What Size Container Do I Need For My Project?

If you are reading this, then you are interested in container shipping for your project, want to get more hands-on with the project, or are considering making some changes for the sake of efficiency. Of course, these are all worthy goals to have. Yet answering the title question might not be so simple, as there are so many potential factors, some of them competing, which means that everything can feel like an equation. However, all these factors mean that with some research and careful planning, the answer can become easy to determine by eliminating and knowing your goals and needs.

Though you will want to consult with professionals and experts in the field according to your exact situation, and you should listen first and foremost to the data in front of you, we hope that the following information can give you a general guide to work from:

How to Measure Container Sizes

Most shipping containers are measured in terms of cargo capacity, measured in TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). A standard 20-foot long storage container is generally 1 TEU, and a 40-foot container is typically 2 TEUs. This is a quick shorthand, and there are usually intervals between natural numbers.

If you want to look at it another way, in terms of cubic feet, then a 20-foot container has roughly 1,150 feet of space, a 40-foot container has 2400 cubic feet, and a 40-foot high cube container can hold up to 2,700 cubic feet. There are slight differences from the exact math of a TEU, but you will get a general impression.

There are naturally many other variations, but to avoid running for too long on the subject, we will just note that information should be freely available to you. You can convert all the numbers you need using a simple program or calculator.

While looking at measuring the container for a project on your end, you will also want to measure your products or equipment as well. How much internal space do you need for everything to run smoothly? You cannot always just pack up a container to the brim and expect everything to be OK. How closely will you be able to fit things together based on your project design? If you need to walk around in the container regularly, you should not close yourself in too much.

Weight Concerns

While you are determining the space needed for your project, you should also consider the maximum weight of containers. There is a maximum weight if you plan on moving them regularly. Even if the container is structurally sound on the ground, transporting it may take some additional consideration if cranes, trucks, or other transport equipment are to be used. Not only will some trucks be limited, but there are weight limits on roads and bridges that must be adhered to as well. If the container in staying in one spot with its load, that is another matter entirely.

If all of this is cause for alarm for your project, do not worry just yet. These containers can handle a lot, and most projects will not even get close to the maximum load. The answer will likely be "it's perfectly fine," but it never hurts to double-check and review what you will need for your project. Organization is always a necessary planning step for a project anyway.

One last note is that containers are heavy by themselves, which makes sense given their sturdiness and the fact that they are made from metal (often steel). For example, a standard 20' steel shipping container will weigh just a bit over 5000 lbs., which is nothing to sneeze at on any industrial level. Some projects and operations will need to keep this weight in mind as well, though it is not something easily changed, and you likely would not want a lighter container that may sacrifice structural integrity.

What Sizes Are Available

While with specialized service and access to a manufacturer, we are confident you can get a container made to exactly your specifications. However, doing so would be time-consuming and extremely impractical. Instead, you will likely need to choose from available container types and sizes. Yet, what options do you have to pick from? Here are the most common dimensions you will be working with:

  • A 10' container, which is for most purposes the smallest option
  • A 20' container, which is 1 TEU and has about the internal space of a one-car garage
  • A 40' container, which is twice as long but is not necessarily any wider or taller than the 20' container, has about the internal storage space of a two-car garage.

In most cases, containers are 8', 6" in height, which is the standard for the industry. The internal working height will be less than this and should be factored into your calculations. Alternatively, you can easily find "high cube" units that are 9' 6" tall instead, which might be better for your project.

Similarly, shipping containers are generally 8' wide and rarely deviate from this. If your project requires a wider container, you might want to rethink your immediate approach and see what adjustments you can make.

Also, note that shipping options such as tanks or refrigerated containers have their own dimensions and specific uses. Following experts' advice is strongly recommended, and storage space might differ from what is listed above for technical reasons. Insulation takes space, and different brands might use different methods and builds. If you can ever inspect or otherwise get a closer look at a specialized container, that is best.

What Type of Container Do You Need?

There are several types of containers that we talk about elsewhere in more detail. Still, for these, you simply should note that the available or realistic storage space for one type of container can be effectively different than another, even if the containers are the same size. Even if two types of containers have similar storage space, how they open may differ, leading to a much easier or harder time loading materials or setting up the project. An open-top container will have different best uses than a double door container. Larger projects should seriously consider their available options.

To start with or for non-intensive projects, though, we think most people would be perfectly happy with the variants of the standard dry storage container (what you likely think of first when you think of storage containers). They are adaptable, easily modifiable, and the most commonly available.

Ease of Transport

Moving about a massive shipping container that is 40 feet long and just as high can be a challenging task for many, making the project much more difficult. Sometimes it is better to use several containers instead of one, even if it could cost more on paper in the short term. The benefits in other areas could easily make up the difference.

Ask yourself the following about your project and the potential container:

  • Am I likely to be moving this container often? If so, does my organization have the means to move it easily? Do I need to factor in the cost of a company that can do so?
  • Can my organization easily afford the costs associated with moving the container and likely its contents?
  • Can my project, if it is large, be divided into two containers, or even two connected containers?
  • How far will the container need to travel if it will need to travel?
  • What potential problems could occur if I were to transport this type of container?

These questions might make you rethink your choice, and this is a good thing. However, if you plan to use the container strictly as a structure or storage that is not going anywhere, you can safely skip these considerations. When you order a container, the shipping to your site will likely be taken care of for you.

What Size Are the Items You Are Working With?

Will the items you plan on storing be too large for the containers? Are the items larger and perhaps unwieldy for the storage containers you had in mind? In these cases, you may want to rethink the type of container instead of the size. You may also want to consider a multiple container solution to your problem or seeing what you can adjust in your project plan. There are few projects too big for a 40' container that you should be using a container for in the first place.

Alternatively, if you plan to use a container as makeshift office space or a place to work on a site shielded from the elements, will there be wasted space and enough room for supporting equipment (there will likely be more than you think)? Will you have room for the HVAC systems and the plumbing on top of the general office equipment and furniture? Overestimating the space you have and underestimating the space to be taken up is a recipe for disaster, so double check your plans and measurements.

What Sizes Can my On-Site Location Handle?

Depending on how you run your business or project, you may want to consider how the shipping containers might interact with your on-site premises. You likely only have so much space to work with in terms of land, and a 40' or even a 20' container can be more than most people expect.

Before ordering a container for your project, know exactly where it will go, and make sure you can mark out that area beforehand. If you can do without the space now, you can probably do so once the container is there.

Examples of Container Usage

While much of what we're talking about is related to shipping, given that is the original purpose of these containers, there is so much more that can be done with them given their ease of use, structural soundness, and the need for new ideas and movable structures. As companies have noticed these additional usages, containers have been built with those needs in mind, allowing for doors, windows, and other features enabling people to save time and money and focus on the more important parts of the project.

Therefore, here are just a few options of what can be done with each standard size of container:

10-Foot Containers

The smallest container available in most cases, and the smallest size that is still practical. The 10' container can be used as a small shelter or shed for a myriad of purposes and is less likely to get in the way no matter where you put it.

Potential uses include:

  • A small amount of extra storage space that you do not have on the premises, perhaps the equivalent of what you would get with a small shack or shed. Do you have some machinery or tools you cannot keep inside but want to protect from the elements? Are there seasonal decorations you need to keep somewhere? A 10' container will likely do the job.
  • Similarly, many homeowners will find that the 10' container is best for them. It can remain unobtrusive on a property while providing a noticeable amount of extra storage place, allowing for less clutter in the home.

Remember that you can estimate that this container's storage space is about equal to half a single-car garage based on the comparisons above.

  • Ticket booths and much smaller concession stands can easily be made from a 10' container. They can be great for temporary events (small fairs) or as a quick addition to existing infrastructure.
  • Guard shacks and other small security measures. While you will not be able to head operations there, a guard will be grateful for a container purposed for helping them do their job.
  • A small on-site workspace for one or perhaps two people, allowing them to get computer or paperwork done on-site but away from the heavy work itself and away from the elements.

20-Foot Containers

The shipping container most people often think of first, the 20' container has a wide variety of uses outside of shipping. Being the size of a large room, many uses relate to just that, although the possibilities expand rapidly with modifications.

Potential uses include:

  • While it probably will not be as good as a dedicated walk-in freezer, having a refrigerated storage container (which can reach below-freezing temperature) can be a must-have for food vendors with a lot of stock to keep cool and not a lot of room on-site. They also allow for more secure storage of materials and can provide a wide variety of benefits.
  • With the right modifications and equipment, a 20' container can be turned into a concession stand. Whether it is a school, stadium, large party, or another event, a container can keep the food clean and safe and the customers lined up.
  • A 20-foot container can fit most cars inside of it. Whether a makeshift garage is necessary or it is a similar need, you might be able to find a solution with a 20' container.
  • With work, a 20' container can be made into an office space. They may also be a cheap way to add additional indoor space (albeit perhaps not connected) to a house, with some nice decoration and a clear intended purpose.

40-Foot Containers

A 40' container has more uses than one might think, as it is effectively the size of a small to medium building. And as buildings have plenty of purposes, so do these containers. They might be difficult to place and feel more permanent than their smaller counterparts, but there is no substitute if one is what you need.

Potential uses include:

  • With some ingenuity, a 40-foot container can be turned into a smaller yet cozy living space, and perhaps something like a dorm or small home for people who do not mind the idea of alternative living space.
  • A container can create extra office space or a classroom if the main building is not viable or there is no building in range.
  • A more extensive storage solution with multiple doors along the side can be an option.
  • One can be used for any of the purposes of the other containers listed above, but on a much larger scale.

Other Containers and Uses

While the above represents a sampling of the most common additional uses for a storage container, here are some other thoughts on how your project or organization may benefit.

  • There may be particular uses for containers that are open-top or open-side, although these may be limited. Similarly, highly specialized containers such as tanks may only be best if you know that it is the exact solution ahead of time.
  • As mentioned, containers with temperature control can have specific uses for your project.
  • There may be larger or smaller containers available, if harder to find or more expensive, that may be best for specific projects.

Naturally, there is no real limit except for your imagination. Just remember, you should have an idea of what you want before you invest in a potentially expensive container that might not be the right fit. If your project sounds like one of the ones above, you might want to start with the recommended size container and work from there. We know that there will be a container that will be the perfect fit.

Potential Home Uses

Most of the examples listed above revolve around business usage. This makes sense considering how shipping containers are generally meant and invented for business use. But the inventiveness of people and organizations knows no bounds, and you can easily discover ways shipping containers can be used for more personal or home reasons.

While this list is not exhaustive, here are some of the more popular methods:

  • In some of the most inventive usages, some people are even choosing to live out of storage containers, modifying them to have insulation, plumbing, electricity, and more. We mentioned office space before, but this is going even one step further. While it may seem strange, these container homes are often easily moved and incredibly cheap compared to the costs of building a new home by more traditional means. With some good decoration and style choices, they can be just as lovely.
  • If you're not necessarily that ambitious, then it might make perfect sense to try using a 10' (or in rare circumstances a 20' container) as a way to create a shack or home away from home in the backyard for yourself. Remember that these containers are highly customizable.
  • Do you need to move, with all the packing and rearrangement of things that entails? Why not use a shipping container? They are perfect and designed for, well, shipping.
  • Suppose you need more safe indoor space when undergoing a personal project or undergoing a more complex living rearrangement. In that case, you may consider renting a shipping container to use as extra space for your things while layouts are figured out. You may even wish to keep it as a second garage of sorts if you have room.
  • A shipping container can be a fantastic tool for someone running their business from home. Do you have a lot of merchandise that you ship out from home? Are your walls bursting with excess inventory due to unexpected success? Get a shipping container; your claustrophobia will thank you later.
  • Make a container your custom art or music studio of sorts. There is no need to keep the shipping container clean from the excesses of your art, and you will have your own space to focus on your craft. Whatever medium you use, there is a shipping container solution for you.

Total Pricing

While we won't go too in-depth into pricing here, as the costs can change pretty regularly, the end price point regarding shipping containers is important. As you know, excess shipping costs can easily eat into your profit margins. Similarly, picking the right deal ahead of time, whether you are renting or outright buying the container (depending on your project, either might be best), can make a huge difference.

Therefore, we encourage you to check on the container's price and any shipping costs, both now and right before you finalize anything.

Your Order of Priorities and Operations

As you can tell by now, there are more factors to this than you might expect, and it isn't easy to cover them all in a single article. People do this for a living, and even experts might have to think about the optimal solution. Some of these factors might be more important than others for you or even disqualifying for certain containers. Therefore, when picking from the container sizes available, you should go by the following order of operations:

1.  Are there any containers that are simply impossible to use for my project?

2.  Based on my on-site resources, available space, and personnel, are there any factors that would make working with a particular type of container difficult or inefficient to use?

3.  Out of the available sizes, is there an available style that works for the project I'm doing (for example, an open-top container for long logs)? Do I need something like a refrigerated or insulated container for specialized materials or goods?

4.  What containers make the most sense financially? What is the most cost-effective way of doing things?

5.  What, if any, modifications do I need to make? Are they easily installed, financially viable, and easily maintained?

There may be other, smaller questions to consider, but the above guide should see you through most issues or questions.


All of these questions and concerns may be answered for you along the way. Additionally, you may have budgetary limits to your options, but you should always know your ideal scenario and some optional offerings that would still work for you. That, we hope, is what we can guide you to here.

We wish you the best of luck with your project, and we encourage you to use this page for reference in the future.