Refrigerated trucks, also known as reefer trucks, reefers or reefer carrier, are a cold chain solution that has sent chills down the spine of brokers the world over. But what are reefer trucks and what is it about them that gives them that frosty reception?
The term reefer carrier simply refers to a truck, trailer, or shipping container equipped with a refrigeration unit that transports temperature sensitive cargo. From railroad cars covered in blocks of ice in the 1840’s, to ice trucks in the 1910’s, to the modern fleets of today, refrigerated trucking has become one of the most vital and specialized components of the supply chain. In fact, over 90% of the food that Americans eat is hauled by refrigerated trucks. Reefers carry much more than just food though. Other products like medicine, electronics, flowers, perfume, cosmetics, and fine art make their way via refrigerated truck, trailer, and container.
Since refrigerated trucks are such an important part of US commerce and cold chain solutions it should be easy to find a carrier, right?
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. The time sensitive, temperature controlled world of refrigerated shipping comes with its own set of rules and players. Unlike general and FAK (freight all kinds) cargo, reefer carriers are extremely fragmented. Since there isn’t a singular network of carriers that you can plug in to, shippers are often required to work out multiple carrier relationships in regions that span the length of their delivery reach. In addition, delivery is a much greater challenge. Windows are shorter, appointment times are stricter, penalties are steeper, and there is always the risk of losing some or all of a load to spoilage.
But, this is worth knowing as understanding the requirements for refrigeration can help the reefer carrier and the customer save money.
- Geography – Before you can book anything you’re going to want to know where it is going and what needs to get there. This is true of any cargo but even more so with reefer cargo. Not only are the FTL (full truck load) and LTL (less than truck load) carriers fragmented, but seasonal and ambient temperatures also must be considered. The same cargo headed to Reno in August is going to have much different temperature considerations than a similar trailer en route to Buffalo in February.
- Temperature – Refrigerated trailers maintain a temperature between 55 degrees Fahrenheit to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. How well and accurately they do so is another story. Once you determine the temperature range for your product you’ll then need to make sure that your reefer carrier can move and maintain their trailer within that range. Not all carriers are flexible enough to move goods within a wide spectrum of temperatures.
- Loading – When stuffing a reefer container you’ll need to consider the commodity type and packaging being used. Since temperature is so important it is crucial that proper air flow is maintained throughout the trailer. As a general rule, frozen cargo only requires free flowing air to circulate around the product, whereas chilled commodities such as fresh fruits and vegetables require air to flow through the cargo. There are several different loading techniques like block and palatalized stowage which allow for centralized air flow depending upon if the cargo is loose or not. How your goods are loaded will determine how much cargo can fit in a trailer. Knowing this can help greatly towards optimizing your supply chain by properly allocating FTL and LTL shipments based on space.
- Technology – Now that you know your temperature needs you’ll have to work with a reefer carrier who can not just move cargo at that temperature but one who can monitor it along the way. Making sure a trailer is 25 degrees when it pulls out of the lot is one thing, but knowing it’s still 25 degrees in there at high noon at a rest stop in Fresno is another piece of mind entirely. Nowadays, many carriers offer remote monitoring which is incredibly useful for more sensitive goods with much smaller temperature ranges. Whether the temperature is monitored remotely or not, you’ll also want to discuss with your carrier where monitoring devices will be placed. Poor placement can lead to inaccurate readings. Other types of temperature assists like dry ice should also be considered depending on your needs. And of course, carriers who can provide clean data will go a long way in reducing spoilage by optimizing your loads.
- Communication – Not only do you need a reefer carrier who can move your goods on time, at the right temperature, and to the right place but you need one who can make the delivery appointment. Although the shipper and buyer may have agreed to a specific delivery window, once the carrier has the goods they may try to confirm delivery outside of these agreed upon times. This can come with steep penalties, lost cargo, and spoiled relationships. It’s crucial that this final detail is ironed out with the trucker as it separates the good carriers from the great ones. You’ll also want to have a clear handling guideline that outlines an “out of temperature” agreement so there is no question who is on the hook for any carrier negligence.
There’s a lot to be mindful of here when selecting a reefer carrier and going it alone can be an uphill battle. Reach out to FreightPlus today to learn more about how to find and develop strong relationships with carriers in this market.