No, You Can’t Bury Containers!

I get asked over and over again if you can bury shipping containers.  Fortunately, most people accept my answer, which is simply – no.  In fact, just the other day an architect I work for sent me a question about whether a container could be buried.  I answered, “no, it will crush like a beer can.”  He wrote me back – “thank you George” and that that was it.  I guess that since I am a licensed Professional Engineer with 35 or so years experience in construction, plus going through graduate studies in Columbia University in structural engineering convinced him that I know what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, not all people are like that.  One one site I was quoted about this matter, and the answer came back from some fool that said,  “hey, they stack them like 30 high on ships, so they can be buried”.   Well, do your math.  A container is 9 1/2′ tall.  If you stack them like 30 high, that comes out to be 285 feet high.  That’s a 28 story building.  Have you EVER seen a 28 story high merchant ship?  A slight wind from the side would roll the thing over.  OK, let’s look at how incredibly strong containers are – for STACKING!  You can stand on top of a can of beer can and it will probably hold your weight (provided you aren’t too heavy).  Lay the beer can on its side and stand on it.  If you are stupid enough to do this experiment, do it in your living room on the carpet right after your mom cleaned it.  Because if you are this stupid you probably don’t have a job and you live in your mom’s basement.

Shipping containers have very little strength from the side.  They have 0.07″ thick steel on the side which is about 2 mm thick (that is the metric system for you out there that remain convinced you can bury these things).  That thin steel can take a bit of a beating from the random forklift hit, or someone hitting it with a hammer.  However, the pressure of soil at 9 feet deep is about 315 lbs/sf.  That’s a bit high for 2 mm of steel.

Now, one idiot called me and wanted to know if he could bury a container.  I told him no, its sides are too thin.  He said “but it’s made of Cor-Ten steel”.  Look, Cor-Ten steel is not a magical substance.  It is steel that is chemically formulated to not scale when it rusts.  The rust then provides a coating that protects the underlying steel, making it great for bridges and outside structures since you can save on painting them.  It isn’t any stronger than any other steel.

Every now and then I get an e-mail with a link to a You Tube video where they bury a container.  There usually is little commentary in the e-mail, I guess the sender figures I will watch the video and have a reaction like this:


Well, I don’t.  There are all kinds of You Tube videos.  So what?  I.  They need to do a video of that container three or four years from now when its sides have crushed in.

The next one I get is – “Well, what if I encase it in concrete?”  Yes, that is an excellent idea.  It will work.  Here’s another idea – why not just make a concrete vault and save the hassle of the shipping container?  Here in Georgia there are wall contractors that have metal forms that piece together and you can form a wall, pour it, and reuse the forms for another wall.  You could hire one of these contractors and save the hassle of entombing a container.  Unless you really, really like shipping containers.

I also get asked, “can’t I reinforce the container?”  Yes, with a lot of steel. Or, you can pour a concrete vault.  OR you can even build a vault from reinforced masonry.  Both are probably a lot cheaper and easier than reinforcing a container.  Also, neither will rust through. Cor-Ten steel is rust resistant, but I don’t know how well it will do in a buried environment, especially if you have corrosive type soils.

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