FAQ

These are some questions pulled from our April 2014 AMA on Reddit.


Do shipping containers leak lead?

How do your utilities work? Do you have running water? Electricity? Wifi?

Why did you decide to do all this?

What was the kick that tipped you from talking about doing it to actually doing it?

What did the various components cost?

How do you insulate a shipping container?

What challenges did you face in making a steel shipping container feel like a home?

How do you manage food supply? How much of it comes from your animals and gardens? Do you have to supplement from stores in the winter?

I've been trying to switch to everything being fresh, but I find it out of my budget most of the time, and I've no place to start a garden. Any tips to start the process?

Do you ever feel cabin fever in the winter, or is the shipping container bigger than I might think?

Did you evaluate other building options besides shipping containers?

Why did you choose Maine?

Has it been cost effective? How much have you spent compared to say a normal home via real estate agent?




Do shipping containers leak lead?
The paint that is sprayed on the containers IS lead based. You may use an oil primer like ZAP OIL to seal any odors or chemicals or just simple house paint to cover over it. Our paint has not chipped or flaked off, but during welding we encouraged respirators. We used several coats of zap oil on the subfloors on the containers because many containers floors are treated with pesticides to ward off pests during shipping, but Zap Oil eliminates all that nastiness.
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How do your utilities work? Do you have running water? Electricity? Wifi?
We have a small solar array that is being updated to a 500 watt system this Spring! "YAY!" We currently run on 12 volts but we are switching to 24 volt. All hi-voltage appliances and laptop chargers are plugged into an inverter, but you'd be surprised how many electronics are actually low voltage that gets kicked up to high.

We use a mobile hotspot for wifi.

And running water setups were gravity fed from a rain catchment tank but we are overhauling the plumbing this year and we will have a small pump on assist in addition to gravity.

We are looking into an AGM battery bank long term for energy storage that are virtually maintenance free and very cold hardy but cost upwards of $2500 + freight delivery.

BONUS: WATER POWER We experimented with wind power by making our own Vertical Axis Wind Turbine. Long story short, it didn't work for us. So we took that old wind turbine motor and had it retooled to work as a water turbine. Had a pipe buried in our pond several feet down, that runs over 100 feet downhill where it terminates out of the side of the bank (providing more than 2 feet of drop). We plan on building a small "Well house" over this pipe exit, mount a nozzle and turbine and experiment with micro-hydro-electric power. The pond maintains very well, getting lowest at the height of summer, but otherwise is kept quite full and is over 12ft deep.
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Why did you decide to do all this?
In one word: Economics.

*A mortgage was not at all appealing to us.

*Living the suburban "dream" or the expensive city life is constantly under threat if you lose your source of income. We wanted to eliminate that threat. Loss of income may result in poverty conditions or dependency on a bankrupt government for financial assistance. And hopefully you don't get severely ill or injured and get stuck with medical bills.

*Cost of living for a college graduate is expensive enough so we wanted to build something that would last and we wanted to remove ourselves from the grid system as much as possible.

*The cost of food has sky rocketed since our parents generation. Not to mention the QUALITY of such foods has gone down the tubes! Replacing steaks with burgers is a reality for Americans.

*Let's not forget that America The World runs on diesel. And that's not getting any cheaper. A more localized simpler life is what we strive for.

America is in whats called the HOCKEY STICK era (the sharp swing in all those charts. We are exponentially becoming more in debt and more dependent on overly complicated and expensive systems and expect it to all run smoothly indefinitely, meanwhile we are in unprecedented times when it comes to economics & population.

Our goal was to maintain a standard of living without having to increase the cost of living. To outpace or slow down the impacts of inflation on OUR lives.

And hey if things happen to not work out long term, we can always sell our containers for more than we paid for them. Now THAT's our kind of home appreciation.
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What was the kick that tipped you from talking about doing it to actually doing it?
It was probably after graduating from college. We either had to comply to be part of the 9-5 rat race or...figure something else out.

We did the 9-5 thing and we had a few jobs we really enjoyed. We had a cute little house we rented and when those jobs ended we were faced with..."well, what now? We are dependent on making money constantly just to stay afloat". So living a simpler, less expensive lifestyle was a no-brainer for us. And giving much thought to growing your own food and building your own house and then all of a sudden a huge chunk of your income is not going directly out the door.

We then read the book "The Good Life" by Helen & Scott Nearing. New Yorkers that moved to Vermont & then Maine in the 1930s to leave behind a high brow lifestyle to live a new way. It was inspiring life changing for us!
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What did the various components cost?
"Component Cost" is a very difficult question. We have been investing time, money and resources into various projects relating to our homesteading goals for the better part of this last decade once you factor in the first day we started saving money up to buy land back in 2007. We have been good at scaring up free building materials, or very cheap, yard sales, Craigslist etc. So long story short. We cannot provide a comprehensive detailed cost. We can say that if you wanted to get your own comparable shelter built from two containers like ours you would want to have about $10-12,000 per container set aside to completely finish them, insulate, wire, plumb, the works, maybe part of that could afford a contractor here and there to help on one or more big pushes to get it done & built to a level that the average American is used to calling "home".

If I was starting fresh with one single container that I've bought for say $3200 delivered. I could get that build into a livable if rustic "Survival Camp" for much less than $10,000. The most expensive single piece of the "convert a container to a cabin" puzzle is the spray foam insulation, but it is getting more and more affordable, and possibly a lot of it you can do yourself. Timing is a large part of the equation as well. Do you have all the cash up front or is this going to be $50-500 a time when funds are available (which is how we have had to manage to get by avoiding a building loan or mortgage) and that can increase cost (not buying bulk, or delivered all at once). Timing also in the way that technology and processes evolve over time, new ideas and concepts are introduced or adopted. When we first started out we definitely could not have afforded spray foam in 2009 Pennsylvania. Flash forward to 2014 Maine and now "We know a guy" who can do it for about $1 a board foot. Solar has also gotten a lot cheaper. We paid $3.72 per watt for our 125 watt solar panel kit back in 2009 off Amazon.com. Last summer we bought 500 watts for .93 cents per watt from a local supplier that happened to have a great deal on top of the line PV panels at the time and we jumped on them.

So I'm sorry I can't give you a straight sticker price for the whole project. We get emails and people contacting us all the time asking for us to design them a container home, and how much does it cost? There are so many variables dependent on location, timing, the desired level of amenities and "Western Luxuries" the average American might be used to. People have been making containers into shelters since the late 1950's for a reason and one of those reasons is that done right, they are cheap, durable and safe.
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How do you insulate a shipping container?
Great question! As of today people building with "ISBU's" (Inter-modal Steel Building Units) aka Containers have little choice but to establish conduits for utilities, and spray closed cell expanding foam to insulate the interiors in order to mitigate condensation, provide a vapor barrier, etc.

Some five years ago we attempted to insulate our containers with fiberglass bats because they were cheap, some we had received for free even, it was expedient and simple enough for us lay people to install ourselves. This kept us cozy for about 4 years then water damage and condensation issues began to "surface" physically and we had no choice but to pull all the old insulation out which brings us to where we are now. Which is to say that we have been prepping the interiors for spray foam to be completed this Summer as soon as funds are available.

Our two containers have been welded together, and a passageway cut out between them that has a solid welded bead to keep out the weather. This negates the necessity for a roof for now. However we have expansive plans to build off the containers and ultimately will build a steel butterfly roof over the entire foundation to collect a huge amount of rain catchment and to shelter the containers and any additional rooms built off of them.
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What challenges did you face in making a steel shipping container feel like a home?
The biggest challenge is probably condensation during the winter months (again addressed in another post, spray foam insulating is the only viable option we've been able to determine.) Other than that we chose shipping containers precicely because of they provide shelter with so little head aches or complications. A big solid wind and water tight free standing steel structure that resists rot, pests, fire, zombies. Exceeds building code standards for strength, hurricane, flood and tornadoes, and lightning. Should our house be struck the steel containers would conduct the power directly down into the steel reinforced foundation, and disperse below ground) unlike a conventional house built of wood that doesn't conduct, therefore increasing risk of an electrical fire...All this while being modular and transportable by design, and readily available thanks to our trade deficit with China!

Biggest hurdles for most other people would likely be local zoning restrictions, building codes or just simply being able to save up the cash to purchase one. We were very upfront with our Town Office zoning officer who was very helpful in return and actually very encouraging to us early on before we bought the land, confirming for us that we had chosen the right area to move and set about building a homestead for ourselves.

The internet is a great resource, there is about 100x as much information out there now about living off grid in a shipping container than there was when I first started digging into the idea back in 2005-06.

Advice for making it "Feel like a home". Don't shy away from the industrial quality, we are going to leave some interior walls exposed metal that either do not need to be insulated or can be insulated from the other side. We like mixing natural elements like stone, wood and plaster along side the steel. It is easy to just sheet-rock the whole interior and call it a living space and that's fine. We prefer to embrace the look of the containers and play with the aesthetic.

All that aside, I can tell you that over the last couple winters in Maine there was just one thing that really made the containers feel like a "home" and that was a roaring wood stove!
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How do you manage food supply? How much of it comes from your animals and gardens? Do you have to supplement from stores in the winter?
We obtain 100% of our egg consumption from our free ranged laying hens pretty much year round. Though this past December and January was bitterly cold and our egg production came to a screeching halt. They barely went outside, and it was dark with record lows. Luckily for us we live right down the road from a certified organic farm and we were able to barter graphic design work for some of their eggs to get us through the winter.

Have you ever had a fresh free range egg before? They are so incredibly tasty, the yolks are orange and they are really big! Excellent for baking, especially duck eggs, they fluff up batters beautifully. We just expanded our chicken coop yesterday we will post photos of that later today as well. We incorporated a greenhouse set up to one whole side. We feel that if they are able to soak up more sunshine without having to go outside into the cold wind and snow that they will produce more eggs year round. We will probably build a solar air heater and install some LED lights for them as well.

As for our veggies, our garden production was nil since October. In the past month our chives came back and we have salad greens germinating and we hope to get peas started soon. Where I am in Maine the THREAT of the last frost ends around the 10th of May! So we have some time yet to get things ready for May.

Gardening is a lot of work and the more hands on deck DIRT - the better! Our good friend Devin assists with garden work, since he lives in a more developed town he doesn't have room to plant at his rental apartment. So he gardens with us and he has done some amazing things. Incorporating Hugelkultur raised beds into our garden space, enriching our soils, and he and Trevor are turning our plastic green house they built into one with all salvaged windows. Glass > Plastic. We hope with this new greenhouse we can keep greens and some hardy veggies going year round with the assistance of a solar air heater during those long cold months. Last harvest season Devin helped us with preserving. Canning (with jars) we had dozens and dozens of our tomatoes preserved, spicy dill pickles, peppers and black/blue/raspberry jam sourced from our wild berry bushes.
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I've been trying to switch to everything being fresh, but I find it out of my budget most of the time, and I've no place to start a garden. Any tips to start the process?
If you have the heart & the will power to garden but space is an issue, perhaps talk with a friend who has some property to work out a deal. You get garden space they get some awesome veggies & a manicured garden! Or if you are even more ambitious start a community garden in your city, organize through facebook, meetup groups & town hall meetings. But if all else fails and you are stuck with a tiny lawn, fire escape, roof top etc. what you can do at home is start small. Pick up some buckets & planters in various sizes. Get your hands on some organic soil. You do not want harsh chemical fertilizers in the soil where you grow your food. Build whats called a container garden. You can also make an upside-down "Topsy Turvey" tomato planter out of a 5 gallon bucket.

Start an herb garden on your window sills, (if you are North of the equator, try to use a South facing window for the most amount of solar gain for your greens).

You can even grow potatoes in stacked tires. To plant a potato, you can take any potato you already have and cut a chunk around each "potato eye". Plant it "eye" down in the soil and that will become the new root system! You can also plant onions you buy at the store that have a green sprout coming out of the top. Just cut the onion about a 1/2" down from the sprout and plant it sprout upwards. The chunk of the onion attached will turn into a new onion! (or you can buy seeds).

I recommend shopping for heirloom seeds at Johnny Seeds
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Do you ever feel cabin fever in the winter, or is the shipping container bigger than I might think?
We actually have two 20' shipping containers. We have felt the effects of cabin fever during the long cold winter months (Maine winters along the DownEast coast get dark by 3pm). BUT this past December we gutted the interiors (pics on the way I promise!) and we now have the containers side by side and we hired a welder to cut out the shared common walls and weld them together with a plasma torch to create 1 larger space opposed to 2 smaller compartmentalized spaces. He also welded in door frames for the bathroom and a sliding patio door. So NOW the space feels huge to us! We also plan to build a larger bedroom & a mudroom off the west side of our foundation attached to the front of the containers and a bathroom on the east side. We have a plans we can post for reference. So with the new rooms we will have 612sf. Which when laid out properly can be plenty of space for 2 people and a dog. Its a lot more COZY than claustrophobic. I highly recommend if you are thinking about living in a small space with someone, you better make sure you REALLY like that person! ;)
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Did you evaluate other building options besides shipping containers?
Yes, we did actually. We spent years researching alternative architecture and fell in love with earth sheltered structures and cave homes! We definitely have an earth sheltered root cellar in the long term 5 yr plan.

When we were shopping for land we had our eye on a property in Tennessee that had a HUGE cave system and under ground fresh water grotto. It was amazing and we totally geeked out on one day having a cave home. Alas no caves within out current property borders, but maybe one day!

We are fascinated by Nadir Khalili and Cal-Earth's super-adobe dome houses and would love to one day experiment with building one of our land. Domes are the strongest type of structure you can build.

We also really like the look and use of natural elements in straw bale & cob homes. They have incredibly insulation value! But unfortunately building with straw is expensive ($5/bale) and they are not best suited for such a wet location such as coastal Maine. They are also highly flammable. We know of a friend who's straw home burned down when a label on a hot water heater caught fire, the whole place went up in no time. Sad but true story.

We found that containers work best for us because of their immense strength, their mobility, they are water tight (and remain so if you properly seal up window & door openings), rodent proof - no squirrel chewing through OUR walls!, and fire proof (yes the interiors will be burnt out but the structure itself will for the most part be in tact and most importantly the containers will keep the fire contained and therefore safer for neighbors and wildlife, we also like the stack-ability- you can go over 500' high as apartments with moderate furniture before effecting the structural integrity.

We had our containers weighed by a crane. Here is an image for reference of the weight of one of our containers stacked 561' high.

When we first started the project we didn't own land yet and so we knew we had to move whatever we built so for us - containers was the way to go! The additional bedroom, bathroom & mudroom we are planning to expand off the containers are going to be timber framed from either timbers on our land or from a locally sourced sustainable harvester. We also would love to incorporating stone as well. We love the harmonious balance of industrial steel with natural earth elements.
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Why did you choose Maine?
We looked everywhere, from Pennsylvania, Vermont, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, even central and South America. I was born in Maine and Jen kept meeting people who encouraged us to consider the Pine Tree State but it had not been an obvious choice for us initially. We were looking to move some place warm year round. But it did not take long for us to recognize Maine has it all. A spectacular vast wilderness, natural resources, fantastic fresh water, a thriving well managed fishing industry, tons of locally produced food and farms, small towns and independent businesses including some of the best restaurants we have ever eaten at. Lots of artisans, craftsmen and trades. A hardworking fun loving population that knows how to survive , greets you with a smile would invite you into their home for "suppah". :)

I could to on and on about why we chose Maine. Our neighborhood truly cares for each other, everyone is incredibly helpful, industrious and entrepreneurial. Plus its great that we regularly get together for parties and events. And many of our neighbors have been homesteading, using solar panels and growing food since the 70s. We used to live somewhere with 3000 people per sq mile and no one knew their neighbors now we live in a place with 80ppl/m. Less people, little to no serious crimes, an organic farm we can walk to. We love it. And all four seasons have something to offer the soul here.

Land is still affordable in Maine and being close to the coast - that is a real treat! We are often asked why did we purchase the large lot of 63 acres? A large lot wasn't necessarily a deal maker/breaker. It was not so much the size of land but the cost per acre. Most people in the US value land that has road frontage, utility hookups' etc. We were quite the opposite. So people will spend 30 grand and get just 3acres or some other smallish house lot. Most of these subdivided lots also have restrictions I.e you can't paint your house certain colors or you can't have chickens. We wanted full rights of ownership including timber and mineral rights. We wanted to pay no annual dues to some pain in the ass housing association.

We wanted a driveway or some kind of access already in place so we could deliver the containers right off the truck. A building site with good southern exposure was paramount. Room for a garden. A spring or spring fed stream was also on your wishlist. And no building codes restrictions that would preclude our building of the container house of course.

That narrowed down the list substantially. So this property had all of the things we were looking for and then some, plus we are equal distance from from beautiful Acadia National Park and Bangor Int'l Airport, and our land itself is abutted by hundreds of acres of forest with no big development plans in sight. We are just outside a 7000 acre land trust.

So for what most people spend on a small house lot we were able to buy a relatively large parcel due to the fact it does not have road frontage (we have a deeded right of way to get from our land to the road) and it would cost thousands to run power lines up here. Deal breakers for most, home sweet home for us!
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Has it been cost effective? How much have you spent compared to say a normal home via real estate agent?
It is significantly cheaper to build with containers than conventional stick built, some say by 25% but it depends on whether you are comparing to custom built homes vs modular pre-fab, a modern home vs historic.

Though for us it is a much higher percentage saved doing things this way oppossed to conventional methods. We up-cycled a lot of materials, bought items and tools second hand, we do 98% of the work ourselves and try to keep outside contractors to a minimum whenever possible. Plus working with 12v/24v electrical systems you are NOT REQUIRED to hire an electrician to wire your home AND when you have composting toilets no complicated plumbing is required. All that is needed is a basic plan to remove your grey water from showers & the sink and that can be as simple as a grey water tank (it depends on your towns codes).

There was no mortgage for us so we don't have interest to pay or rent just to live in them. Actually for the most part we lived in them as we built them, another unique opportunity when building with containers. They are ALREADY a free standing steel shelter - the rest is "extras".

And with little to no cost of reoccurring maintenance unlike a conventional home (rot/moisture damage, fire/smoke damage, invasive rodents/insects) the savings really add up!

Speaking solely from the choices WE made, we decided to heat with wood (very cheap especially if you own the trees) & passive solar gain (totally free!) Though our original design we lived in for several years heated with propane, but that was only because we originally intended to move some place warmer - but realized Maine is where its at and we don't at all regret that decision to move here! BUT because we switched our source of heat we had to overhaul the interiors to accommodate a wood stove. So if we put a wood stove in ORIGINALLY we wouldn't have had to re-do the interior layout. So its an organic process and always evolving. And since the overhaul is underway (the right way!) we will now have a much better understanding of co$t this time around when something only has to be done ONCE.

Mistakes are not a bad thing - but mistakes can be expensive. Neither of us had any clue how to plumb, run electrical, or build 5 years ago so it was a steep learning curve. For instance we did the plumbing 4 time$! But we were/are committed to our vision, we have since re-purposed most of our pre-used materials (the interior walls became the walls of our shed, chicken coop & green house). So in the end we didn't have to pay for the materials to build those structures. Which was convenient.

Its important to connect with the right people with resourceful backgrounds. The learning process can be a lot less expensive than going at it alone. Networking is key!

We have learned a lot in the past few years and we are happy to share our experiences with others.
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