Shipping containers are tough, durable storage solutions that do a great job of keeping your stored items out of the harshest weather elements – rain, sleet, snow, and UV light exposure.
However, some of us want even more help controlling the inside temperature and conditions of our containers. Let’s talk about shipping container insulation, today.
What do we mean by insulation?
For shipping containers, insulation is any material that prevents heat energy from flowing elsewhere in order to keep a container’s internal temperature consistent.
These include materials to cover the outer surface and to enhance the interior walls. We’ve seen everything from “proper” insulation materials such as commercially available foams and fiberglass materials to the creative use of blankets, clothing, and hay bales.
Let’s take a look at why you might consider insulation, and what your options are.
Why bother insulating shipping containers?
Anyone who’s touched the outside of a shipping container on a hot day has probably experienced the instant flash of pain on their hand. Similarly, shipping containers can feel like ice boxes if you open them up in the dead of winter.
Since standard shipping containers aren’t insulated by default and they’re made of thermal conducting steel, the air temperature of your container most likely reflects these extreme conditions.
So to protect your temperature sensitive items such as antique goods, art, vinyl records, wines, foods and organic materials, medical devices, or electronics, insulation is quite important.
For those of you considering a shipping container home, it’s easier to understand the importance of a well insulated space. Insulation represents both you and your family’s comfort and the cost of your energy bill.
Common Types of Insulation You Can Use for Your Shipping Containers
There are several types of insulation you can use with your shipping container. Let’s take a look at a few:
1. Styrofoam or Other Closed-cell Extruded Polystyrene Foam (XPS) Insulation
This is a great material for adding a general layer of insulation to a storage container.
Specifically, using boards of Styrofoam and applying them as a layer on the walls and ceiling. These boards are easy to install and, as a bonus, also limit the echoing of sound.
To use Styrofoam as an insulator, some folks apply a strong glue material to the panels that adhere them to the walls of the shipping container. Or you can use another mounting material on the bracketing bars that run horizontally (lengthwise) on many container models.
You may have already seen this type of insulation in action if you’ve ever rented a climate-controlled shipping container – odds are that the rental company used Styrofoam insulation since it’s cost-effective and easy to maintain. When a Styrofoam board goes bad or breaks, simply replace it!
2. Spray Foam
You can alternatively use a spray foam insulation. Oftentimes this is not an aesthetically pleasing option, but it’s easy to apply without a lot of experience. You buy cans of a spray foam product, which eventually settles on the surface of your shipping container and hardens over time (be sure to read directions about the optimal temperatures to use spray foam).
The more time passes, the more secure the insulating spray becomes. It can act as a capable sound barrier, resists bacterial and fungal growth, and doesn’t compress or easily break the same way that regular Styrofoam or batt materials (more on batt later) do.
However, you will need a large amount of spray foam to get the entire job done. Be sure to purchase it in large quantities to avoid spending more than your budget calls for.
Spray foam insulators come in two major types: expanding and non-expanding foam
Is much better for sealing, which can defend your shipping container from moisture damage. However, you’ll need to trim away excess spray foam material after it has hardened. This comes in Open-Cell Spray Polyurethane Foam (ocSPF) or Closed-Cell Spray Polyurethane Foam (ccSPF).
Non-expanding spray foam
Doesn’t expand after you apply it to the walls of your shipping container. You may need to apply a little more to ensure proper sealing as a result.
These foam products come as damp spray cellulose, which is made from shredded and recycled paper products. Adhesives bind all the cellulose within those materials together. They also come as cementitious foam, which is a mixture of minerals, water, and air that give it the appearance of concrete.
3. Batt Insulation
This material is one of the most common insulators used in home construction. If you’ve ever participated in a home remodeling project, odds are that you saw this pink-colored insulator filling the walls between the wooden support beams. As a child you might have wondered why they insulated the walls with cotton candy.
In a nutshell, batt is made by weaving very fine strands of different materials together. These include:
- plastic fibers
- mineral wood
- batt itself
You don’t have to make your own batt, of course – it can be found at most home improvement or shipping container equipment stores. They usually come in small blocks or rolls that are easy to stack on top of one another.
It’s convenient to apply batt insulation when a shipping container is being constructed or when taking the walls apart. Most people will decide on this insulating material ahead of time or take a shipping container apart to stuff it in the steel walls, floors, and ceiling.
You likely won’t want to attach this material on top of the already existing steel paneling. The pink fiberglass material irritates the skin and eyes. It’s best to keep it covered up.
4. Blown Insulation
Or loose-fill insulation refers to materials such as shredded paper (cellulose), perlite, and loose-fill fiberglass insulation.
While these materials are effective, they can be messy and often require a cavity to be filled by the materials. These are rarely installed by hand but instead, as their name implies, are blown in with machines.
Beyond the above insulating methods, you can also get a bit creative depending on your budget and your materials.
For instance, you can always attach thick blankets (come in batt materials) or covers to the interior walls of your shipping container. This includes fiberglass, wool, and cotton blankets.
Be aware that these materials are moisture permeable, and batt material blankets, as mentioned above, may irritate the skin or eyes.
6. Found Materials Such as Hay Bales
You can alternatively practice exterior-only insulation. This is a method of protecting the outside of the container from exposure to the sun or frigid air simply by covering its surface.
As an example, farmers with access to hay bales sometimes surround the walls and top of containers to create an insulating barrier. The hay acts as an excellent insulator and prevents the container from the potential temperature extremes associated with being directly exposed to the elements.
Factors for choosing shipping container insulation types include:
- R-value – Effectiveness of material to prevent heat energy transmission
- Interior space – How much room do you need for your goods vs. insulation width?
- Cost – How much will the overall installation plus materials cost you?
- Humidity prevention – Does the material protect against humidity and vapor accumulation
- Time to install – How much time will it take you to install the insulation materials?
See our previous blog post to learn more about preventing humidity in your shipping container.
What About Sourcing An Insulated Shipping Container?
You don’t have to build your own shipping container or modify it so that it’s insulated!
There are plenty of companies like us that provide already insulated shipping containers. These are perfect for your valuable, temperature-sensitive goods.
For materials that need to remain cold, especially food products, inquire about refrigerated shipping containers. They’re professionally designed and built to handle the goods that you need to keep cold.
If you’re a farmer looking to insulate the container yourself to store vegetables for short periods of time, check out these CoolBot systems! Paired with an air conditioning unit, the CoolBot convinces the sensor to run down the temperature to refrigeration temps.