What To Know About Plumbing in Shipping Container Homes

The Shipping container, new or used is used mainly for its structural capabilities and ready to use structural frame. The container is then made into a house by adding insulation, electrical, plumbing, and other required services.

Shipping container homes offer a complete home system, inc. plumbing. The process of Installing Plumbing in a shipping container home is only slightly different to that of a conventional home. The process of roughing in supply lines is almost the same. The major difference lies in positioning and installing the drainage lines.

Before we dive into the details, here are some points that you must know when plumbing a shipping container home.

Points to go through when installing plumbing

  1. Make sure to follow the codes and enquire about the stages that need an inspection in your area.
  2. Decide the input and output points of water during the layout design phase, this would help you to plan your kitchen and bathrooms efficiently. (Near the supply, as they need the maximum water)
  3. PLAN your walls, layout and drainage pipes keeping the structural beams under the floor in mind. A drain hole cannot/ should not be drilled through a stud. Therefore, you must position your drainage traps and toilet flanges carefully.
  4. Be ready to drill holes in the floor and ceiling of the container, to take out drains, toilet flanges and vent pipes out of the house.
  5. Make sure It is a conditioned space, for keeping the pipes and water within from freezing if you live in extreme cold climates.
  6. Try to conceal most pipes in the partition walls and intersecting walls, so that the pipes don’t eat up the insulation on the envelope walls.
  7. Plan an easily accessible service zone where the water enters your home, and locate your filters, water heaters, pressure pumps and storage tanks if any, in that zone, to facilitate easy maintenance in the future.
  8. Make sure to get your plumbing inspected before sealing the pipes with drywall and insulation.

Now that we know what to be careful of, let’s answer the major questions regarding plumbing your shipping container home.

When to start plumbing your container home?

In a conventional stick home, the process of laying out the plumbing is called ‘rough in’. The drainage system is roughed in (connection with sewer lines and main vents are installed) before pouring the concrete floor, and then once the frame of the house and interior walls are completed, the electrical and plumbing are installed through them. 

However, unlike a conventional home, a shipping container home has no poured concrete base. Therefore, the plumbing (both water supply and drainage) starts to get installed after the shipping container is placed in its position and the interior partition wall frames are built.

However, as the shipping container is a closed envelope, it is crucial to plan for plumbing- Where will the water come in and go out, during the design phase. Even though the installation of plumbing in the home begins once it is placed on the foundation, the following steps need to be figured out before as these could affect the layout significantly.

  • The location where sewer lines connect with the main sewer line of your area (Where would the waste go?)
  • Identify the water supply point on your site. This will guide the locations of your bathrooms and kitchen, as these should be kept closer to the supply to ensure efficient plumbing. (Where will the water come in from?)
  • Site preparation, trenching, septic tank etc. must be done as in the case of a conventional home. (How will the pipe be laid on the site?)

How to install water supply lines in your shipping container home?

The way of installing the water supply lines in a shipping container home is very similar to a conventional home. However, there are several things to consider.

1. Type of Insulation being used 

Whatever type of insulation you use, one thing is for sure, Plumbing is concealed in the walls.

Figure 1 – Plummbing lines in shipping container wall before applying spray foam

But, as insulation is a crucial aspect for a comfortable shipping container home, it is advisable to find ways to install plumbing that would lead to minimum loss of insulation. The fewer pipes in the main envelope of the container, the more unaltered insulation. This can be achieved by planning your lines in a way that the maximum of them go in the partition and intersection walls.

2. Whether you are adding a dry wall or not?

If you use board form insulation or systems like insofast, you may not need to build additional drywall. These ready to install insulation systems are easy to cut through and can be carved out to make room for the pipes. These also have wire channels within them, so electrical rough-in is also an easy task with them. Then you can just finish the surface with plywood and wall finishes.

Figure 2 – Supply lines in intersection and partition walls

3. How are interior partitions being built?

There are numerous ways to build partition walls. You could use conventional 2 x 4 studs or C channels as the grid. However, the plumbing works the same in both. It goes over the lintel beams and then comes down perpendicular in the places where taps/sinks/ baths are being installed.

Apart from the supply lines, make sure to devote a part of the wall as a service corner, where the main water line comes in and heater and filter are installed. If you reside in extreme cold climates, take the necessary measures to prevent freezing of pipes and water inside it.

Is building bathrooms a challenge in a shipping container home?

The answer is NO. Plumbing a bathroom in a shipping container home is the same as a conventional stick house bathroom plumbing. Whether using fiberglass showers and baths or tiling it. The only difference is that you need to have the right tools to drill the holes in the base of the container where the toilet flange and traps will come out and connect with the central drainpipe. Once you have marked the right positions to drill holes and drilled the holes, the rest of the process is the same as any conventional home. 

Note: While planning the layout and positions of these holes, make sure they fall in between the steel beams under the container. Cutting through beams is a difficult and time-consuming process, and it could also compromise the strength of the container.

Make sure to plan your bathroom layout effectively, to make complete use of the limited space. 

Where does the central drainage pipe go?

Now, you have installed all supply lines, drilled holes for drains, traps and outlets, and placed all your ceramic ware and fixtures in their place. But one most important question still remains. Where does the central drainpipe that connects all the drains to the main sewer line go? 

The way the sewer lines come out of your shipping container home depends on various factors

  1. Type of foundation 
  2. Climate
  3. Tools available/ Professional

These are some cases to be considered:

  1. If your container house is placed on a pier foundation, then there is some crawl space under it, and your central drainpipe can run/hang under your shipping container. But this works only if you live in a moderate climate. In extremely cold temperatures, one cannot risk freezing pipes or water inside. Therefore, the pipe needs to be insulated and in an insulated zone.
  • In case of freezing winters: There is a good chance, that if you are using a used shipping container home, you would remove the original floor of the container as it may have some toxic chemicals. (Read this for more info-Checklist for a safe and secure container home!). In this case, when you remove the floor of the container, the horizontal ribs/ beams will reveal themselves. You can then drill holes through those beams to make way for the drainpipe, and then insulate the base of the shipping container. This way, the central drainpipe lays in an insulated zone.
  • If you opt for a slab foundation, The central drain line can be roughed in the slab. This process will be the same as roughing in the drainage lines in a concrete floor for a conventional house. Although this could get expensive and difficult for maintenance and accessibility. In case of any repairs, the concrete will have to be broken.

It is always advisable to leave some space between the ground and base of the container, and that crawl space is the best place for the central drainpipes to go. It is accessible, easy to install and can be easily connected to the main sewer line or the septic tank. In case of freezing winters, the base can be insulated from the exterior.

Figure 3 – Central drain lines under the shipping container

Are there any additional costs of plumbing compared to an in-situ stick house?

Depending on if you are employing a professional or not, the costs can be added. For eg., Several holes need to be drilled through the floor and roof of the container for installing the toilet flanges and drains and vent pipes. If you do not have the proper tools or are not hiring a professional, it could cost extra.

Figure 4 – Drilling hole in the hole to install sink drainage

However, the rest of the plumbing cost is more or less the same as that of a conventional home with the same layout and design. You can always opt for plumbing systems and pipes according to your budget. The market offers pvc, copper and pex pipes, and a variety of cost saving fixtures and appliances.

Pex piping system is becoming very popular due to its flexible nature.

Also, within the limited space, the plumbing, service core, water heater etc needs to be planned more concisely and efficiently to occupy the least area and still be protected from climate and be accessible.

Final Words

Plumbing a shipping container home is a DIY friendly and easy process. With only a few considerations mentioned above, your shipping container home will be as good as any other home.

Make sure to get your plumbing inspected before sealing the pipes with drywall and insulation!


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