Tote-ally Versatile IBC Totes

Bulk up your property with these projects for reusing IBC totes.

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by Getty Images/Philip Openshaw

You might not know what they’re called, but you’ve probably seen them being used in myriad ways around farms: Intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) are shipping containers used primarily to transport hazardous materials. They’ve found a second life as a versatile container in rural America. Several types of IBCs exist, but the most commonly used is a composite tote (also called a “caged tote”). This consists of a plastic receptacle made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) enclosed by a galvanized steel cage. Composite totes are usually equipped with a valve at the bottom of the receptacle and a fill port at the top. The most common composite IBC totes have a capacity of either 275 or 330 gallons. Since IBC totes are used on farms in many ways, there’s usually an abundance of them for sale. Keep an eye out for totes sitting unused on a neighboring property, or search online. You should be able to find a used tote in good condition for around $50, or, if you’re diligent, free of charge.

The primary concern with reusing IBC totes on a farm is ensuring the container is sterile. To decide whether a used container is safe to reuse, learn as much as you can about its initial use before buying it. Use food-grade totes for all projects where the container will be used for water, feed, or animals, and make sure the plastic is undamaged and the valve and port are functional. Totes can be cleaned with a pressure washer or by hand with dish soap. Any tote that’s not food-grade was used to transport chemicals. Use only the cage from these totes.

Growing up, my family had an IBC tote we used for transporting water. When the creek was low in our pasture, we’d put the tote on the back of the four-wheeler, fill it with water from a hose, and ride out to the catch pen to fill a water tank for the cows. We were able to fill the tank from outside the fence by attaching a pipe to the valve that was long enough to rest on the panels and drain into the tank with only a few wasted drops.

Quick and Cozy Animal Shelter

  • Tools and Materials
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Rivet gun and rivets
  • Polyvinyl door
  • Air vent
  • PVC double elbow fitting

Providing shelter for outdoor pets can be tedious and expensive. With a 275-gallon IBC tote and a few tools, Roger Gutschmidt and his son, John, provided their cats with a comfortable refuge from the elements. They used a reciprocating saw to cut a 12-by-12-inch hole in the side of the container, near the bottom. (You can adjust the size of this opening so your animals can easily enter and exit the shelter.) To reduce the amount of air coming in, the Gutschmidts installed a self-sealing polyvinyl door to cover the opening. They attached the top of this door to the plastic container with pop rivets. Next, they installed an air vent in the container’s lid to prevent moisture buildup from the animals’ breath and body heat. They also added a double elbow fitting to this setup to allow air to flow out freely, while preventing moisture from entering the shelter. A cozy blanket and bowls for food and water served as finishing touches. Learn more about this project by visiting Repurposed Materials Inc, and clicking on “Cat & Dog Shelter” at the bottom of the page.

A Simple Small-Bale Feeder

  • Tools and Materials
  • Screwdriver
  • Tinsnips

While most of the utility of an IBC tote is in the plastic container, the metal cage can also be used for simple projects. Editorial Director Hank Will used the metal cage from a used IBC tote for a small-bale feeder for his sheep. This project takes only a few minutes, and all you’ll need is a screwdriver and possibly a pair of tinsnips. Two bars run across the top of the plastic container and connect to the cage with screws. Remove the screws, and pull the bars off to expose the plastic container. If there’s a plastic tab encircling each bar, cut it with tinsnips. Once the bars are removed, simply lift out the tote, and you’ll have your bale feeder. The cage openings are large enough for the sheep to easily access the hay, yet small enough to keep the hay from falling out. The cage is also lightweight, making it easy to transport to different pens or pastures. This repurposed bale feeder provides a great alternative to expensive manufactured feeders.

Rainwater Harvesting in the Desert

  • Tools and Materials
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Tinsnips
  • PVC pipe, caps, elbows, and tees
  • Bulkhead fittings
  • Downspout filter

Water is a severely limited resource for those living in the Sonoran Desert. Every drop counts, including what falls from the sky. In Tucson, Arizona, Sergio Scabuzzo and his friend Mike built a rainwater harvesting system with five IBC totes to ensure they’d have enough water to last throughout the year. They removed the containers from the cages (see “Simple Small-Bale Feeder” for instructions) and wrapped them in black 6-mil plastic to shield the containers from sunlight and prevent algae from forming in the rainwater. Then, they returned the plastic-wrapped containers to the cages.

Scabuzzo designed a “first-flush system” for the roof runoff, with downspout filters to keep large debris from entering the pipes. The first-flush system directs all the initial rainfall, which contains dirt, debris, and bird droppings, into a capped pipe with a floating rubber ball that will seal the pipe off once it’s full, draining all the remaining water into the main pipe. The lower portion of the setup is a “wet system.” In a wet system, the rainwater first fills PVC collection pipes that run horizontally at the base of the storage tanks, and then fills a riser pipe that drains into the tanks from the top. Since the collection pipes are below the tanks, the system must include a way to drain the sitting water in between rains, such as a spigot. Search “IBC” on The Greenman Project to learn more about this project.

Mary Lou’s Garden Watering System

  • Tools and Materials
  • Drill
  • 4×4 posts
  • 2x6s and 2x4s
  • 2-inch PVC pipe, female adapter, 90-degree street elbow, and tee
  • 1-inch PVC pipe and valve
  • 1-1/2-by-1-inch bushing
  • 1-by-3/4-inch bushing
  • Hose adapter
  • Galvanized pipe strap

Homesteaders are always trying to do more with less. To conserve water on her property, Mary Lou Shaw built a rainwater harvesting system. After figuring out how to transport the rainwater from the tank to her garden with a pump and 1½-inch PVC piping, she designed a 6-foot-tall structure to store the water in a used IBC tote she bought off Craigslist. Then, she built the structure for the tote with 4×4 posts attached with 2x6s and stabilized with 2x4s. She secured the IBC tote on top of the structure by screwing pipe straps to the 2x6s. To finish the tower, she used the valve on the IBC tote to make a gravity watering system. By using a 2-inch adapter, she was able to run PVC piping directly from the valve, branching it off halfway down with a 2-inch tee. She installed a valve at one end of the 2-inch piping to drain excess water. Shaw used bushings to narrow the 2-inch PVC piping to 1-inch PVC piping after the tee, to ensure the water traveled to the end of the piping. With a hose adapter installed on the end, Shaw can easily attach a hose and water her garden. Learn more about her gravity watering system from our Conserving  Water with a Rainwater Cistern Tank article.

Breeding Fish with BiotopeOne

  • Tools and Materials
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Drill
  • Cedar boards
  • Wood screws

Edward Johnson of BiotopeOne created a pair of fish-breeding tanks from a single IBC tote. To get the tote into his basement, Johnson had to cut off the top — cage and all — with a reciprocating saw. With the tote already cut in two, he decided to use a dual-tank setup. The top portion of the tote comprised about one-quarter of the entire container, making for a shallow tank, with the leftover portion forming a deeper tank. He used cedar boards to build frames around the top and bottom of both tanks. To secure the wood to the metal cage, he pre-drilled 1/2-inch holes in the metal tubes, and then inserted wood screws through the cedar and into the tubes. By framing the tanks this way, Johnson was able to place the shallow tank directly on top of the large tank. With the tanks finished, Johnson introduced livebearing fish into the shallow tank, and cichlids, which require more space, into the large tank. Find out more about this project by searching “IBC” on their website.

An Aquaponics Oasis

  • Tools and Materials
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Drill
  • Flexible rubber coating
  • 2×8 cedar boards
  • Cinder blocks
  • 12-by-12 pavers
  • Rigid and flexible PVC piping
  • UniSeals
  • Sump pump
  • Bell siphons
  • River rock

Jason Diehl created an aquaponics system with three IBC totes. He power-washed and disassembled the totes, and then cut the top 16 inches and bottom 14 inches off two of the plastic containers. Next, he cut up the metal cages to match the plastic “trays” he’d created. He painted the containers with several layers of flexible rubber coating to prevent the growth of algae. Diehl then set up the pavers and cinder blocks and laid the cedar boards on top of them to make a level base for the totes.

With everything in place, Diehl set up his aquaponics system. He used three of the IBC “trays” as grow beds, the fourth piece as a reservoir beneath the beds, and the final IBC tote as a fish tank. He set up a “flood and drain system” using pipe, UniSeals, and a sump pump, in which water is continuously fed through the different containers, and drains through a bell siphon into the reservoir below once a certain water level is reached. When the water drains to a certain level, air enters the siphon, and the process restarts. Diehl ran three lines of flexible PVC piping from the reservoir to the grow beds. The reservoir continuously feeds water into the beds, which fill and drain twice an hour. Rigid PVC piping runs from the reservoir to the fish tank, which transports excess water back to the reservoir through the same piping.

After installing the piping, Diehl filled the two grow beds with river rock, planted vegetables in them, and introduced tilapia into the fish tank. Follow the progress of his project at

Red Dirt Oasis by scrolling down and selecting “Aquaponics” under “Categories.”

Ryan Crowell is an editor for Grit. He grew up on a small farm in south-central Kansas.

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