Sea containers get new life: thinking outside the box

Cattle feeders or dog kennels, office or storage facility — imagination is the limit

The sky’s the limit when it comes to customizing shipping containers for use on the farm, says Joe Hamilton.

The half owner of Bond Industrial Direct Inc. in Saskatoon has been modifying and retrofitting containers for the mining and construction industries since 2009.

He said the functional structures that are created from recycled sea containers offer a viable and cost effective solution for agriculture.

The ability to service and store equipment over many thousands of acres and many kilometres is an increasing challenge for producers as farms continue to grow in size.

“Basically farms are getting so large and spread out now that a lot of these guys will set up a little remote workshop and living quarters,” he said.

“They can be set up to run off generators, like a plug and play kind of setup. You drop the box (container) and plug in your generator and you’ve got lights and power to repair equipment. Predominantly with farming, what I see happening is the remote workshop. A machine shop in a box.”

Hamilton has retrofitted containers into seed plant offices, scale houses and pump shacks.

“We’ll incorporate a sea container into the building of a certain kind of plant, whether it be fertilizer, seed, or chemical,” he said.

Containers have also been used for grain storage.

“Farmers would simply buy an open top 40 foot container, which holds about 2,500 bushels of grain, and throw a tarp over it. They’ll run bracing cables from wall to wall,” he said.

They also make good cattle feeders by cutting out the sides of the container as well as a hole in the top. Round bales can then be dropped in while the cattle eat from the sides. The end doors can be opened to clean it out.

Hamilton said he is currently working on pricing a system that will operate a grain dryer inside a 40-foot container. Ventilation will flow through the container using a conventional drying fan. The container will sit horizontally with augers running along the bottom to remove grain.

“The only challenge I ever run into is people’s imaginations with the new ideas that come through the door every day,” he said.

“And the customers drive you to it too. They drive you to come up with new ideas.”

One project that required a great deal of “thinking outside the box” was to turn a 40-foot container into a large insulated doghouse. It was designed for a breeder who wanted a specialized kennel.

Males and females are separated and have their own entrances using “automatic doggie doors” that open and close.

Another 40–foot container project involved designing and building an oil-water separator in Alberta. It’s essentially a large filter that cleans up tailings ponds by removing large amounts of toxins from contaminated water.

“We kind of pride ourselves on the custom fact,” Hamilton said.

“Everybody else will sell you what they have, but I’ll build you what you want.”

Brian Neufeld of Carr Agribusiness in Perdue, Sask., wanted a safe place to store sprayer chemicals, canola seed and treatments. He also needed an office near the bins to moisture test grain and complete the farm’s paperwork.

Hamilton recently delivered an insulated 40-foot sea container that can be heated using electric baseboard units.

The structure is subdivided with chemical storage on one side and a small office on the other.

“We’re very happy with it,” he said.

“I think it’s going to be big enough for what we need it for.”

Neufeld said metal containers offer more portability and safety than traditional wood, stick-frame buildings.

“If we ever did want to move it, all we’ve got to do is unhook the electricity and we can pick it up and move it to wherever we want,” he said.

“It’s all steel, so it should last long, and it’s all contained and harder to break into than a wood building.”

Hamilton compares sea containers to the Lego blocks he played with while growing up on the farm.

“The neat thing about containers is that 20 feet all the way up to 53 feet are all international standards,” he said.

“They’re all the same. So you can take containers from anywhere in the world and start putting them together.”

He thinks containers placed on top of each other could form the walls for an inexpensive and functional cold storage structure.

“You stack two 40 footer containers together and you get a 19 foot tall building,” he said.

“Big doors on the ends and a fabric structure like a Coverall (building).”

Costs vary depending on the extent of design modifications. A 40-foot cube sea container without any customization costs about $3,100. A farm package that has a painted, 40-foot cube unit with a six by seven foot roll-up door costs $4,500.

“I’ve done site offices worth $30,000 or $40,000 with washrooms in them. They’re self-contained so all of your holding tanks for dirty water, clean water and pressure system are inside the container,” he said.

“When we put electrical in them we get permits, they’re inspected, or can be inspected. They do meet building codes.”

Hamilton said many people, particularly town and municipal administrators, are hung up by the image of the rusty old sea container that sits in the backyard and is an eye sore.

“What they fail to see is the crisp clean corners of a surgical-white sea container with a couple of bay windows in it and solar panels on the roof and a hot tub sitting in front of it,” he said.

“I tell everyone that if there comes a day when you’re not using it, I’ll buy it back from you because I know somebody else who wants it. It’s as simple as that.”


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