What is Reefer Trucking? Everything you need to know

Published 8/8/2022

Reefer trucking, also referred to as refrigerated trucking, is the transportation of temperature-sensitive cargo, such as perishable food or pharmaceuticals.

This type of trucking is necessary to keep these items at the correct temperature for safety and to preserve their quality.

Reefer trucking is a vital part of the supply chain for many industries, and it plays a critical role in ensuring that products reach consumers in a timely and safe manner.

Why are refrigerated trucks called reefers?

The term "reefer" is short for refrigerator, and it is used to describe refrigerated trucks that are used to transport temperature-sensitive cargo.

The term comes from the early days of refrigerated shipping when cargo was loaded onto ships and transported to refrigerated warehouses called reefers. These warehouses were specifically designed to store and ship perishable items, and they got their name from the large blocks of ice that were used to keep food cold.

Today, the term reefer is still used to describe refrigerated trucks and trailers, and it has come to be synonymous with the transportation of temperature-sensitive cargo.


Why is reefer trucking needed?

Refrigerated freight can be damaged or ruined if subjected to too much heat or cold and need to be maintained at a steady temperature. The reefer unit ensures that the perishable goods are kept at a certain temperature so that they arrive at the destination in the same condition as when they were loaded.

Reefer trucking is used to transport a variety of temperature-sensitive items, including:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Dairy products
  • Seafood
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Flowers
  • Pharmaceuticals
About the author
Scott Elgin has been in the trucking business since 1982, acting as both a motor carrier and a freight agent at Elgin Trucking Co. During this time, he has overseen thousands of units servicing the entire continental United States.

What is a reefer load in trucking?

A reefer load is a truckload of temperature-sensitive cargo that is transported in a refrigerated truck or trailer.

This cargo must be kept at a certain temperature to avoid damage or spoilage, and the reefer unit ensures that it is maintained at the correct temperature during transit.

Reefer loads are common in the food and pharmaceutical industries, where it is important to keep perishable items cold or frozen. These items can include anything from produce to meat to ice cream.


Hauling Reefer Freight

Hauling reefer freight comes with additional responsibilities. In addition to regular driving duties, reefer drivers have the following responsibilities while hauling refrigerated cargo:

  • Identify temperature requirements – different cargo will require different refrigeration levels and will have various windows of acceptable temperatures
  • Pre-cool the trailer – before loading the trailer with cargo, drivers must pre-cool it to the cargo's specifications
  • Monitor the temperature – cargo needs to be cooled to the right temperature once it is loaded it must stay at that temperature during the entire trip
  • Monitor loading and unloading – to make sure the cargo’s temperature doesn’t rise or drop too quickly and that cargo is properly loaded regarding weight distribution, etc

Is refrigerated trucking profitable?

While it varies from carrier to carrier, refrigerated trucking can be lucrative.

The benefits of reefer trucking are higher rates and less deadheading because drivers can haul dry freight as well.

However, reefer freight also comes with extra expenses, including:

What is the average reefer rate per mile?

As of July 2022, the average reefer freight rate was $3.04 per mile.

What pays more – reefer or dry van freight?

In general, temperature-controlled freight that requires a refrigeration unit pays more than freight that does not. However, there are additional expenses when hauling this type of freight, such as the cost of fuel to power the refrigeration unit and additional endorsements on the motor truck cargo policy, so the increased rate doesn't always equal more profit.

What pays more – reefer or flatbed freight?

As of July 2022, the average reefer freight rate was $3.04 per mile, while the average flatbed freight rate was $3.35 per mile.

However, flatbed trucks are more likely to deadhead since they have less flexibility in the types of loads they haul compared to reefer trucks, which can haul both temperature-sensitive and non-temperature-sensitive cargo. Flatbed trucking also involves more work such as loading, tarping, securing cargo, and unloading.

Are reefer loads worth it?

Reefer loads can be worth it, but it depends on a few factors. Carriers and owner operators should do their research ahead of time to see if the increased rates and cargo flexibility will result in more profit.

Pros

  • Reefer freight commands higher prices than dry freight
  • Loading & unloading is usually more streamlined
  • Less deadheading because trailers can also haul dry freight when needed

Cons

  • Additional costs include equipment, maintenance, and a reefer endorsement on motor truck cargo insurance
  • More can go wrong as carriers and drivers have additional responsibilities when transporting refrigerated cargo
  • Load times for sensitive cargo can sometimes take longer and are typically loaded and unloaded either early in the morning or late in the evening

What kind of truck is a reefer?

A reefer truck is any truck with a refrigeration system or a truck that hauls a refrigerated trailer.

Since these vehicles require special equipment to keep goods at the proper temperature, they are more expensive to maintain and more difficult to manage than a traditional vehicle.

Popular configurations for reefer trucks include:

Semi trucks with a reefer trailer

The largest type of reefer truck, these are used to transport large loads over long distances with a refrigerated trailer attached.

A refrigerated truck, also known as a reefer
A semi truck with a refrigerated trailer

How much does it cost to run a reefer trailer?

There is no definitive answer as it will vary depending on a number of factors. These factors include the size and type of reefer trailer, the distance it is being driven, and the cost of fuel in the area. However, most modern reefer units use between half a gallon to a gallon of reefer fuel per hour of engine run time. At current diesel prices, that comes out to roughly $5,000-$10,000 per year.

Refrigerated Trailer Operation 101

Box trucks

Box trucks are smaller than semi trucks, and they are used to transport small loads over shorter distances. The reefer units are located in the back of the truck, and the driver's cab is attached to the trailer.

A white box truck
A white box truck

Cargo vans

Even smaller than box trucks, cargo vans are used to transport small loads over very short distances. The refrigeration unit is located in the back of the van, and the driver's cab is attached to the front.

A white cargo van
A white cargo van

Pickups

While pickups are not true reefer trucks, they can be used to transport temperature-sensitive cargo if they are outfitted with a refrigeration unit. This is most common in hot shot trucking.

How much does a reefer truck cost?

A reefer truck can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000, depending on the size and features of the truck. The refrigeration unit can also be expensive to maintain, so it is important to factor this into the overall cost of owning a reefer truck.

How long do refrigerated trucks last?

The average lifespan of a refrigerated truck is around 8 years, or approximately 40,000 hours of reefer run time.

However, the lifespan will depend on how the reefer is maintained and the level of usage. A truck that hauls dry freight half of the time will last longer than a truck that hauls reefer freight full-time.

How does a reefer work?

A reefer truck works by using a refrigeration unit to keep the cargo at a certain temperature. The unit can be powered by electricity, propane, or diesel fuel. There are a variety of different types of reefer units, but they all work in essentially the same way.

The refrigeration unit is located in the back of the truck, and it is connected to the cargo area by a series of hoses and tubes. The unit circulates cool air through the cargo area, which keeps the cargo at the desired temperature.

Most reefer trucks also have a heater unit that can be used to warm the cargo area when necessary.

Refrigerated Truck Insurance

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