9 cool facts about refrigerated trailers

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Refrigerated trailers offer plenty of opportunities to introduce technologies as diverse as telematics, sensors, and electric power. But what do you know about these units that are designed to keep their cool?

Here are nine observations that emerged in the North American Refrigerated Trailer Survey, released by the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Associations.

Utility reefer
(Photo: Utility Trailer Manufacturing)
  1. First lives are as short as seven years – Carriers interviewed for the survey said they tend to keep refrigerated trailers for seven to 10 years before releasing the units to the aftermarket. Such equipment is simply more complex to maintain than other trailer designs. The engines on refrigeration units require rebuilds, and forklifts can damage the trailer walls and floors that play a role in insulating cargo.
  2. The trailers might last longer than the underlying technology – Transportation refrigeration units can last five to 10 years, and the underlying trailers can be in service 12 to 15 years or longer, TMC executive director Robert Braswell observed in a group chat, during a webinar releasing the results. In contrast, some technology-related products can last three to five years, he said. Over-the-air software updates will solve some challenges, but new hardware can be required to support new features.
  3. Refrigerated units may account for a larger share of semi-trailers than you think – Refrigerated trailers are typically thought to represent 10-12% of semi-trailers overall, the report notes. But more than half a million (521,800) refrigerated trailers were produced from 2008-21, representing 15.2% of total trailer production.

    Utility, Great Dane, Hyundai, Vanguard and Wabash accounted for the vast majority of the related nameplates. Utility accounted for 55% of the units on its own, while Hyundai and Vanguard quadrupled their annual production of refrigerated trailers over the past 14 years.
  4. The Canadian market for refrigerated trailers is expected to grow 2.5% per year – While the Canadian market included 87,530 refrigerated trailers in 2021, that total is expected to reach 106,580 units by 2029. In contrast, the U.S. market is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 3.1% per year, with that market accounting for 434,680 refrigerated trailers by 2029. Globally, the market for refrigerated trailers is expected to grow 5.5% annually.
  5. Demand for refrigerated trailers appears recession-proof – Refrigerated trailer production dropped 20% from 2008-09, during the Great Recession. But overall trailer production dropped 48% during that timeframe.
  6. Varied cargo requires varied control – There should be little surprise that one temperature does not fit all. Pharmaceutical products might need to be maintained at extremely cold temperatures, while candles and chocolate might need to be shipped at room temperature to avoid melting.
  7. Regulations are driving reefer technology – Refrigerated trailers continue to advance, tapping into electric power to control temperatures, measuring operating conditions, and offering remote controls. Surveyed fleets point directly to laws and regulations as the underlying reasons, with rules governing everything from temperature to cleanliness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules around food safety may be leading the way, but other considerations include emissions controls demanded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and other regulations set by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

    “There are many, many handoffs of our food and pharmaceuticals – from plants and farms all the way to the final user,” said Paul Menig of Business Accelerants, presenting the results. Shipments of fresh-cut romaine lettuce will require data reported at several points along the distribution chain, from the grower, to the shipper, receiver, and retailer.
  8. Updating and maintaining advanced trailers will be no small matter — “[The work] cannot be left to the information technology professionals, to the safety professionals, to the legal department, operations, driver recruiting, safety or maintenance,” the report noted. “All of these are needed.” Menig cited another challenge. “The trailers are away even longer than the trucks are,” he said, noting how it is not unusual to have such equipment on the road for six months at a time.
  9. Evolving technologies will require evolving standards — “Where are we going to put a shore power connection physically on the trailer?” Menig asked, offering the example of one new challenge that comes with electric refrigeration units. For that matter, how will they be maintained, and what will be the related inspection criteria? TMC sees a role for its organization in that work.
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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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