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From ice cream delivery to pharmaceutical transport, reefers wear many hats

AskWaves: Why are refrigerated trucks so important in the supply chain?

Refrigerated trucks, or reefer trucks as they are known in the trucking industry, play a vital role in the supply chain.

Reefers keep perishable commodities at controlled temperatures to prevent heat and bacteria from ruining them. There are some highly specialized refrigeration units that reportedly go as low as minus 85.

Reefers haul mostly food and pharmaceuticals — everything from fresh produce to frozen meats, medicine to medical plasma. Sometimes reefers pick up boxed fresh citrus or vegetables straight from a farm.

The majority of long-distance refrigerated trucking is done with tractors towing refrigerated trailers. Reefer trailers are fitted with different kinds of mechanical refrigeration systems that are powered by diesel engines or use carbon dioxide (either dry ice or liquid form) as a cooling agent.

Frederick Jones is widely recognized as the inventor of a portable air cooling device that would eventually become mechanized refrigerated trailers. In the late 1930s, Jones received a patent for his invention and went into business with Joseph Numero. 

Together, Jones and Numero formed the U.S. Thermo Control Co., now known as Thermo King Corp. The Minnesota-based manufacturer still makes temperature-controlled systems for trucks, trailers, shipboard containers and railway cars.

Some of the trucking companies in the U.S. with the largest refrigerated fleets include Prime Inc., KLLM Transport Services, C.R. England, Stevens Transport and Swift Refrigerated.

The refrigerated truck industry is more important than ever. It is estimated that the global road transport refrigeration equipment market could reach $4.6 billion by 2026. 

During the second quarter of 2021, the average refrigerated truck rate in the U.S. was $1.92 to $3.13 per mile for shipments (depending on the distance), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shipments from Mexico accounted for 30% of the total reported shipments of fresh fruit and vegetables during the second quarter, 3.51 million tons — more than from any other reported origin. 

Driving long-haul reefer trucks can be challenging, according to message boards and trucking forums. 

Since reefers deliver perishable items, they often have to be transported from point A to point B faster. Reefers deliver to everything from food warehouses to grocery stores to restaurants. 

Reefers often have longer waits to be loaded or unloaded at docks and other places. Drivers have reported waiting hours, even days, to get loaded and unloaded and hit the road.

Reefers are also known to be extremely noisy because of the refrigeration system’s motors constantly running. Drivers have said they can hear the motor running from as far as 100 feet away.

Truckers on message boards often complain about having a reefer next to them overnight at a truck stop, foiling their ability to sleep.

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The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Prime Inc. (No. 15), C.R. England (No. 27), Stevens Transport (No. 42) and KLLM (No. 47).

Noi Mahoney

Noi Mahoney is a Texas-based journalist who covers cross-border trade, logistics and supply chains for FreightWaves. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in English in 1998. Mahoney has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working for newspapers in Florida, Maryland and Texas. Contact