Drums vs. Barrels
The terms “drum” and “barrel.” can be used interchangeably. Both drums and barrels can be made of metal, fiberglass, or plastic. Both barrels and drums are used to transfer goods and other substances. Both are available in a set of standard sizes, like the 55-gallon drum, for example. There are only two instances where the terms differ. The first is in the petroleum industry. First are oil barrels. They are the standard size for the oil industry, but as 42-gallon barrels, they are standard nowhere else. Second are containers used in the alcoholic beverage industry. Traditionally, alcoholic beverage industries have made their products using wooden barrels, but nowadays they use sterile stainless steel drums to transport and ferment wine, beer, and liquor.
Both these wooden and steel containers have always been labeled as “barrels.” Part of the reason why these containers are strictly referred to as barrels are out of linguistic tradition, and also as a way of clarifying the contents of the container. Aside from these exceptions, barrels and drums are one and the same.
55-gallon drums are useful in a number of ways, especially storing and shipping. In fact, 55-gallon drums are designed to hold the exact international trade standard volume. In addition to these typical applications, reconditioned 55-gallon drums can be recycled for use as trash bins, compost bins, rain barrels, borders and flotation devices.
These drums, which are also available in 30, 40, and 20-gallon sizes, are used in a multitude of industries, including: agriculture, wastewater treatment, water storage, hazardous waste collection, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, chemical processing, and petroleum.
Wooden barrels and drums have been in use since the Middle Ages at the latest, when they were used to hold beer and wine. Starting in the 1700s, people in the English colonies began using wooden barrels to import and export goods. After Americans invented whiskey in the 1800s, they started using wooden barrels to store, ship and age it.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that manufacturers began using 55-gallon drums specifically. It also wasn’t until around this same time that people began using steel drums. The first two patents for a 55-steel gallon drum were awarded to an employee of Nellie Bly’s Iron Clad Manufacturing Company of New York in 1905. The company had commissioned these drums because the metal drums they had used up until then were leaky and cumbersome. They used them to transport oil.
The 55-gallon steel drum grew in popularity during the First and Second World Wars, when they were used for a number of different high-stakes applications. In WWI, the US used them primarily to ship sulfuric acid over the warzone in Europe. Meanwhile, in WWII, the Allies used them to transport airplane fuel. Sometimes, they also used them to keep small vessels afloat.
Following World War II, manufacturers continued to use 55-gallon steel drums, but for different applications, like shipping gasoline and storing food. However, they quickly realized that the latter wasn’t an appropriate application for steel drums, as steel can corrode, rust and contaminate food items. So, as an alternative, food industry manufacturers began using fiber drums. Not only do fiber drums not rust, but they are lightweight and disposable.
The next big drum material was HDPE. HDPE, or high-density polyethylene, is a synthetic plastic. In the 1960s, manufacturers began using it liberally. HDPE offered them a happy medium between steel and fiber; it is less expensive than steel, doesn’t rust, and lasts longer than fiber. Plus, HDPE is inert, meaning that it doesn’t react to most chemicals or the acids found in some foods. The use of HDPE containers, also known as poly drums, for food storage led to the development of FDA food grade standards for 55-gallon plastic drums.
Today, food grade drums are made primarily from plastic, but the pool of plastics manufacturers have to choose from is much larger than the one they had in the ‘60s. Steel and fiber drums are also still popular, mostly for non-food grade applications. Modern drum manufacturers are focused not only on the success of their products, but sustainability.
Manufacturers produce drums differently based on the material. For example, they create metal drums using a combination of roll forming and welding. They almost always fabricate plastic drums using blow molding. Meanwhile, to create fabric drums, they just have to assemble it. They do this on production lines that include equipment like: body makers, disc cutting machines, lid fixing machines and ring fixing machines.
Because these bulk goods are often liquids, manufacturers of steel and plastic 55-gallon drums use corrugations—also known as reinforcing rings—to fortify their products. These corrugations are located at the top, the bottom, and a third of the way from the end of the drum, and are implemented in order to reinforce the sides of the drum and prevent puncturing or denting as the drum is rotated.
The material used to fabricate the drum depends on both the drum’s intended size and intended application. Regardless, steel, plastic, and fiber are the most common materials used to manufacture drums.
Steel drums can be fabricated from stainless steel, carbon steel, or cold-rolled steel. Plastic drums are often fabricated from HDPE, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, and nylon. This variety of drums are ideal for containing chemicals, lubricating oils, solids, and liquids of varying levels of viscosity. Fiber drums are a more inexpensive alternative to steel drums, and are typically made of dense paper or fiber board.
Considerations and Customization
Drums are quite standardized, but if you wish, 55-gallon drum manufacturers can customize yours in a few different ways. These include: custom bung hole placement, extra bung holes, painting and custom labeling.
Steel, fiber and plastic 55-gallon drums all work in pretty much the same way—they sit there. The way they do differ is in how users fill them and how the material they hold is accessed. First, some drums feature a closed top that cannot be removed, while others feature an open top that can be lifted. Users pour and later access the contents of closed top drums via a bung hole. (The bung hole can be stopped with a plug.) Users can access contents inside open top drums by lifting up the drum cover and dumping, scooping or pouring them out.
Workers can move drums in a few different ways. First, they can stack drums on pallets, then move them using a forklift. Second, (if the drums feature reinforced sides) they tip them over onto their side and roll them. (This is recommended for short distances only.) Third, they can tip them at an angle and roll them along the edge of their bottom lid.
All 55-gallon drums can be categorized as closed head or open head type.
Closed head drums are also referred to as tight head drums. They feature a fixed lid with a small opening (a bung hole), which permits the drum’s contents to be poured out. Open head drums feature a removable head.
Countless drums fall underneath both of these categories. Read on to learn more about some of them.
Water barrels are used to store and collect water, and are often fixed to the rooftops of industrial buildings and attached to ductwork. Water drums are also used for collecting and storing runoff and rain water. Plastic is the most common material used to construct these barrels due to plastic’s natural resistance to the elements.
Hazardous waste containers are used to store any chemical waste that is not suitable to disposal through drains or the trash. Hazardous materials include: gasoline, disinfectants, grease, fertilizers, ceramic glazes, caustics, aerosol cans, nitric oxide and the like. Hazardous waste containers can encompass a wide range of drum types. These types include: 55-gallon plastic drums, 55-gallon steel drums, salvage drums, and chemical drums.
Used drums are also called reconditioned drums, and can include used plastic drums, used fiber drums, and used steel drums. These drums are considered “green”, due to the reconditioning process entailing stripping and flushing out the drum for continuous use. Furthermore, reconditioning removes hazardous waste from used hazardous waste containers more safely than any other method.
30-gallon steel drums are commonly used for non-bulk applications such as containing food products. One drawback is that steel barrels are prone to rusting the longer it is exposed to the elements. Therefore, many businesses favor rust-proof plastic drums.
Steel drums are commonly referred to as fuel drums, and are often utilized to contain hazardous materials such as fragrances, pharmaceutical substances, and flammable chemicals. Stainless steel is utilized in anti-corrosive and sanitary applications due to the corrosion-resistant and sterile properties of the metal.
Plastic drums are highly durable yet light in weight. Because they are often available in a blue color, they are frequently referred to as “blue barrels.” Plastic drums are used for applications including the storage of powders, and liquids that are caustic and acidic.
Fiber drums are most frequently used to transport food products that need to be frozen or refrigerated, such as ice cream or cheese. Fiber drums are the most recommended type of drum for storing solid material or dry material. They are stackable, heat-resistant, and is more easily recyclable than any other type of drum.
There are many reasons to love 55-gallon drums. First, they are inexpensive and easy to purchase. Second, they are eco-friendly. Not only are they recyclable, but they may also be repurposed. You can repurpose them for an industrial use if they’ve been cleaned properly and approved, and you can also use them as barriers, trash bins, rain barrels and floating devices, among other things. Finally, 55 gallons are heavy duty, easy to transport and stackable.
In addition to all of the different types of drums that are available, there is also a wide variety of drum accessories. A drum pump is one example. A drum pump is a pneumatic pump that fits into a drum’s opening. This accessory is commonly used in moving plastisol’s to dip molding tank reservoirs from industrial drums.
The standards to which your 55-gallon drums must adhere depend on your application, industry and location. For instance, drums intended to hold items for international trade must be compliant with UN (United Stations) regulatory standards. Or, if you plan on transporting your drums on American roadways, they must meet all relevant DOT (Department of Transportation) standards.
Examples of other industries with standard requirements include: military and defense, food and beverage and healthcare. If you’re not what standards your drums should meet, make sure to talk to your industry leader and/or the appropriate local offices.
Things to Consider
No matter your application, it’s best to get your 55-gallon drums from a reputable distributor who has your best interests in mind. Find a drum manufacturer like this by checking out the company profiles we’ve detailed on this page. All of those we’ve listed are industries who have proven themselves again and again. Learn more about them by scrolling up to and browsing their profiles.
As you peruse, think about your specifications. Which suppliers appear to be able to meet those specifications? Pick out the three or four that seem to hold the most promise, and then reach out for a quote. Make sure to discuss your budget, standard requirements, timeline and delivery preferences. After you’ve spoken with each of them, compare and contrast their answers. Choose the right one for you, and get started. Good luck!
55 Gallon Drum Informational Video