really find any information from anyone who’s done it so I was wondering what your thoughts were.

    • Tom

      Hi Amber,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      Honestly, I haven’t heard of anyone using a reefer container.

      The main issue I imagine with using a reefer is when you cut through the container you will need to also cut through the insulation and it will be difficult to reseal.

  18. eric j bennett

    My wife and I want to use a shipping container for food storage along with other essentials that maybe needed in an emergency situation. We live in the Pacific Northwest in the High Desert.. My question is do you need any ventilation using it as storage. Being that we are storing dry food stuffs we have to keep it fairly cool. Less than 100 degrees F I would think. I am far from being an expert. This is my first attempt at this. I do however have a lot of construction experience and was planning on gluing blue insulation board to the inside of the container then plywood over that. Not sure what to do on the floor other than polyurethane sprayed. This I have used in the past building houses and it is a great product. Just have to be careful, it sticks to everything. Thanks for any assistance that you maybe able to give me…

    • Tom

      Hi Eric,

      Thank you for getting in touch.

      To be honest I haven’t used containers for food storage before so I’m not sure how much help I will be…

      My first thought here though is a reefer container. They are already insulated and made for exactly what you mention.

      Tom

  19. Derek

    Hi, thanks for all your research and sharing. ive also read through all the comments and havent found info on this issue. when you say spray foam, im in southern Ontario.. so from -20ish to 40’s Celsius. its used as a workshop, party room, tool and other storage. i have a certified wood burning stove to install, and more venting when spring hits. it is a bare 40′ 9’6 height container. Question can i only apply foam insulation on the exterior (without condensation issues) thanks again

    • Tom

      Hi Derek,

      Yes you can use spray foam externally instead of internal. If you do go the external route though you will need to clad it with something after the foam has set.

      Tom

  20. steve

    Hi Tom,
    I am interested in building container home in the tropics of Queensland Australia. I am keen on using spray foam insulation but do not know where to buy commercial size quantities. Also I am assuming you only need to spray external walls of containers and roof. Another question I have is how do you fix battens for frame work. Are they screwed through the container wall or a they glued in place.

    Kind regards Steve

    • Tom

      Hi Steve,

      Actually you can insulate either the internal or external walls, you can also insulate the underside of the containers.

      In terms of fixing battens, you can screw, glue or use angle plates and weld them in place…

      Tom

  21. Andy

    Hi tom
    I live in Ottawa Ontario canada, the swings of temperature are from plus 40 to minus 30
    You have any advice on how to insulate or the best way to insulate for these extremes in the climate?
    thanks a lot

    Andy

    • Tom

      Hi Andy,

      Great to hear from you.

      As you’re going to need lots of insulate my advice would be to use the thinnest possible to save on internal space. I’m not certain about Canada but in this neck of the woods its spray foam 🙂

      Tom

  22. Lorena

    Hello
    I am trying to build a beach house (El Salvador). Do I need to apply any treatment for corrosion to the container before I insulate?
    Thank you for your advices,

    Lorena

    • Tom

      Hi Lorena,

      In short yes. You can either clad the container or apply a corrosion protection paint.

      Tom

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