Introduction: Getting a Man Camp Module

About: The name comes from the First Star Trek movie, that pretty much says it all.

When you read the words "man camp" one of the first things that might spring to your mind is that it's something like a man cave. Maybe a "man camp" is what a bunch of guys do on a weekend out in the woods. Until about 10 years ago I had never heard of a man camp so I had no idea. So just what is it?

A man camp is a group of buildings set up usually in a somewhat remote area that can provide temporary housing, normally including food, for a work crew. They are sometimes very mobile and sometimes more permanent. They are designed to provide a safe place to live for as long as is needed to groups of people involved in various endeavors, often construction of something like a major pipeline.

When the oil industry grew like wild fire after the discovery of the Balkan oil deposits in North Dakota and Eastern Montana the huge influx of workers that followed the boom caused a lot of logistical problems. The little city of Williston ND and several other surrounding towns did not have the resources to house all the workers that migrated in. People filled up the camp grounds and the motels and there still wasn't room. I knew a group of workers that lived in my area that commuted to their oil field jobs 120 miles away every day for 14 day shifts. They switched drivers each day so some would sleep while others took turns driving. Think about that, a 12 hour work day and a 4 hour commute. But they did get big paychecks for their efforts. Williston became the most expensive place in the US to live. A single bedroom, not an apartment, just a bedroom, could cost you over $2000 a month to rent. There were people who rented spaces in driveways so workers could sleep in their trucks, use a bathroom and then head out to work. Williston was in dire need of places for people to live. The city started passing ordinances to try and keep up with the influx of workers. You needed a permit to park a camper in a driveway, only so many people were allowed to live on a residential property. The city sanitation facilities were being overwhelmed. It would take years to build enough new housing and infrastructure to accommodate the population influx, even though there was a boom going on in building also, it was way behind. Finally they passed an ordnance that required a person to have a valid place to live before they could be hired for an oil field job. If you didn't have an address you couldn't take a job.

They needed solutions and one of the solutions they turned to was man camps. Temporary housing set up quickly that could provide clean accommodations and not overwhelm the cities resources. Plans were evaluated, permits were issued, and modules started arriving. So the man camps were set up as an interim solution until the building boom could catch up.

They were put together with modules. There were bathroom modules, kitchen and dinning modules, and sleeping quarters modules. I found out that in order to accommodate the sewer problem the camps used giant holding tanks that were pumped out and then the sewage was trucked over 100 miles away to the city of Minot that had a treatment plant big enough to handle it. Imagine having a full time trucking job that paid really good and all you did was move sewage down the highway.

After several years the new apartments being built finally starting catching up to the need and at the same time the temporary man camp permits ran out. And the next thing that happened was they were all in court trying to battle out what was fair. Investors sunk a lot of capital into the new buildings and having to compete with man camps was not in the plan. Some of the camps got extensions, some were allowed to still be there but not occupied just in case they were needed again. And then the oil market busted, and things were shut down. The frantic pace slowed and many of the workers went back to where they came from and the new housing was left empty and the investors were pretty unhappy and the man camps, their competition that was supposed to be temporary was still there. Twenty five percent occupancy is pretty bad for a new apartment complex. But that was the new situation, from way to many people to way to few.

SO it was decided that the man camps had to go.

Step 1: Getting a Module

The companies that had set the camps up now had to make them disappear, return the ground to the way it had been. Many hired out that process to a salvager. The buildings and everything else was simply written off as a loss, they had no value to the company anymore. It was cheaper for them to hire someone, or a company, to clean it all up and do whatever they wanted with the building as long as it was all gone.

I had heard about the camps being dismantled but had a hard time tracking anything down. I heard some units were sold at auction, and some in private sales, most went pretty cheap. I looked for about 2 years before I finally ran across some for sale and was able to contact the right people.

Why was I interested? Because I needed storage space. I have a storage unit that I am paying rent on and I really wanted to get out of that. There are lots of problems with a storage unit. Mine is 10 miles away. It has no heat or lights. It is inaccessible when it rains because of the mud and in the winter the roll up door was frozen shut for 4 months. Lots of issues. I had looked into getting a shipping container but they are expensive and none have been available. This man camp looked like a great solution.

I was looking at the living quarters module. I was told it was 14 feet wide and 60 feet long. It was divided up into seven rooms and a furnace room. Each room is 7 feet by 13 feet. There is no plumbing in the unit. It was built for arctic conditions. It weighs 45,000 pounds, 22 1/2 tons, that's a lot. The unit I was looking at had been installed in 2010 but built in 2006 according to the sticker. It had only been lived in for 3 years. The initial cost of it was around $100,000. It was up for sale for $4,000. I thought that was a good deal.

Here are a few numbers to think about. Each living module could house 7 people. The normal average room fee was $130.00 a night and that included food. Seven units at $130 a night is $910 a night. For 365 days that is $332,150. My unit was lived in for 3 years so that comes out to about $996,000. or rounded to a million. Not bad really, a $100,000 investment that will give you a million back in 3 years. That is one of the reasons the companies didn't want the buildings anymore, they got their money out of them pretty fast.

The reason it weighs so much is the steel sled it is built on. There are 3 beams that run underneath and are connected together at each end with a massive steel piece that servers as the "bumper". A cable can be attached to this and the entire unit can be dragged. A bulldozer can pull or push them into place. Because of the massive frame they don't flex or bend when they are moved. The Sheetrock doesn't get cracks, the door frames are all square and the windows don't break because the box holds together on the frame. I was impressed, this is much more stout than a mobile home.

I made the deal, wrote a check and tried to figure out where I was going to put it.

One of these units requires a winch truck to move it. They hook cables on the bumper and lift the end up and onto the truck bed and winch it into position. It cost $1,600 to move it to me from North Dakota. That included the cost of a pilot car with the oversize banners and the permits required to move it on both North Dakota roads and Montana roads.

As it was being unloaded I was amazed that there was no bending or flexing of the unit. Half of the module is off the truck which means the entire weight of that half is being supported by the middle. The back ends tilts down and touches down, the truck slowly drives out from under as the winch cables play out. It gently touches the ground and I am thinking "that's going to be there forever" because there is no way I can move that kind of weight.

On the building sticker it says PFS -wind 100. I was curious about that and looked it up. I don't really understand the rating but it appears that the building is rated pretty high for wind surviveability. It is likely the stoutest building I have. Storm shelter maybe?

Step 2: Wired

The unit comes with a main breaker panel that is mounted to the outside. I would have liked it better if it had been mounted inside but that's not how they did it. When the salvage guys disconnected it they just took a saw and whacked the wires and conduit off. It will be pretty easy to hook it up to a main junction. I already bought the cable I need. I do have to plug the holes in the box so it doesn't fill up with snow. I have no idea why they punched them out unless they had something else connected to the box.

Every room in the unit has multiple outlets and overhead lights. There are ground fault outlets in protective boxes on each side outside so I will be able to run extension cords directly from the unit, I do like that idea.

In addition to power each room has hook ups for cable TV, landline telephone and network internet. The junctions for it all are in the furnace room. The unit is totally wired and ready to go.

Step 3: Rooms

The walls in the rooms are not made with paneling. They are sheetrock that is covered with wallpaper. Each room came with "furniture". There is a bed which is made of plywood covered with Formica. Each bed had a 6 inch thick foam mattress. I sold 5 of the beds, kept one and dismantled one because it was water damaged. The beds had been assembled in place. The ones that went across the room under the window were so tight that I could not get them out without separating them from the headboard. They were also screwed to the walls.

There was a wardrobe unit that was screwed to wall, also made from plywood with Formica. I plan on using two of the units in my house and made some shelves with some of the others in the module. There was also a desktop made from a piece of counter top. The rooms were small and efficient. If you were working 12 and 14 hour days, 6 days a week, you would not be doing much in them besides sleeping anyway. The doors are steel and very solid. The rooms are very well insulated. When you sit down in one with the door closed you hear very little. I was surprised at just how quiet they are.

I removed all the built in stuff as I want just the rooms for storage.

There was a notice leftover in the room ------- I would guess they were the last ones to live in it.

There are rules in a man camp, see the picture.

By the way, these were pretty clean rooms. Dust from the moving around was there but not much trash or leftover anything. In many cases it was hard to tell anyone had been there. Overall the rooms are small but sturdy and secure.

Each room had a smoke detector. As soon as I got some power into the unit all the detectors went off at the same time because of their dead batteries. I went through and removed them all.

Step 4: Furnace

The furnace is a high efficiency model. I looked it up and it's not a cheap one. It has central air also. But the installation was strange and in fact I even asked a friend who does furnaces about it. He looked at it and right away said "what did they do?"

There is no return air from the rooms to the furnace. It draws fresh air from outside through a port in the back of the wall and then a duct in the floor delivers it to the rooms. It then leaves the room through a vent in the wall so there is no return air circulation, each room is isolated. Well, that's nice in a way. If the guy in one of the other units is microwaving pizza slices the smell will not end up in everyone else's rooms. But that also means it will use a lot more gas to keep warm. The furnace will be drawing in super cold air, like below zero, heating that to room temperature and then venting it from the room. With an air return the furnace heats the chilled air in the house and not the outside air. If I decide to use the furnace this will have to change and there will need to be return air. One of the possibilities for that is to put an air duct outside the windows where they closed off the window side room vents. Just run it along the wall and build a box to insulate and protect it.

Another very strange thing was the outside boxes for the air vents on the door side were installed so the opening was up. This meant that it would catch the rain and funnel it down into the wall. Why did they do that? Apparently I was not the only one to think it was wrong since they all had duct tape over the top of them. That was not going to keep water out so I took them all off and turned them the right way. Many of the rooms also had tape over the vents on the inside. That of course would cause the furnace to work harder, pressurizing the rooms by shutting off the vent.

Anyway, the furnace is there if I want to heat the unit in the future, just need to make a few adjustments.

Step 5: Roof

The roof is covered with a rubber fiber material. I looked up the manufacturer but most of their information was just advertising. When they made the overall membrane it was seamed using some kind of heat fusion. Those seams are good but when they put the module into service they added an extra roof membrane apparently to act as an awning over the walkway fom the rooms. They really messed up this joint and it leaked a lot because of it. The water pooled on the roof at the seams and leaked through the screw holes. I removed all the extra and cleaned up the screw holes and then patched each one with a silicon rubber caulk. It looks like it is holding. I found some soft spots in the roof and it looks like I will have to peel the membrane back and fix whatever rot might be there. That is a job for the summer though.

Step 6: Insulation

I knew this unit was well insulated, the reason is for both warmth and sound dampening but I didn't realize just how good it is until we had some very cold weather. We had this early arctic air bubble move down in the middle of October and it promptly set new records for both cold and snow. I had put some garden produce in one of the rooms because it was staying chilly in the room even when it was warm outside so it was acting like a giant fridge. Rather than move it all someplace else I decided to put a small electric heater in the room and see what it would take to keep it above freezing. I was very surprised. With the wind blowing and it snowing with wind chill temps down to zero this little heater had the room in the 50's. I had to turn it way down because it was getting the room to warm. In fact I even tried just turning the heater off. In a 12 hour stretch the temperature in the room dropped from 55 down to 39 when it was in the single digits outside. That is really good and granted it is a small room but to maintain heat in it for such a long times is very good.

Step 7: Current Use

As I mentioned in the beginning my current intended use is as storage. I have set up shelves and there is a lot of space. So for organizing and even temporary storage these will work and I really like the idea of the storage being on my ground instead of off in a metal garage with no lights. I figure I will make the cost of the unit back in just a few years in the saving on rent that I will get.

There is also a security factor to consider. Each door has a substantial lock on it so the units can be locked and secured. With it all wired up I will also have no problem adding a video surveillance camera.

Step 8: Future Uses

When I first looked through the module I wondered how difficult it would be to combine rooms together by taking out a dividing wall. I thought it work good to turn 2 rooms into an ebay shipping office. I could put shelves on one wall a table/desk on another wall and set up a photo booth. With power and internet I could essentially do everything from there. It would be a dedicated space where I could walk away and lock the door and have everything not disturbed when I come back. I can take stuff directly from a storage room to the ebay room and set it up for selling. The ideal rooms for converting are the ones next to the furnace room. One of those rooms has the thermostat in it So that would be a big plus if I wanted to use the furnace. . A large part of the furnace room is unused so removing a wall there would give me the use of that area and also provide a return air for the furnace. There are a couple of pictures of some modules that were converted into small offices.

So, there are more projects for this module ahead.

In addition, the salvage guy told me that he has another camp coming up in the spring. He will let me know what becomes available. The idea occurred to me that maybe I could get into the storage business. Set up another module and rent the rooms out. I could even make them climate controlled. We will see what happens in the spring.

Another use for these is to make them into a kennel. Another buyer converted two of them into a large kennel.

Maybe I could set up a cat room in one. Many possibilities.

All things considered it is a pretty good deal for less than what a small shed would cost.

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