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Military Shipping Containers: 2021 Army Surplus Buyer Guide

Military shipping containers are ISO standardized containers manufactured for the U.S. or another military. These military shipping boxes are made for army, navy, marines, etc., under IDIQ contracts. However, they are also typically available to civilians through army surplus. Therefore, any military storage box or container you choose has been manufactured for or used by the military. Here, purposes range from storage and transit to temporary dwellings and drill boxes. Most importantly, any government surplus shipping containers will be manufactured under an ISO standard. In short, it allows for complete uniformity and standardization of parts and quality. Essentially, one military metal box is exactly the same as another of the same model, no matter the year or manufacturer.

This military shipping containers buying guide will cover everything you need to find and choose the right solution for your needs.

Buy or Rent Military Shipping Containers

Whether you’re looking for a Conex/Milvan, Seacans, dry shipping containers, military crates, or containerized housing, units are most likely readily available for purchase or rent. While both are valid choices, the best option likely depends on your needs, duration of use, and location. Subsequentially, you have to research your options.

Comparing Costs

In most cases, military shipping container costs will vary considerably depending on available demand, time of year, and location. Therefore, prices can fluctuate wildly. In addition, with many containers sold at auction, some can go for well under the estimated asking prices.

The average cost to buy a standard 40’ military Conex box for $1,400-$5,000. At the same time, the cost of renting the same product will typically range between $75-$300 per month.  However, a military Conex box or similar smaller container will cost significantly less than these quotes.

Container Buying Average Rent Average
New 20’ $2,800-$3,400 $100-$250+
Used 20’ $1,200-$2,500 $75-$200+
New 40’ $4,800-$6,000 $150-$300+
Used 40’ $2,600-$3,500 $150-$300+

Essentially, most containers break even after 2 years. Therefore, if you’re planning to use your shipping container for longer, you likely want to buy rather than rent. On the other hand, if you only need your shipping container a few times, rental is definitely a better option.

In addition, the condition, size, and previous usage of your container will heavily impact cost. A “new” or “one trip container will cost significantly more than a “used” (typically 10+ years old) container, and even more than a damaged container. Therefore, these cost estimates should be modified based on what you’re looking for and why. Most lease containers will be” used”. Therefore, you can spend more or less money versus rental by choosing a container in a different condition.

Considerations

Price isn’t always the most important factor. Here, choosing between rental and purchase should depend on factors such as CSC plates, condition, durability, potential for modifications, etc.

International Shipping – If you’re using a shipping container for international transit, you might have to purchase it upfront. Many shipping container providers will not lease or rent for international transport. However, some do. In addition, if you need a single international shipment, finding a lease option is the fastest and cheapest way to go. This is especially true because you need a valid CSC plate for international shipping.

Modifications – You obviously cannot modify a rental shipping container. At the same time, many lease companies offer modified containers. In addition, side-loading, top-loading, waterproof, reefer, and even units designed for use as containerized housing are available. Therefore, you might be able to rent a shipping container that doesn’t require modification to suit your needs. Importantly, renting with modifications will result in price increases.

Shipping and Delivery – Rental costs may or may not have delivery/pickup worked into the price. On the other hand, upfront purchases will not. It’s important to check delivery costs to ensure you understand any additional costs of purchase. In most cases, delivery will be at least $100 unless you can pick the storage container up yourself.

Government Surplus Shipping Containers

Government surplus means a product is used or secondhand. In this case, it can be in various conditions depending on type of surplus. For example, tan surplus cargo containers are normally “one trip” containers. These are shipped from one location to another with cargo. In most cases, it’s more expensive to make the return trip without cargo than to buy a new container at the point of origin. Here, one-trip cargo containers are sold as “new” and tend to be in mint condition. These are ideal for containerized housing and transport. In addition ,buyers who might want the original CSC plate to remain valid prefer “new” containers. Because military surplus sells off everything from simple crates to heavily modified Conex housing, surplus auctions offer something for everyone.

Army surplus also offers used cargo containers, surplus crates, and surplus storage boxes. In this case, they might have been used for 3-10 years but are in good condition. Even secondhand containers with some damage can last for a decade or more. Storage containers are made of highly durable COR-TEN steel. Essentially, even very old models will remain durable. Therefore, you can save money by purchasing an “as-is” or “handyman” container, which has rust spots and may no longer be waterproof. At the same time, the large majority of used containers for sale will be in good condition so this might not be an option.

Government and army surplus is normally sold via auction, where it goes to the highest bidder. This is normally to other organizations in need of containers for storage, housing, transport, etc.  Secondhand or used surplus containers are cheaper than new. Available options might range from Seacans to Conex housing and everything in between, but availability varies. Buying from an auction may be cheaper than buying from a retailer.

The following includes containers that are often cheaper to buy through army surplus:

  • Surplus crates
  • Surplus storage boxes
  • Surplus cargo containers

Military Shipping Container Services

The U.S. military orders shipping containers to meet numerous needs across its organizations. However, US Military Container Specifications (MILSPEC) mandate standardizations based on container type and usage. This means you can purchase containers for different uses, such as containerized housing or refrigerated units, knowing that every option is exactly the same as the other. However, separate standards are maintained for cargo containers, refrigerated units, and other forms of transport. All military shipping containers meet ANSI ISO standards for containers with some allowable variations. Once you understand the variations, you know exactly what you’re getting every time.

MILSPEC covers:

  • Military storage boxes
  • Container housing shelters
  • Bicon, Tricon, Quadcon (EDSS)
  • Flatracks
  • ISU-60, ISU-90, ISU-96 cargo containers
  • Pallet containers (PALCON)
  • Refrigerated Containers (REEFERS)
  • Side Opening Containers
  • Open Top Containers
  • Half-Height Containers
  • Tank Containers

Military storage boxes

Built using ISO standardization to 20-foot or 40-foot specifications. In addition, standards define other options, including flatracks, modular units, and smaller cargo containers. These are available with standardized dimensions, materials, ventilation, doors, and modifications. Therefore, army storage containers are versatile. Despite this, MILSPEC means every variation is the same as every model of its type.

The military purchases and uses millions of containers. Here, many are designed as “one-trips”. This means they are manufactured, loaded with cargo, shipped, and then sold on location or repurposed by the military. Uses range from housing and offices to training gear, storage, and barracks. Because transporting empty crates is normally more expensive than buying new ones, many are simply sold at location or as surplus after use.

Container Internal Height (Ft) Internal Length (Ft) Internal Width (Ft) Door Height (Ft) Door Width (Ft) Tare Weight (Lbs.) Max Weight (lbs.)
20’ ISO 7’ 9” 19’ 4” 7’ 7” 7’ 5” 7’ 7” 5,071 55,126
40’ ISO 7’ 9” 39’ 5” 7’ 7” 7’ 5” 7’ 7” 8,268 61,200
40’ ISO Cube 8’ 10” 39’ 5” 7’ 8” 8’ 6” 7’ 8” 8,598 63,052
20’ ISO Half-Height 3’ 6” 19” 4’ 7’ 8” 3’4” 7’7” 4,960 52,910

 

Today, about half of all U.S. military cargo containers are 20’. While the rest of the world trends towards larger cargo, the military prefers 20’. Unlike domestic freight, which is moving to larger (48’) containers, military transport is largely bound by the needs of 40’ hold spaces. Non-standards such as 20’ half-height, which are mostly used for ammunition, and reefers are less common on the surplus market. This means most available models will be standard 20’ and 40’ ISO containers. In addition, many of the specifications will vary based on inspection stickering. Therefore, a new container will be rated for max gross weight. However, this might not be the case for a handyman container with visible rust.

Container housing shelters

The military frequently uses containers for barracks, temporary housing, and long-term residence. Containers make quality, durable housing which can be installed and removed quickly and efficiently. Troops are often barracked long-term in containers when stationed overseas and temporary outposts and bases. Container housing shelters differ from standard containers in that they typically feature insulated padding. In addition, they may have cladding, and may have windows. Some have full prefab homes built into the container. You’ll also commonly find housing containers set up as offices. You’ll normally see:

  • Fiberglass insulation
  • Electrical panel
  • Window AC units
  • Doors/Windows
  • Baseboard heating
  • Lockboxes

This means that pricing and availability vary considerably. In addition, some manufacturers, like SEA BOX specialize in manufacturing expandable and container shelters for the military. These units are the ones you see most often through military surplus.

Bicon, Tricon, Quadcon (EDSS)

EDSS containers are modular units designed to fit into the 20’ shipping cargo space of a standard ISO container. Instead of a single container, they are made up of 2, 3, or 4 modular units. These smaller sections break down, can be exchanged. Therefore, they allow users to more quickly exchange goods, make smoother deliveries, and easily break storage into more manageable units. EDSS are sold as “Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit” or TEU. The idea is that every complete EDSS makes up a total of one (1) TEU, or 20 feet.

Container Partitions in 1 TEU Partition Height Partition Width Partition Length Tare Weight (lbs) Max Gross Weight
Bicon 2 8’6” 8’ 9’9” 3,000 26,455
Tricon 3 8’ 8’ 6’3” 2,600 14,900
Quadcon 4 6’10” 8’ 4’9” 2000 11,200

Bicon 

Bicon units are made up of two connecting units, measuring 8’6” x 8’ x 9’9”. When connected, the two units take up the same space as a single ISO 20’ container. Bicon units may have side doors or doors on one or both ends.

Tricon 

Tricon units consist of three connecting units, each measuring 8’x8’x6’3”. When connected, the three units are 20 feet long. These units are sold with different door layouts for side or front/back access. This means you may build a tricon TEU using three side-loading sections, 2 end-loading sections and a side loading connection, etc.

Quadcon 

Quadcon units are shorter than tricon and bicon units to preserve stability when linked together. Quadcons require 4 sections to make up a 20-foot unit. They measure 6’10” x 8’ x 4’9”. Most feature side doors on one or both sides.

All three options have something to offer and can add versatility to storage and transport. Most importantly, because they are standardized to a single 20-foot unit (TEU), the units always fit into shipping and cargo spaces.

Flat Tracks

Flatracks or Flat Tracks are containers without a top or sides. These containers are popular for transporting vehicles and heavy machinery, They’re also suitable for other large goods which could not easily fit into a traditional container. In addition, most offer reinforced bottoms with protective posts at the front and back. Loading is handled with a ramp, crane, or other lift. Most flat racks fold down for return transit, making them more affordable to ship back empty.

Container Folded Height Height Wall Width Interior Length Tare Weight (lbs) Max Gross Weight
20’ 1’8” 8’6” 8’ 19’6” 6,060 74,960
40’ 1’10” 9’6” 8’ 39’8” 11,900 99,210

Essentially, flat racks are easier to store, cheaper, and carry more weight. However, they offer less protection for cargo in transatlantic or ocean liner transport.

ISU-60, ISU-90, ISU-96 cargo containers

Air mobile and pallet containers are corrugated steel containers designed for transport on pallets, in aircraft, and in larger storage containers. Cargo containers are available in a range of sizes. Here, the ISU specification refers to the height of the cargo container. Essentially, each model can have a number of variations. These include different types of doors, attachments, ventilation, and even slanted sides for easier aircraft loading.

ISU-60 

ISU-60 cargo crates are designed for air usage. Most are made of lightweight aluminum. The standard ISU-60 features 4 doors. However, models with 1, 2, or even 3 doors are also available. Internal fittings also vary considerably depending on preference. Rather than a standard empty box, buyers have options including shelving, drawers, insulated and air-cooled units, and folding steps. In addition, most offer pre-drilled holes for caster installation. The ISU-60 is 9’ x 7.3’ x 5’. Its tare weight is 1,300 lbs. with a max gross weight of 11,300 lbs.

ISU-90

The ISU-90 is an aircraft cargo container, with internal and external air certification. The cargo crate offers the same features as the ISU-60. However, it measures 9’ x 7.3’ x 7.6’. This means the measurements are the same, except the box is taller. ISE-90 is rated for 10,000 lbs. Its tare weight is 1,700 lbs., for a max gross weight of 11,700 lbs.

ISU-96

The ISU-96 is a refrigerated air cargo container. The unit features a built-in refrigeration unit. Depending on model, you can choose between electric or diesel power. The ISU-96 is 9’ x 7.3’ x 8’. However, because the refrigeration unit takes up a large portion of the internal capacity, the ISU-96 offers 260 cubic feet of storage. The ISU-90, which measures 9’ x 7.3’ x 7.6’ offers 400 cubic feet of storage, but no refrigeration.

Pallet containers (PALCON)

Pallet Containers or PALCON are containers with pallet flooring. This allows for easy movement and stacking with forklifts. Most also offer airlift rings for crane and helicopter lift. Unlike most shipping containers, PALCON are made of fiberglass. This offers durability and waterproofing/wind proofing. However, it is significantly lighter than corrugated steel. PALCON boxes are 4’ x 3.3’ x 3.9’. Most feature four doors, with two on either opposing end. However, some PALCON offer 2, 3, or even 5 doors for easier access in storage.

Refrigerated Containers (REEFERS)

Reefers are shipping and storage containers with refrigeration units built in. These may be full 20’ or 40’ ISU units or smaller bicon, tricon, or even quadcon units. Refrigerated units are powered by diesel or electric. Here, electric reefers may come with their own generator sets known as gensets.

Because sizing and pricing varies considerably. Therefore, it’s important to review the reefer in question before making a purchase. For example, Tricon units typically offer dual temperature refrigeration in ambient temperatures ranging from –25F to + 125F. On the other hand, a larger 20’ unit might offer a built-in generator with separate refrigerator and freezer zones and moveable bulkhead. Essentially, it’s important to look at options based on what you need.

Side Opening Containers

Nearly all containers are available with side-opening options. These allow side-loading, allow access when the container is stacked in a row, and easier forklift access. At the same time, side-opening containers are popular for building containerized housing, garages, and workrooms, because they allow easier access.

Side opening containers might offer:

  • Full opening side with two bi-part doors swinging open to a full 20’ length opening
  • Two doors
  • 4 doors
  • 1 door
  • 1 Sliding door
  • 2 Sliding doors

In addition, most shipping containers with side doors also feature standard end doors. Therefore, side doors can offer added access but you don’t have to use them every trip. However, side doors can add considerable weight to a unit. A 40’ container with side doors can be as much as 1000 lbs. heavier than the same model without side doors.

Open Top Containers

Open top containers include full-height and half-height boxes. While open top containers can be flat rack, they might have full sides with an open top. Open top containers come in standard ISO 20’ and 40’ lengths. In addition, not all open top containers offer doors. However, some offer both doors on each end and removable covers.

Half-Height Containers

Half-height containers are typically available as 20’ ISO containers at half-height. This means the container is 3’ 6” high on the outside. Most have a removable top cover or use a tarpaulin but do offer front or side doors. This means the container can be fully loaded with a forklift. While half-height containers are shorter, they are still rated for 52,910 lbs. gross weight. In most cases, half height containers are not available in 40’ lengths.

Half-height containers are the military standard for transporting ammunition. The low height allows for easier loading and unloading. In addition, ammunition is typically too heavy to fill a full standard 20’ container. Half-height containers on the market are useful for transporting heavier cargo, open top cargo, and any job requiring quick unload with a forklift.

Tank Containers

Tank containers or intermodal containers are designed to transport liquid, gas, and powder. These containers are built according to ISO standards. However, because the military transports many types of liquids and gasses, tank ratings can vary quite significantly. For example, universal tank containers are good for carrying anything from water to oils. Others include:

  • T1 ISO – Tank rated for wine and light liquids
  • T5 ISO – Tank rated for non-hazardous oils
  • T11 ISO – Tank rated for non-hazardous chemicals
  • T14 ISO – Tank rated for hazardous chemicals
  • T50 ISO – Tank rated for LPG and ammonia gasses
  • Rubber-Lined ISO – Tank rated for acid chemicals

Many of these tanks may also be rated as food grade (only loadable with food-grade products). Gas means the container is suitable for the transportation of gasses. Silo means the container is suitable for grains and powders with ventilation for anti-combustion. Essentially, you have to look for and choose the type of tank container you need.

Government Container Suppliers

There are hundreds of manufacturers supplying containers to Department of Defense (DOD) and Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The following include the top three in the North America, in no particular order.

Sea Box

Sea Box delivers standardized and custom military shipping containers to the U.S. government through an IDIQ contract. While SeaBox delivers to private individuals and to companies, their largest business is with the U.S. government. The company was founded in 1983. However, it has operated under government contract for 25 years. Today, it operates on 4 continents, manufacturing, testing, and delivering storage and container solutions.

Sea Box offers the following military shipping container solutions:

  • Containerized shelters
  • Dry freight containers
  • Modular (container) buildings
  • Refrigerated containers/reefers
  • Specialty/custom solutions

Seabox website

W&K Containers

W&K Containers was founded in 1995. The organization has been an IDIQ contractor for over 20 years. The company manufactures new containers for the military and re-buys or resources them for third-party buyers, including private organizations. While W&K does not offer as many custom builds like Sea Box, it does offer a wide selection of ISO standard containers.

W&K offers the following army container solutions:

  • 20’ ISO Containers
  • 40’ ISO Containers
  • Tricon/Bicon/Quadcon Containers
  • Hazardous Waste Containers
  • Refrigerated Containers
  • Flat Rack Containers

W&K Website

NexGen Containers and Shelters

NexGen Containers and Shelters manufactures containers for military and private use at their factory in North Carolina. The company manufactures and designs standard ISO as well as custom containers and storage. In addition, they offer standard sizes with expandable units.

NexGen offers military Conex boxes including:

  • Quadcons/Tricons/Bicons
  • 20’ ISO
  • 40’ ISO
  • Refrigerated Containers
  • Expandable Containers
  • Shelter Containers
  • Containerized housing
  • Flat pack container housing

NexGen website

Origins of Army Conex Boxes

The military Conex box was designed in 1952, eventually replacing the standardized shipping used during World War 1. The Conex dates back to a rigid corrugated steel container measuring 8’6” x 6’3” x 6’10”. This crate, the Transporter, was mounted on skids with lifting rings and could support 9,000 lbs. The Transporter was used by the military as part of a trial for shipping goods from Japan to Korea. However, in 1952, the Container Express (CONEX) was built around the premise of the Transporter. Transportation Corps built the new units around the needs of air, land, and water travel, for faster movement between ships and trains.

Today, Conex boxes are extremely popular for transport and shipping,most boxes eventually only ship once. Instead, they are used on location for long-term storage. Unlike the Transporter, Conex is modular, featuring half-size units (6’3” x 4’3” x 6’10”), offering more versatility. It also features lift rings and may have pallet bottoms for easier lift and transport by forklifts.

Military Container FAQ

Buying military containers is a complex process, especially if you aren’t familiar with the terminology, standards, or types. The following FAQ should cover some of what we’ve missed so far.

What is Tare Weight

Tare weight is the unladen weight of the shipping container, or the empty weight. This weight is important because it impacts the maximum gross weight of the container. For example, if your max gross weight is 55,126 lbs. and the tare weight is 5,071 lbs., the maximum load weight is 50,055.

Container Max Load Weight Tare Weight (Lbs.) Max Gross Weight (lbs.)
20’ ISO 50,055 5,071 55,126
40’ ISO 60274 8,268 61,200

What is an IDIQ Contract?

IDIQ contracts consist of contracts between the Department of Defense and/or Defense Logistics Agency. Here, the government grants the IDIQ contract to an approved supplier. Once the supplier has the contract, they can respond to and fulfil tasks or delivery orders to the military. In most cases, IDIQ contracts extend for 5 years, after which they must be renewed. This allows the military to incorporate quality control and vendor review as part of process. Only suppliers with an IDIQ contract can supply military orders. However, there’s no limit to the number of orders the supplier can fulfil during this period.

What is a Container Roll Off Platform?

A Container Roll Off Platforms (CROP) are loading and storage platforms intended to enable moving and management of containers and on locations. These systems work with roll-off containers, which are designed to easily load on and off a truck or dump bed for faster transportation to location.

What Does First Article Inspection Mean?

First Article Inspection or FAI is the first step of approval in many industries. For military containers, First Article Inspection involves the initial inspection of the first purchase order for the contract. Here, an inspector ensures that container quality meets specifications, that blueprints are accurate, and that all specifications are correct. Depending on the contract, the FAI may include an inspection of the first order, or an inspection of a random sampling of containers from every order. Essentially, First Article Inspection is quality control. However, it’s not necessarily representative of every single item in an order.