Hauling Refrigerated Trailers

What Truck Drivers Need To Know About Refrigerated Trailers:

  • Drivers that operate refrigerated trailers can be responsible for hauling everything from strawberries to hazardous waste, in short, handling anything that needs to be temperature controlled.
  • Drivers working with refrigerated trailers often call it reefer hauling.
  • Demand for refrigerated trailer operators is typically high, and pay is likewise higher than a typical dry van haul.
  • Reefer trailers are box trailers with a few key differences like insulation and a reefer unit
  • Deliveries are typically made to grocery warehouses.
  • Most refrigerated loads will be OTR , hauling across the country and back again.
  • *FMSCA changes require many drivers to have a tanker endorsement to transport liquids. (It will often depend on the total quantity.)

What is the Reefer Unit?

The refrigeration unit, or reefer unit, is the HVAC system that helps regulate the internal temperature of the trailer and control humidity. A diesel engine will power most refrigeration units; however, some companies are switching to manufacturing hybrid-style and electric-powered units.

What Makes the Design and Build of Refrigerated Trailers Different?

A new reefer trailer requires a specialized build process that can be more expensive than the usual trailer, costing approximately $60,000 each. Each refrigeration unit will resemble a typical A/C and include parts such as a compressor, condenser, evaporator, and other essential components.

Besides the air conditioning unit, one of the most significant differences between a refrigerated trailer and a standard one is the increased amount of insulation. Reefer trailers are designed with more insulation to help these units maintain consistent internal temperatures. The insulation used is foam-based. Some designs require up to 1,000 pounds of excess insulation, which means that a reefer typically has a lower cargo-carrying capacity than a dry van trailer.

Reefer units will also have a way for drivers to remotely monitor the temperature of their trailer and ensure it is working correctly. The refrigeration unit will also require its own fuel source, which means that drivers must keep track of two fuel tanks.

Keep in mind that the insulation of a reefer trailer will naturally degrade over time. However, this degradation happens gradually, with insulation losing approximately 4% of its effectiveness each year. The loss of insulation causes increased operating costs due to decreased efficiency. These factors, combined with other issues, such as corrosion, can cause refrigerated trailers to have a shorter lifespan.

What is it like Pulling A Reefer?

  • Most drivers will not get much home time running dedicated refrigerated routes. Many reefer companies will try to get drivers out to the West Coast as often as possible. Many loads will be coming from produce-rich California and travel to the East Coast, keeping drivers out on the road longer.
  • Hauling refrigerated freight also tends to require more multiple-stop loads. This could mean making several different pickups, deliveries, or both. Drivers will usually get paid more for the extra pickups or stops. Still, it will typically take longer to get loaded and rolling.
  • Pulling reefers requires drivers to maintain constant vigilance. Operators will need to monitor the refrigeration unit for proper operation and correct temperatures. In the event of a mechanical failure of the refrigeration unit, the driver must take quick action to prevent spoilage.
  • Drivers, especially those working for smaller companies, may have to help unload their trailer. Larger companies tend to have contracts with "lumper services," eliminating the need for driver handling.
  • Wait times to get unloaded at grocery warehouses are notoriously long. Waits of anywhere from 6 to 12 hours are not uncommon.
  • The more modern, advanced models are equipped with alarms that will notify the driver of current or future problems. They may also be equipped with tracking systems that automatically track times and temperatures for auditing purposes.

How Do You Know Your Reefer Unit is Functioning Properly?

As any driver with experience can tell you, a reefer unit won't last forever. The standard maximum number of working hours a refrigerated unit should have in a year is right around 4,000. Routine maintenance can make a huge difference in prolonging the life of this system. So how can you be sure your reefer is functioning correctly?

Before each trip, operators of refrigerated trailers should give their units a quick pre-trip inspection to ensure that everything is functioning correctly. You must be familiar with your unit and how it works. Be careful when undertaking this task. A visual inspection is usually more than adequate, but make sure you turn off the carrier master switch before proceeding with a more thorough inspection inside the unit.

During an inspection, you should make sure your unit's doors latch correctly and ensure all wires are in good working order with no frays or poor connections. When assessing your refrigeration unit, look for leaks, cracks, and cuts that may cause issues down the road. Make sure your oil and coolant levels are sufficient. Finally, check that all belts are in good shape. More than half an inch of movement is probably too loose.

Check out this video for a good demonstration of how to check out your reefer unit:

Can Refrigerated Trailers Only Keep The Cargo Cool?

No! Refrigerated trailers can also produce heat! The reefer unit will keep goods at a safe temperature while controlling the humidity, which means they can keep the product warm. You must keep some products warm when hauling through cold or wintery climates.

What Types of Good Can A Refrigerated Trailer Haul?

Many mistakenly believe that refrigerated trailers are used exclusively to haul perishable goods such as produce. In reality, reefer drivers can haul a wide variety of perishable and non-perishable goods. This can include items that would typically be too sensitive to haul as standard freight, such as chemicals that may get too hot or cold during transport.

Some of the most common goods that refrigerated trailers haul include:

  • Food
  • Beverages
  • Plantlife
  • Chemicals
  • Artwork
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Flowers
  • And anything else that may be sensitive to changes in temperature.

Major Manufacturers of Refrigerated Trailers

Craftsmen Utility Trailer LLC

This trailer manufacturer has produced the #1 Utility Reefer for 25-plus years. Based out of Missouri and Iowa, Craftsmen Utility Trailer LLC builds hoppers, beverage trailers, dump trailers, and flatbed trailers in addition to their reefer units. Standard options on their reefer trailers include roll-up rear doors and the ability to custom position side doors.

Great Dane

This trailer manufacturer is one of the oldest and can trace its lineage back to 1900. Today the company produces dry, open deck, and refrigerated trailers used by operators who appreciate the company's durable design and high-quality construction. Great Dane produces three styles of refrigerated trucks that they market under the names Everest, Alpine, and Johnson. The Everest model is the most similar to a typical long-haul trailer.

Hyundai Translead

Headquartered in San Diego, CA, Hyundai Translead is one of the largest manufacturers of flatbed, dry van , and refrigerated trailers in the world. Founded by Hyundai to focus on transportation equipment in 1989, this subsidiary was the first manufacturer in North America to earn ISO:9001 Certification. They introduced their first line of reefers in 1999 under the ThermoTech Refrigerated Trailers line.

The Top Five Largest Refrigerated Carriers:

Below you will find a list of the five largest refrigerated carriers as measured by the truckload.

1. Prime Inc.

Revenue: More than $2 billion annually
Trucks: 6,500 trucks, 11,700 refrigerated trailers

2. KLLM Transport Services

Revenue: $936,000,000 annually.
Trucks: 2,700 trucks, 3,800 total trailers

3. C.R. England

Revenue: $897,868,000 annually
Trucks: 4,500 trucks, 6,500 trailers

4. Swift Refrigerated

Revenue: $755,000,000 annually
Trucks: 23,000 trucks (the largest common carrier in the U.S.)

5. Stevens Transport

Revenue: $737,294,000 annually
Trucks: 576 drivers, 853 trucks

Changes To FMCSA Regulations Re-defining Tank Vehicles

The FMCSA recently updated its regulations for hauling bulk liquids. The new rules require a driver to have a tanker endorsement to haul liquids in bulk containers. This means you may need a tanker endorsement to transport certain types of freight in a refrigerated trailer.

From the FMCSA:

"Tank vehicle means any commercial motor vehicle designed to transport any liquid or gaseous materials within a tank or tanks having an individual rated capacity of more than 119 gallons and an aggregate rated capacity of 1,000 gallons or more that is either permanently or temporarily attached to the vehicle or the chassis."

Straight From the Trucker's Mouth: Trucking Truth Forum Stories

Rob T. from Iowa on Delivering to Grocery Stores:

We have just under 250 stores in Iowa and the 7 surrounding states. We are on a 4 day work week, in which I work Friday-Monday. We have I believe 160 drivers and most of us slip seat. We "bid" routes daily so unfortunately most days I don't know where I'm going or what time I'm starting until 3pm and I could be leaving the terminal as soon as 10pm.

David S. from Texas on Tips when Starting to Haul Reefer:

Just watch your reefer light AND MAKE SURE TO TURN THE THING BACK ON IF YOU TURN IT OFF. Had someone I worked with before that didn't turn theirs back on and when they got to their next stop the product was 60+ degrees and rejected. Driver fired immediately.

User 'Cold War Surplus' on the Differences Between Dry Van and Refrigerated Trailers:

The biggest differences are noise, time and attention to detail. Dry van is often drop and hook. You don't need to wait your turn for a live load/live unload. This can take hours on both ends of your trip and you often earn a fraction of what you could be earning if your wheels were turning. If you like watching tv I guess that could be an advantage.

I pull dry van, but I've parked next to a reefer truck at truck stops. Reefer units are loud enough from several feet away. I can't imagine trying to sleep while hitched to one.

A sealed dry van requires little supervision. A refer has to be set to the proper temperature for the load every time. The internal combustion engine that keeps the reefer cool is running more than the truck's engine so breakdowns are a fact of life. One more thing that can break, take you off the road and take money out of your pocket. If your load shifts and a box blocks a vent that was keeping the load cool an entire load could be rejected. In a nutshell, more work, less pay, more hassles with reefer.

Sources to incorporate:

FSMA Final Rule on Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food

Reefer Market expected to reach $7.658 billion by 2022

Foam-In-Place Manufacturing

Switching to Electric Reefers

Pre-trip Inspection:

A pre-trip inspection is a thorough inspection of the truck completed before driving for the first time each day.

Federal and state laws require that drivers inspect their vehicles. Federal and state inspectors also may inspect your vehicles. If they judge a vehicle to be unsafe, they will put it “out of service” until it is repaired.


A facility where trucking companies operate out of, or their "home base" if you will. A lot of major companies have multiple terminals around the country which usually consist of the main office building, a drop lot for trailers, and sometimes a repair shop and wash facilities.


Over The Road

OTR driving normally means you'll be hauling freight to various customers throughout your company's hauling region. It often entails being gone from home for two to three weeks at a time.

Commercial Motor Vehicle:

A commercial motor vehicle is any vehicle used in commerce to transport passengers or property with either:

  • A gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more
  • A gross combination weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more which includes a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds
  • CSA:

    Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA)

    The CSA is a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) initiative to improve large truck and bus safety and ultimately reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities that are related to commercial motor vehicle


    Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

    The FMCSA was established within the Department of Transportation on January 1, 2000. Their primary mission is to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries.

    What Does The FMCSA Do?

    • Commercial Drivers' Licenses
    • Data and Analysis
    • Regulatory Compliance and Enforcement
    • Research and Technology
    • Safety Assistance
    • Support and Information Sharing


    Dispatcher, Fleet Manager, Driver Manager

    The primary person a driver communicates with at his/her company. A dispatcher can play many roles, depending on the company's structure. Dispatchers may assign freight, file requests for home time, relay messages between the driver and management, inform customer service of any delays, change appointment times, and report information to the load planners.

    Dry Van:

    A trailer or truck that that requires no special attention, such as refrigeration, that hauls regular palletted, boxed, or floor-loaded freight. The most common type of trailer in trucking.


    A refrigerated trailer.

    Drop And Hook:

    Drop and hook means the driver will drop one trailer and hook to another one.

    In order to speed up the pickup and delivery process a driver may be instructed to drop their empty trailer and hook to one that is already loaded, or drop their loaded trailer and hook to one that is already empty. That way the driver will not have to wait for a trailer to be loaded or unloaded.


    Hours Of Service

    HOS refers to the logbook hours of service regulations.


    When a violation by either a driver or company is confirmed, an out-of-service order removes either the driver or the vehicle from the roadway until the violation is corrected.

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