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How to Build an Off-Grid Container Home: An Overview

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Buying a typical house and using typical utilities is fine for most people, but if you’re looking for something unusual, adventurous, and even eco-friendly, you may want to consider building your own off-grid container home. It may seem like a major challenge, but it can be surprisingly straightforward when you plan it out correctly. Let’s look at the most important things you need to know about this off-beat and off-grid lifestyle. 

What Is an Off-Grid Container Home? 

There are two key aspects of an off-grid container home — the “off-grid” and “container” parts. An off-grid home refers to any property designed to exist without relying on the traditional utility infrastructure most people use. This means no connection to external power or the public water and sewer system. These homes have to produce their own electricity, harvest and store their own water, and dispose of their own waste. However, they can exist just about anywhere.

Container homes, on the other hand, refer to housing built primarily using repurposed shipping containers. You’ve likely seen these metal containers before, either at a port, on the back of a truck, or already used as a home or business.

shipping containers on ships at port

When used as a building, containers can be finished to provide an environment similar to any other indoor space. Or you can leave them closer to their original state for a distinctive modern look. Container homes offer this unique style while minimizing building costs and waste, ensuring materials get a second life.

An off-grid container home combines both of these building styles. In many ways, they’re a match made in heaven, with complementary elements that help achieve all of your building goals in one distinctive structure. 

Desert-style modern shipping container home in the desert

Can I Live in a Shipping Container on My Own Land?

This answer will depend on a few factors. The number one thing that you’ll need to know is how your land is zoned. Whether it’s a lot in a dense city or a field in the middle of nowhere, there are likely rules and regulations spelling out what you can build there. Shipping container homes may or may not meet these guidelines based on their size, height, and other factors. 

Some areas may also have deed restrictions or covenants that are a part of the land. They operate similarly in prescribing how you can use the land. In certain situations, there may be a homeowner’s or community organization that also has a say in the matter.

However, if you don’t find anything prohibiting you from doing so, you’re likely allowed to build that off-grid container home of your dreams. Nevertheless, it may still be worth calling local land authorities to ensure you’re in the clear before investing any significant time or money. 

What Are the Benefits of an Off-Grid Container Home? 

Off-grid container homes provide many advantages, both to residents and the world. First, consider the benefits of all off-grid homes. By removing yourself from the traditional power, water, and sewer infrastructure, you can develop sustainable ways of living. This happens by replacing fossil fuel power with renewable energy from solar or wind or harvesting rainwater instead of drawing from depleted reservoirs. 

Off-grid homes made of shipping containers offer even more benefits. Reusing these containers can give a new, long-term life to objects that might otherwise be scrapped or tossed in a landfill. Off-grid container homes also offer benefits during construction. Thanks to their modular nature, you can customize and combine them to your heart’s content. They’re also relatively affordable, as far as off-grid homebuilding materials go.  

What Are the Drawbacks to Shipping Container Homes?

As great as an off-grid container home can be, there are some downsides to life in a shipping container. While making them easy to set up, their modular nature also limits some of your design and layout choices unless you’re willing to modify them heavily. 

You may also find more issues obtaining the proper permits than others with more traditional housing styles and setups. And don’t think you can just toss a shipping container somewhere and move in. Containers will need to be stabilized for safety and often require significant insulation to stay comfortable. 

large shipping container home with circle windows

What Are the Steps to Build an Off-Grid Container House? 

Are you excited to get started on your own off-grid container home project? Let’s take a closer look at how it’ll take shape with our step-by-step guide.

Determine Your Location

There’s an old saying that in real estate, ‘location is everything’. That’s true whether you’re building a mansion or a humble off-grid container home. But before you fall in love with a would-be container home, do your diligence. Check for zoning and other use restrictions to make sure you can build there and look into issues like flooding that might make it a poor choice. 

Location also matters on another very practical level. You’ll need to get your container and materials to your desired location. This means that pretty spot in the middle of the woods miles down a tiny dirt road may be less practical than a more accessible plot of land. 

You’ll also need to choose a place that’s good for off-grid living in general.

Choose the Right Container

All containers aren’t suitable for human habitation, no matter how you finish them. These include those used to carry chemicals or other potentially harmful substances. The condition of any container is also important. You’ll want to verify it’s structurally stable and also watertight. 

You should also be mindful of the dimensions of your shipping container. Typical shipping containers are between 8.5 and 9.5 feet tall, though you can also find taller models for more specialized cargo. They’re also available in various lengths to suit your site and design needs. 

Prep the Building Site

Exactly how much work you’ll need to do to prep your site will depend on the nature of your home and your land. In some cases, you’ll need to clear trees or brush or remove stumps or rocks. Almost always, you’ll need to level your site to create a flat surface for construction. Keep in mind things like drainage, shade, and views as you plan out the layout of your site. 

Obtain Off-Grid Power

Most people don’t consider a home very homey without power. But without the benefit of energy from your local utility, you’ll need to figure it out yourself. There are two common sources for long-term off-grid power generation — wind and solar. 

Wind is commonly used in areas that frequently get powerful breezes. Unlike solar, it offers the advantage of generating power 24 hours a day, as long as it’s windy enough to get the turbine spinning. Unfortunately, the wind simply isn’t strong enough to produce all of the power most users need in many areas.

The most common and reliable method for off-grid power is solar. You can affix solar panels to your roof or set them up on the ground and move them with the sun. The panels capture the energy of the sun’s rays and convert it into energy to use in your home or store in batteries. 

These batteries are also a crucial part of your off-grid power system, no matter how you generate your energy. Deep-cycle lead-acid batteries were the traditional choice. But these batteries require regular maintenance, can struggle at extreme temperatures and can be damaged if discharged too fully. As a result, recent years have seen lithium batteries seize the top spot for cutting-edge off-grid electrical systems.

Lithium batteries are significantly lighter and smaller than lead-acid ones, can be fully discharged without damage, and last far longer. While they require a bit more of an upfront investment, most buyers find the extra expense more than worth it for heavy usage situations like an off-grid container home. 

off grid container home

Get an Off-Grid Water System

Off-grid container home residents can’t just turn on the tap like most people. Depending on your home’s location, you can employ different methods to ensure you have water access. 

The most affordable is harvesting rainwater. Through the use of specialized gutters, tanks, and filters, rainstorms will provide you with water that’s then purified for drinking, cooking, and bathing. However, the water you have access to will be limited by how much it rains, making this method only feasible in rainy climates or as a supplement to other strategies.

Depending on your location and any land regulations, you may also install a well. This will provide a regular water supply out of your tap, much like any typical home. However, it can be prohibitively expensive in some locations where the water table may be hundreds of feet below the surface. You’ll also need reliable power for a water pump. 

Finally, you can always have your water trucked in and stored in a cistern or tank on your property. This is one way to ensure you’ll always have water. But it’s also among the most expensive methods, especially for heavy water users or those in remote locations. 

Install Insulation and Construct Walls

As you might expect, shipping containers don’t provide a lot of protection from the elements. Therefore, a crucial part of any build is insulating them. Whether you use rolls, spray foam, or more natural alternatives, insulation will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Afterward, you’ll need to cover up and finish the walls. You can use typical drywall and framing or more creative and decorative methods. 

Do the Interior Build

This is where your shipping container house becomes a shipping container home! Building out the interior is where you get to put your final touches on things and finish up crucial home systems. Once you’ve completed your electrical and water setups, you can pick flooring, cabinetry, appliances, and other decorations.

This is the most flexible step for off-grid builders. Some may be content with a simple minimalist design, while others may want to add a bit of luxury to their new space.

interior of a container home

Can I Build a Container Home by Myself?

Sure, it’s theoretically possible to build a container home by yourself. However, you’ll either need enough skill to take care of all the plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and other finish work or plan a relatively primitive home without some of these systems. Even if this is the case, building an off-grid container home by yourself would likely take an exceedingly long time.

In reality, you’ll almost certainly need some help, whether you hire plumbers and electricians to help with the finer points of your home or simply have a few friends come by as extra sets of hands. Building a house like this is a big project. Don’t let your pride or stinginess keep you from completing it by trying to do everything yourself. 

How Much Does It Cost to Build a Container Home? 

This answer will vary widely depending on a few factors — the size of the home, the particulars of the design and features, and how much you hire others instead of doing it yourself. For a small, single-container home built mostly yourself with only basic power, water, and waste systems, you may be able to spend as little as $10,000, not including the cost of land. On the high end, the sky may be the limit for container homes. Theoretically, a dedicated builder could spend hundreds of thousands on an expansive, finely finished container home with top-of-the-line utilities and systems. 

Typically, container homes without land cost between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on the size and finishes. Naturally, using professional builders and contractors will cost more than doing it yourself, but it may be necessary for specialized areas or to meet your building timeline.

modular container house

Is an Off-Grid Container Home Worth It? 

Off-grid living isn’t for everyone, and neither is life in a repurposed shipping container! Some people may not like the relatively limited layout and space of shipping container properties, while others may want better power and water systems than an off-grid life can offer.

But for others, an off-grid container home is a perfect, affordable way to achieve the low-impact lifestyle of their dreams or take advantage of an otherwise utility-free piece of property. Consider whether your desires and circumstances are right for an off-grid container home. But for those who opt for one, keep this guide in mind, and you should be well started on your off-grid journey!

Want To Learn More About Electrical Systems and Lithium Batteries?

We know that building or upgrading an electrical system can be overwhelming, so we’re here to help. Our Reno, Nevada-based sales and customer service team is standing by at (855) 292-2831 to take your questions!

Also, join us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to learn more about how lithium battery systems can power your lifestyle, see how others have built their systems, and gain the confidence to get out there and stay out there.

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