Learn More About Reefer Shipping (Temperature Controlled Shipping)

Learn More About Reefer Shipping (Temperature Controlled Shipping)

The term ‘reefer’ is used in shipping to refer to refrigerated ships and refrigerated shipping containers that transport perishable commodities by sea.

Temperature-controlled transportation is used for perishables such as fruit, meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy products.

A reefer ship is a containership that exclusively carries refrigerated containers.

However, reefer ships were the predominant mode of transporting goods in controlled conditions before the advent of reefer containers.

Reefer ships differ from conventional container ships in their size, design, power generation and electrical distribution equipment.

The key difference is that they are smaller and require provisions made for powering each container’s cooling system.


Refrigerated containership Ivar Reefer in the Port of Valparaiso, Chile


Reefer ships are generally side-door vessels which have water-tight ports on the ship’s hull that open into a cargo hold.

Inside these access ports or side doors, pallet lifts or another series of conveyors bring the cargo to the respective decks.

This special design makes the vessels particularly well suited for inclement weather operations as the tops of the cargo holds are always closed against rain and sun.

Inside reefer ships food and other perishable items sit on pallets in a refrigerated hold, and are delivered to a cold storage facility on arrival at a port.


Reefer containers, in white, stacked with normal dry containers


Reefer containers are, simply put, large fridges carried by containerships.

Each container has its own individual refrigerated unit.

These containers are nearly always twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) — the standard size for cargo containers loaded by containerships.

The additional insulation and the power plant results in a 40-foot reefer costing around six times more than a regular container.

Because reefer containers are self-contained refrigerated units, they are often able to bypass cold storage on arrival at a destination.

And, because of the ease in loading and unloading cargo, many containerships are now being built or redesigned to carry refrigerated containers.


The M.V Victoria, a 13,400-ton Italian motor ship designed to run from Italy to Egypt becomes the first vessel to make its maiden voyage equipped with Carrier cooling systems. Image credit: Carrier


Top Industry Developments:


First refrigerated marine containers came into use based upon converted truck units


Maersk Line received the first reefers with integrated cooling units


In 2013, 72% of the refrigerated transport capacity in maritime shipping was containerised, growth from 33% in 1980.


The share of the conventional or specialist reefer segment fell from 60% in 2000 to an estimated 26% in 2014.

This reflects the core trend of the last few years: the refrigerated box taking over from the conventional reefer ship. This has resulted in more than half of all conventional reefer vessels scrapped since 2000.


Seaborne transport of fresh produce in conventional reefer ships and in refrigerated boxes is estimated to have reached more than 95.7 million tonnes.

However, the maritime transport of fresh produce only accounts for 2.7% of the world seaborne trade of dry cargoes of all kinds.


Future growth for the seaborne perishable trade predicted to expand by 4% to 5% annually until 2020.


LTL Reefer Shipping

Reefer Freight is the slang for “Refrigerated Freight,” and the systems and practices in place for reefer freight, versus a regular LTL or Truckload shipment are very different. So if you’re looking to set up a one time only refrigerated shipment, or if you’re preparing to get into reefer shipping full-time, there are some basic facts you need to know. Motherload offers some oversight and information for you to review.

What’s Reefer Freight? How’s it unique?

Reefer freight is shipping speak for “Refrigerated freight.” Anytime you’re shipping freight that needs to be temperature controlled, you’re going to need to get a reefer shipping quote. Reefer can be applied to all sorts of transportation modes (truck, train, ship, intermodal, etc.), but for today’s purposes we’re going to stick with LTL (Less-Than-Truckload) and Truckload refrigeration. Reefer freight is unique in a number of ways including equipment, quoting, and in-transit practices. Let’s dive into some of these differences.

Breaking Down Reefer Equipment

In freight, we use the term “equipment” to describe the trucks that will be picking up and delivering the shipments. The normal truck used in freight shipping is a dry van, usually one that’s 48 or 52 feet in length. Though these trucks can be insulated or ventilated, they won’t be able to hold the particular temperature the way a reefer truck will.

A refrigerated truck is equipped with a cooling system that will keep the cargo of the truck at a desired low temperature. These refrigeration systems are often powered by a small engine on the truck, though you may also run into the use of carbon dioxide in the form of dry ice to keep the truck cool. These reefer freight trucks come in a variety of sizes depending on your needs, from full size 52 ft. reefers, to smaller box trucks used primarily for LTL shipments.

Getting Reefer Quotes

Because reefer trucks are rarer than your standard dry van, reefer quotes are more expensive than your standard LTL or truckload quote. These refrigerated trucks are more expensive to produce and run (because of the additional power needed to keep the truck cool), and therefore their shipping quotes are set at a higher price. Because of their availability, it’s also more difficult to get a reefer truck for pickup. You’ll need to be flexible in your pickup dates, and make sure you plan accordingly.

Reefer freight shipments, as a whole, are more sensitive than your standard truckload or LTL shipment. You’ll want to have your shipment absolutely ready at time of pickup, as each minute a reefer truck idles, is another dollar out of your pocket. When it comes time to ship, you’ll still need to package your shipment correctly with boxes and pallets. The trucks will still load and unload via freight docks, so you’ll still need standard warehouse equipment such as a forklift.

The main thing to remember about reefer shipping quotes, is their inherent higher price.

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