Buying Or Leasing Open-Top ISO Shipping Containers? Read This First…

Open Top Shipping Container 40ft
Open Top Shipping Container 20ft

Why You’re Struggling To Source Open-Top Containers


Open-top containers may appear prosaic but they’re vitally important: they may be the only way you can ship overheight cargo. And that’s a huge challenge because you’re almost certainly finding them even harder to source than standard dry ISO containers .

‘Rare’ doesn’t begin to cover it – not when you’re talking about high-cube open-tops a foot higher than the standard 8ft 6in box. Or the ultra-rare high-cube hard-top open containers. But more about those later on in this blog post…

Why Do Open-Top Containers Cost More?


Simple – far fewer of them exist (though we can get hold of them for you). That’s because shipping companies order the manufacture of open-tops in mere scores and hundreds – compared with the thousands of standard ISO containers they need. Look at Drewry’s composite World Container Index …then factor in an extra 25% for open-tops.

And that’s not the only reason. Open-tops can be overheight. So they can’t lie buried deep in a stack, wiling away the voyage in dark and blissful anonymity – an open -top container has to sit right on the top.

That makes these cabriolets of the container world ‘special cargo’ in the eyes of the shipping companies. It also means there are fewer booking options because of limited ‘top slot’ availability per sailing. Sadly, all this is shorthand for a higher price.

Especially when so many open containers – like their dry van counterparts – are sitting on boxships waiting to unload at congested container ports. At time of publication, more than 60 boxships were anchored off LA and adjoining Long Beach. And these ports normally move 40% of America’s containers. It’s even worse in China: record numbers of container ships are queuing up at Shanghai and Ningbo – 242 at last count. Lucky the Asians’ more modern ports take only 25 seconds to move a container…compared with 70+ seconds at North America’s large gateway ports.

So that’s where all the containers are – stuck in giant traffic jams that are measured in TEU.

China’s Ministry of Transport has been taking steps to improve the supply and availability of shipping containers. It has been encouraging international container shipping companies to increase freight capacity on export routes from the Chinese mainland. Freight capacity in the first eight months of 2021 was:

  • up 40.2% year-on-year to 9.11 million TEU on routes to North America
  • up 23.7% year-on-year to 5.67 million TEU on routes to western and northern Europe.

Great for Chinese exports. But as we write this, average prices are still 299% higher than a year ago. And the year-to-date average price for a 40ft container currently stands at $6,888 – that’s $4,492 more than the five-year average of $2,396 per 40ft container.


How Watertight Is The Tarpaulin On An Open-Top ISO Container?


Despite having a tarpaulin for a roof (instead of the normal weathering steel), an open-top container is just as waterproof as any other dry container: it has to be to meet the ISO standard. And remember, it’ll be sitting on the very top – exposed to all the elements.

Still, it’s important to respect the fact that the only thing separating your cargo from Poseidon’s tantrums is a tarpaulin held in place by a metal Transports Internationaux Routiers (TIR) cord threaded through D-rings protruding through eyelets.

That’s no great worry if your cargo is scrap metal (a typical payload for many open-tops). But if you’re a cautious soul, then you might want to think about extra waterproofing if you’re shipping a bulky and expensive piece of machinery that’s travelling by open-top simply because it was too long and heavy to forklift into a normal dry van.

How Secure Is An Open-Top Container?


Security can be a challenge for open-top containers. While rag tops are as watertight (theoretically) as ISO dry vans, they’ll never be as entry-proof. For obvious reasons. It doesn’t take much – just a basic utility knife (they’re not called boxcutters for nothing).

The customs seal on the TIR cord is no deterrent to an intruder with a blade. The seal is there to reveal tampering with the cord but the bad guys won’t need to go anywhere near it. So in this context, a customs seal is about as useful as the Maginot Line: the intruders will simply ignore it and go round it. Just one quick incision in the tarpaulin and they’re in. And they can reglue the tarp on their way out. It’ll just look like a basic repair.

Never be complacent about security. Just because the villains can’t lift the X-tonne lump of metal you’re shipping, it doesn’t mean they can’t use your container for smuggling or some other nefarious purposes. Not all stowaways are as fluffy and harmless as Paddington Bear.

Worried about security? The answer is a hard-top open-top container. It provides all the toughness of a standard ISO dry container…but with a removeable steel roof (or two 20ft roof sections for a 40ft Hard Top Open Top box ). The roof section(s) can be forklifted on and off quickly for easy loading and unloading. Each watertight steel roof section can be locked into place by operating three levers on each side – six for a 20ft container, 12 for a 40-footer.

The big advantage of a hard-top open-top box is that – while the roof comes off for easy access – it remains the same size as a normal shipping container. So it can go anywhere in the ship. You don’t have to pay top dollar for a VIP slot at the top of the stack.

But this presumes that your cargo is simply bulky – hard to load but not overheight. If it is too high, then you’re still facing the prospect of paying a premium because you’ll have to specify a tarp-top box.


Other Important Considerations For Open Containers


Open-top containers have swing headers. So it’s not just the doors that open…the top bar at one end will also open. This makes it easier to load awkward cargoes: you’re not limited to vertical loading – you can crane in bulky kit at a diagonal angle.

And that’s great. But then comes the awful moment when you realise that you can’t get the swing header back into place. All that scrap metal you just dumped into the container has made its sides bow slightly. Just enough to push the swing header out of alignment…

Yes, the header will close. But no, you can’t fit the locking pin back in place. And all because the bottom of one or both sides bowed very slightly…and a degree widens…so up at the top, the holes for the locking pin don’t match up. It doesn’t take much movement. Just a centimetre or two. Just enough to be annoying and time consuming.

There is a solution though. Make sure you have a large, handy forklift readily available. With a little creative pushing, you can ‘persuade’ the bowing side(s) back into position while one of your team fits the pin that locks the swing header in place. Please don’t get too persuasive with your forklift though…we like to keep our containers in tip-top condition.


Overheight/High-Cube Open-Top Containers


Overheight is anything above the normal 8ft 6in for a container. But this description covers a multitude of scenarios. Depending on how understanding (or not) your shipping company is, ‘overheight’ can cover anything from an open-top box with gently curving (but almost flat) roof bows to a massive bulky lump protruding above the headers like a pitched roof.

That means you may need some advice when specifying tarpaulins. A highly protrusive overheight cargo can make it trickier to specify the right-sized tarp (unless you’re a big fan of trigonometry or the Pythagorean theorem). Too small/tight and it won’t fit; too big/slack and it won’t be drum-tight enough to protect against water ingress.

If the cargo protrusion is not too extreme, then a high-cube open-top container may well be the answer. High cubes are a foot higher than standard dry vans. That may not seem a lot but that extra space matters. And it can make specifying the right-sized tarpaulin a little easier – higher sides mean less cargo protrusion.

So can one buy or lease an open high-cube container with a removable hard top? Yes, they do exist – but they’re extremely rare. There just aren’t that many made. But don’t be afraid to ask for them if they’re the best containers for your cargo – we will endeavour to track some down for you (or suggest a practical alternative).


DNV Open-Top Containers


Working offshore? Need something tougher than a normal open-top ISO container? Ultra-tough DNV containers are the ones to specify for prolonged offshore exposure. ISO containers are guaranteed to be waterproof when you’re shipping goods – but containers that stay offshore really need to meet the DNV standard.

As the world’s biggest supplier of DNV reefers, we stock a full range of DNV 2.7-1 containers. And that includes open-top versions:

Why Cargostore For Open-Top ISO and DNV Containers?


Cargostore is one of the world’s fastest-growing suppliers of ISO and DNV 2.7-1 containers for onshore, offshore and shipping.

Customers depend on our containers for a wide range of commercial operations, large scale event catering, mining, stability and aid including peacekeeping and UN humanitarian missions. You’ll find our containers all over the world – notably in Africa and the Middle East.

Buy or lease from our wide range:

  • Open Top Containers for easy crane access – 20ft, 40ft (hard top or tarpaulin top)
  • container accessories – moisture traps, high security lock boxes, heavy duty padlocks, loading ramps, magnetic and stick-on lights, DNV slings, CCU tarpaulins.

Benefit from:

  • expert technical advice and fast quotes from our highly experienced team
  • seamless transition to a smooth and efficient finance team – fast credit checks and paperwork
  • excellent operational aftercare – proactive assistance for unit repairs and troubleshooting
  • offices in London (HQ) and Abu Dhabi, a local representative in Holland and depots worldwide. 


Get Expert Advice On Open-Top ISO and DNV Containers


Contact Cargostore now in London, Abu Dhabi or Holland to discuss your shipping, offshore and onshore project requirements.


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