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20′ Sea Container BOL Fast and Hopefully Cheap

What I’d like to talk about in this article is a plan I have for turning a 20′ ocean container into an RV (BOL) quickly and hopefully cheaply.  I recently did a lease-to-own on a 20′ container for $3600+$288 tax+$138 delivery fee.  Though, if I’d had cash, it would have been $2400+$192 tax+$138 for delivery.  These are delivered on roll back wreckers.  I can pay it off early but it won’t save me anything on the lease agreement.  I guess I’ll break this down into areas of concern. In this plan there is no underground, earth roof, or berming in the design.

  • HVAC
  • Insulation
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Lighting
  • Bathroom
  • Kitchen
  • Bed/Living area.
  • Container Modifications

The heating will be via wood fired stove or propane stove.  The wood fired stove would double as a water heater and for cooking.  A/C will be via 120v window unit air-conditioner.  Ventilation will be via 3 kinds of vents.  Two turbine vents, which are the type you see on top of storm shelters a lot; 1 or 2 RV 12 v fan vents; some kind of lower side vents, with possibly a 12v computer fan; or heck even 120v box window fans.  Heating a body will also be accomplished when sleeping via a 12v or 120v electric blanket.

One thing might be added here as a suggestion, though I’ve never tried it…a couple of 55 gallon drums of water in the sleeping/living area for added thermal mass.  This would be almost 1,000 lbs of water.  If you raise that water 1 degree F it gained 1,000 BTU.  If it loses 1 degree F by radiating it into your room, then the room gains that 1,000 BTU.  It has the opposite effect when cooling.  Condensation might be a problem with this approach.  Insulating the barrels would help with condensation and slow the charge/discharge rate.

Insulation I would consider to be part of HVAC.  For the container, I hear there are insulating paints.  These paints have ceramic beads in them.  I also hear they act more like heat reflector paint not insulation.  So they do not exactly have R value. Instead they have a percent reflectivity. This is similar to shade cloth with a percentage shading. Radiant barriers have exactly the same effect on your structure that shade would have. Also water seal is sold for mobile homes with reflective properties.  They work similarly to the way a space blanket would work, or polished aluminum or thermal barrier.  Along with thermal pane, I’d use thermal barrier, which is silver coated bubble wrap.  I’d probably use it on the inside, though it could be used on the outside, as well. If you used multiple radiant barriers then I would think the total percentage of reflectivity would be higher.

I would insulate the sleeping/living area with foam board on 3 sides and insulating curtains on the side that opens up to the kitchen and bathroom areas.  Insulated curtains could be as simple as hung blankets combined with radiant barrier.  Electric blankets insulate as well as quilts, sleeping bags, and such.  Air mattresses insulate.  Another idea might be to stack hay or straw bales around the container.  I’m not sure I’d want to go that far.

Water might be the next concern.  The roof of the container is metal and would catch rain water; however, it is flat.  A better idea would be to tarp from corner to corner, yet attach the tarp at 3 corners to be, say, 6″ high and about 2″ high at a 4th corner.  In a 1″ rain, we could collect about 100 gallons of water.  This means, in Arkansas, I  could collect 5,000 gallons all year.  In the desert southwest 1000+ gallons and in far west coast or deep south east 7000+ gallons per year. This tarp doubles as shade for the roof.  Several 55 gallon drums would do for rain catchment and I suggest they would best be elevated so that the highest water point in them is about 2″ below roof level.  This would give you the possibility of gravity flow to a sink.  It might even be better to have the barrels on their side instead of standing upright.

Pumping can be achieved with a 12v water pump, filter, and 30 PSI pressure tank.  Search for ‘SHURflo 182-200 Pre-Pressurized Accumulator Tank’, ‘SHURflo 4008-101-E65 3.0 Revolution Water Pump’, and ‘ SHURflo 255-313 Classic Series Twist-On Strainer (1/2″ FPT x 1/2″ )’ on Amazon.  These are probably similar to what an RV might have.  If you have gravity flow, then you might think you wouldn’t need pumping.  But it might be necessary to pump water into a shower head, or up to the solar hot water heater on the roof (above the tarp).  This hot water heater, I would make from a roll of black plastic pipe.  Would need a frame to support it.  Water from it would gravity-flow to the shower and sink.  A person would need some indicator as to when it is full.  This could be as simple as having it run over when full and run down the tarp into the tanks.

Other options for hot water are heating water on a stove; heating with 12v appliances; heating with 120v appliances, though after the electrical system is beefed up more; and heating with on-demand gas/electric, which requires water pressure.

Energy system will be electric, solar panel(s) mounted above the tarp beside the hot water pipe heater.  A 3-stage smart solar charge controller and 3 marine batteries, one would be for my trolling motor.  A couple of inverters, say 400 watt and 800 watt. I would run power inside to one outlet with two female plugs on inside and male plug on outside.  I would plug an extension chord into the male plug on the outside to energize the outlet inside.  I would also be able
to recharge the batteries from grid power or generator power.

Propane Gas from 100lbs, 20 gallon tanks or less, would be used for cooking, heatinglight, possibly refrigeration/freezing, and for producing electricity with a multi-fuel generator.  Gasoline would also be used in producing power and running power tools.  Ethanol or methanol would be used in cooking on alcohol stoves.  Wood and charcoal are fuels, as well, that would be used for heat and cooking.

Lighting will begin with day and sky lights.  I would make round, port size windows on the sides, say 6″ to 1 foot in dia. All I would do here is cut the round hole, then silicon and bolt clear plexiglass on the outside onto each hole.  I would make a similar sized window piece on the inside that is white translucent plastic or translucent plexiglass, and bolt it in at only one point on top, so that it could be spun up or down to cover the hole.  On top, I would use the square plastic RV dome vent covers and simply weld a small box around a square hole for them to sit on top of.  Or just bolt and silicon a piece of plexiglass on top of a hole I cut in the roof.

For artificial light, first we have battery-powered camp lights.  Second, I’d use 120v LED rope lights or Christmas lights.  I would have a couple of LED flood lights or CFL. 12v lighting might be used where convenient.  It wouldn’t hurt to have a couple of gas lights, though note that any inside light must be enclosed and vented because of CO gas.  Oil lamps, kerosene lamps, candles, mantle lanterns, and maybe even carbide lamps, all would be part of this plan.  Lighting will not be a problem.

Build your own battery-powered refrigerator is an interesting link.

For refrigeration and freezing, I’d want to get an RV gas/electric combo for inside.  Outside, I’d want one or two energy efficient chest freezers.  I would insulate this freezer with something, maybe thermal radiant barrier.  It would remain locked.  If the outside freezer could be gas/electric or gas that would be even better.  I’m a trucker and gone a lot, so I would need a pretty good assurance that the freezer would always be online.

Root cellar storage would be as simple as a bucket buried in the ground with an insulated lid and straw thrown on top.  If I had the time and digging ability, the burying of an old frig/freezer chest would also be a good idea as long as you could keep the ground water out of it.  If the ground was very wet and it was empty, it might actually try to float out of the ground.  You could easily lock your ground temp storage if it were an old frig/freezer also.

I would highly insulate the bed/living area on the walls with rigid foam board insulation to between 1″ and 6″ deep. This would depend on your budget of course. I would also insulate the ceiling.  Next, hang an insulated curtain between the living area and the kitchen/bath area.  3 or 4 of the daylight ports would be in this area.  One of the RV vents would be in this area.  The window unit A/C would be in this area, along with an added external metal door.  The bed/beds would be air mattresses, a futon, a recliner chair, or something like this.  Add a flat screen TV, surround sound, DVD and stereo system, and call it home.  When heating, I’d just move the insulated curtain a bit and heat the whole area with wood stove or use electric blankets.

Bath area would be partitioned somehow with something like an Oriental folding wall board, curtains or some similar method.  This area would have a plastic tub for standing in while taking a shower.  A shower curtain on a ring.  A shower head from pressurized water or a garden sprinkler bucket with appropriately warmed water in it.  There are a lot of different ways to rig a shower.  The tub would drain to the outside somehow.  I would use a $12 camp toilet with bags.  For a urinal, I would use a jug or a funnel with a hose draining to the outside.  Biodegradable toilet bags would be best, though, in a pinch, one can use heavier plastic trash bags.  Having a bed pan or small bucket on hand might not be a bad idea either.

Camping Sink Forum Post

I have recently seen the forum post above on a kitchen made from cheap parts you would get from the hardware store. The frame of this was made using PVC pipes, plastic shelving, and the sink from plastic tubs.  It could be rigged or plumbed as you would a typical kitchen and, heck, could even have a disposal.  A gas range would be used for cooking and oven.  A vent hood would be a must, not only for exhausting smoke but CO, as well.  A microwave added and other 120v or 12v appliances as desired.  The RV frig/freezer combo would go here.

Now what modifications to the container would we need to do to accomplish all of this?  We would cut holes for a doorway, window unit A/C, port windows, vents; and entry points for electrical, water, and gas lines.  We would weld post and frame for holding tarp using rebar, and weld some frame for supporting dome sky lighting.  Might also weld supporting frame for solar hot water heater and solar panels. Would weld a frame for the door and and a shelf to hold the window unit a/c.

Some of the tools you might need are welders, cutting torch, and metal jig saw or Sawzall.  You will need 1 to 3 ton ratchet jacks for leveling the container, as it weights 6,000 lbs.  Also, you will need some blocks or rocks for support underneath.  I recommend some 1″ treated board pieces and possibly some 1/4″ and 1/2″ plywood pieces for fine tuning the leveling. A carpenter’s level, or some kind of level, and a magnetic level will stick to the container.  Might also use a drill motor with metal bits and wrenches for securing bolts.  Would need other tools necessary for simple wiring or plumbing.

If I were going to berm this type of BOL, I think I’d start by making earth bag walls about 3′ from any side of the container, then berm on the outside.  This would be to keep sun off the container and would do some good as thermal mass for a few hours a day.  It would also protect from tornado strength winds.  If necessary, additional shading could be hung between the top of the berm and the top of the container using shade cloth, and a berm could be used for further rain catchment somehow.

I will be continuously updating price info for you on this post over the next year, as I research more. This is something one could do with cash as they go, of course.  But here are some basics from what I already know.  A rough estimate of what I show below is a cost between $4,700 and $6,700, all depending; and I didn’t figure in all the cost yet.  Remember, though, what we are wanting and getting, and that it is paid for as we go.  The main point to using a container is that it’s in the dry on delivery and construction is crude but simple.  Compare this to an equally priced RV, or motor home with same features and same floor space. There would also be 160 square feet of floor space in a 20′ container.

  • Container $2,700 to $3,800 delivered.
  • 12v/gas frig/freezer combo, not sure yet.
  • Good metal door $300.
  • Wood burning stove $200.
  • Window unit A/C $100-$150.
  • 100 lb propane tank $130
  • Gas light fixture $80
  • Pump, filter and pressure tank, $125-$150.
  • Blocks for leveling, $2 each for a dozen or so.
  • Thermal Paint? Not sure yet.
  • 55 gal drums, $15 ea or a 200 gal tote for $45.
  • Tarp $40.
  • Rebar, not sure yet.
  • Plexiglass, not sure yet.
  • RV vent fan/sky light, $150.
  • RV plastic dome for skylight only, not sure.
  • Turbine vents, $50 ea.
  • 100 watt solar panel $250.
  • 3 Batteries $80 ea.
  • Charge controller $50.
  • Inverters $20 and $40.
  • Used gas range $50-$100.
  • Vent-A-Hood $100.
  • Microwave $100.
  • Kitchen sink setup? No idea yet.
  • Shower setup, not much.
  • Thermal radiant barrier 100′ x 48″ roll $166.
  • 4’x8’x1/2″ polystyrene foam board $11.
  • Insulated curtains, I have no idea yet.
  • Black pipe 100′ roll 1″ $20.
  • 12v electric blanket $25.
What I'd like to talk about in this article is a plan I have for turning a 20' ocean container into an RV (BOL) quickly and hopefully cheaply.  I recently did a lease-to-own on a 20' container for $3600+$288 tax+$138 delivery fee.  Though, if I'd had cash, it would have been $2400+$192 tax+$138 for delivery.  These are delivered on roll back wreckers.  I can pay it off early but it won't save me anything on the lease agreement.  I guess I'll break this down into areas of concern. In this plan there is no underground, earth roof, or berming in the…

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About Larry Gray

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I'm a middle aged man from the (Arkansas) River Valley area of Arkansas. I grew up on a 200 acre poultry and cattle farm. I have almost 2 years of college towards a computer science degree. My careers so far have been restaurant management 5 years, office work with some computer tech work 6 years and trucking 10 years. I've also had some work in nuclear rad work tool room and part time security. I was in the US Army Reserve for 8 years. And like Jack I've been to Honduras, was there for two weeks once. On the side I have been doing and studying computer work, tech and programming my whole life. I was into caving quit heavily from 1990 to 1993. I explored around 150 caves in northern Arkansas area. I did some rock climbing at the time also, which is part of caving actually. I've been more into fishing than hunting. And my trucking career has given me little time for hunting. I'm currently training new truckers at http://www.willisshawexpress.com Willis Shaw Express the first interstate refrigerated/frozen food haulers. I'm not married yet, never have been and have no kids. I currently camp out on a good friend of mine's land in a 22' camper I own. I have no land yet and I'm currently working to pay off around $25K debt. Some of my prepping is on hold til that is done. Until then I can learn more and prepare for prepping. blog.larrydgray.net

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