Common Shipping Container Types: An Overview of Varieties and Uses

Shipping containers play a vital role in global trade, housing goods as they trek across oceans and continents. Understanding the various types of shipping containers is crucial for businesses and individuals who engage in shipping or use containers for other purposes. These metal boxes, designed to standardise transport, come in a range of types and sizes, each tailored to transport different kinds of cargo efficiently and safely.

Various shipping container types stacked in a port yard, including standard, high cube, open-top, and flat rack containers

The most common type is the standard dry container, typically used for dry materials. However, the shipping industry has evolved to meet diverse logistical challenges with specialised container types. These include refrigerated units for perishable goods, open-top and flat rack containers for oversized cargo, and many more. Innovations in container materials and features have extended their use beyond mere transport, leading to applications in storage, housing, and even retail spaces.

Key Takeaways

  • Containers are integral for global trade, with a variety of types to meet different needs.
  • Standard dry containers are common, but specialised versions cater to specific cargo requirements.
  • The shipping container’s versatility extends beyond transportation to storage and construction (see our Introduction to Shipping Containers for a general overview).

Container Fundamentals

Various shipping containers stacked in a port yard, including standard, high-cube, open-top, and flat rack types

Shipping containers are integral components of global trade, enabling the efficient transport of goods via ships, trains, and trucks. They are designed for durability and versatility, constructed primarily from steel or aluminium to withstand the harsh conditions of sea travel while remaining stackable for logistical efficiency.

Size (Feet)Common Dimensions (Length x Width x Height)Typical Use
20ft20′ x 8′ x 8’6″General cargo, commercial items
40ft40′ x 8′ x 8’6″Larger shipments, industrial equipment

The 20ft and 40ft units are the most prevalent types in the UK, denoted as the “standard container” sizes. These sizes facilitate the handling, stacking, and transportation on freight trains, lorries, and ships.

For heavy cargo, specifically designed containers such as flat racks for oversized loads are employed to accommodate the increased weight and atypical dimensions. The choice of construction material — whether steel or aluminium — largely depends on the specific requirements, including the need for a lightweight material or resistance to corrosion and the expected loads.

Containers are defined by their standardized dimensions, allowing them to be universally compatible with handling equipment worldwide. This standardization ensures that containers can be seamlessly transferred across different modes of transport, from a commercial ship to a lorry or train, facilitating international trade with efficacy.

Standard Dry Containers

Standard dry containers stacked in a port yard, with various sizes and colors, some open and empty, others sealed and ready for shipping

Standard dry containers are ubiquitous in the shipping industry, designed for the transport of dry goods without temperature control requirements. They are typically made of steel or aluminium, providing both strength and durability to withstand the rigours of shipping container delivery.

20-Foot Container

Commonly known as a Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU), the 20-foot container is a staple in global trade, offering ample space for a variety of dry cargo, from boxed and palletised goods to textiles and sundries. Its internal dimensions typically allow for the loading of up to 11 Euro pallets in one tier, making it a versatile choice for a wide array of cargo types.

40-Foot Container

The 40-foot container doubles the capacity of the TEU, accommodating about 25 Euro pallets and is frequently used for larger shipments of dry goods. Due to its extended length, it is especially beneficial for transporting dry goods, lightweight cargo, and certain types of vehicles. The 40-foot option provides an efficient balance between cargo capacity and handling ease.

High Cube Containers

High cube containers stand out with their additional height, a foot taller than standard containers, thus allowing for the storage of oversized cargo or increased stacking of goods. These containers cater to bulkier items and provide a solution for taller cargo that would otherwise not fit into the conventional containers. High cube containers’ taller stature enables accommodating high-volume, lighter-weight cargo, maximising the vertical storage space for shippers.

Specialised Container Types

Various shipping containers including flat racks, open tops, and tank containers are lined up in a port yard, with cranes and trucks moving around them

In the realm of shipping, certain goods require containers that offer special features beyond the standard box shape. These specialised containers are designed to accommodate the diverse demands of global trade, ensuring that everything from perishable products to oversized machinery reaches its destination safely and can be properly handled at ports.

Refrigerated Containers

Refrigerated containers, commonly known as reefer containers, are vital for transporting perishable items that need to remain chilled or frozen. They are fitted with a refrigeration unit which maintains a consistent temperature throughout the voyage. This type of container is ideal for foodstuffs like meat, fruit, and dairy that demand precise climate control for preservation.

Open Top Containers

When cargo is too tall for standard containers, open-top containers provide an effective solution. These containers don’t have a solid roof, allowing goods to be loaded from above by a crane. Some feature a detachable steel roof to protect against weather whilst still permitting that top access. They are particularly useful for bulky items like tall machinery or construction materials.

Flat Rack Containers

For exceedingly heavy or wide cargo, flat rack containers come into play. These have a flatbed design with collapsible sides that can be folded to accommodate outsized items such as heavy machinery. Their robust construction and stackable design make them a preferred choice for loads that traditional containers cannot handle.

Tank Containers

Tank containers are specially built to transport liquids, from industrial chemicals to edible oils and wines. They are essentially tanks enclosed within a standard container frame, ensuring that liquid cargo can be moved securely and efficiently without spillage concerns. These tank containers are made from materials resistant to the liquids they carry.

Open Side Containers

Open side containers, also known as side door containers, feature doors along one of the longitudinal sides to grant easier access for loading and unloading. This is particularly advantageous for bulky cargo that requires more space than the conventional end doors offer. They facilitate quick and efficient handling of goods like construction materials that are otherwise hard to maneuver.

Container Features and Materials

In selecting the right shipping container, one must consider the materials used in construction and the features that ensure the safety and preservation of cargo. Specialised containers have adapted to industry demands, offering temperature control, effective insulation, and safety features tailored to diverse logistical needs.

Temperature Control

Refrigerated containers are critical in transporting perishable goods across long distances. Known in the industry as ‘reefers’, they rely on refrigeration systems to maintain constant temperatures. They are typically lined with anti-corrosive materials such as aluminium to withstand the cooling process and potential moisture build-up. A common type used in the UK is the 20-foot ISO refrigerated container, designed to be weatherproof while keeping the cargo at the desired temperature.

Ventilation and Insulation

Proper ventilation is essential for transporting organic materials that require air exchange to prevent spoilage. Ventilated containers, often called ‘coffee containers’ due to their frequent use in transporting coffee beans, feature a series of vents along the top and bottom rails. Insulated containers are equipped with materials such as polystyrene or polyurethane foam to prevent heat transfer between the interior and exterior, providing a stable environment regardless of external weather conditions.

Cargo Safety Features

Safety features within containers, such as lashing rings, are vital for securing cargo during transit. These rings, generally made of high-strength steel, can withstand significant loads, often above 1,000 kilograms. Moreover, containers designed for transporting hazardous materials are equipped with robust locking mechanisms and plastic linings to contain spills and prevent contamination. The construction materials of these containers must be durable, often featuring weatherproof coatings to protect against harsh marine environments.

Container Uses Beyond Shipping

Beyond their conventional role in global logistics, shipping containers boast versatility in various sectors due to their durable and weatherproof nature. This section explores the innovative ways containers are repurposed for commercial, storage, and residential use.

Commercial and Offices

Shipping containers offer an eco-friendly and cost-efficient solution for creating commercial spaces and offices. Businesses are increasingly turning to new and used containers for pop-up shops and permanent office spaces alike. Thanks to their modular design, these containers can be easily fitted with windows, insulation, and electricity to create comfortable and functional workspaces in urban areas.

Construction and Storage

Construction sites utilise shipping containers as a secure and portable option for storing tools and construction materials, such as stone and lumber. Containers are highly valued for their strength and security features, making them ideal for safeguarding valuable equipment. Moreover, their weatherproof qualities prevent damage from the UK’s unpredictable weather conditions, ensuring materials stay dry and secure.

Adaptive Reuse in Homes

There is a growing trend in the UK for using shipping containers as a foundation for building modular homes. Their robust structure makes them excellent for architectural projects, particularly for those looking to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their homes. Both new and used containers serve as an affordable and creative housing option, with the capacity to withstand harsh elements while offering an innovative living space.

Container Accessories

The array of accessories for shipping containers ensures enhanced security, protection, and handling efficiency. From locking mechanisms to coverage and lifting equipment, the right accessories are critical for the safety and management of cargo within various container sizes.

Locks and Seals

Lock boxes and heavy-duty padlocks are essential for securing double door containers, safeguarding against unauthorised access to the cargo. Seals provide an added level of security and ensure the integrity of the container’s contents during transit.

Coverage Solutions

Tarpaulin sheets offer durable coverage for containers, protecting contents from the UK’s unpredictable weather. These are especially important for open-top containers, safeguarding the cargo within from external elements.

Handling Equipment

To accommodate different container sizes, items such as cranes, slings, and shackles are necessary for safe loading and unloading. These pieces of equipment must be robust enough to handle the weight and balance of cargo, ensuring safety and preventing damage during transport.

Additional Container Types

In addressing some of the specialised containers in the industry, this section explores those designs that cater to specific cargo needs beyond standard shipping containers.

Half-Height Containers

Half-height containers are specially designed for transporting heavy and dense materials such as coal or stones. These containers are half the height of standard containers, which makes loading with a crane much easier and safer, particularly for heavy goods.

Swap Body Containers

Swap body containers are a versatile solution especially useful in the UK for multimodal transportation. These containers possess retractable legs that allow them to be easily transferred between trucks, trains, and ships without needing a crane. They are often used within the European logistics networks, serving as an effective and flexible container type.

Double Door Containers

Double door containers grant access from both ends of the container, facilitating the loading and unloading process. This container type is ideal for items that need to be unloaded quickly or for materials that require loading from both ends to optimise space.

Tunnel Containers

Tunnel containers, also known as tunnel-tainers, have doors on both ends of the container, resembling a tunnel when both sets of doors are open. This design allows for faster loading and unloading, providing added versatility for specific types of cargo handling.

Each additional container type comes with its own set of advantages and applications within the logistics and transport sectors of the UK. These containers adapt to various needs, offering solutions that the standard containers might not be able to provide efficiently.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, the reader will find answers to common inquiries regarding the types and specifications of shipping containers used within the logistics industry.

What are the distinctions between the various types of shipping containers employed in logistics?

Different types of shipping containers are designed for varied purposes within logistics. They differ in construction, dimensions, and features to accommodate a wide array of cargo types, from dry goods to temperature-sensitive products.

Can you enumerate the six most prevalent types of containers used for shipping goods?

The six most prevalent types of containers in shipping include dry storage containers, flat rack containers, open top containers, high cube containers, insulated containers, and tank containers. Each type serves a specific function, from general transport to carrying liquids.

How do container dimensions and types vary in the context of maritime transportation?

Container dimensions and types vary widely in maritime transportation. They must conform to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) regulations, with standard lengths typically 20 or 40 feet. However, types can range from flat racks suitable for oversized cargo to refrigerated containers for perishable goods.

Could you categorise shipping containers into three main types?

Three main categories of shipping containers are general purpose containers, special purpose containers, and modified containers. General purpose includes dry storage, while special purpose encompasses open tops and tank containers. Modified containers have been adapted for specific uses, like pop-up retail.

What sizes and types of containers are most frequently utilised in global trade?

In global trade, the most frequently utilised containers are 20-foot and 40-foot dry storage containers for their capacity to carry a variety of cargo. High cube containers are also common for their additional height, accommodating taller goods.

What are the specifications for the two primary types of containers in regular use?

The specifications for the two primary types, dry storage and reefer containers, involve their dimensions and temperature control capabilities. Dry storage containers typically come in 20-foot and 40-foot lengths with standard height and width, while reefer containers also have a built-in refrigeration unit for controlling cargo temperature.

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