What Are Refrigerated (Reefer) Ships? A Simple Explanation

by Vector | Oct 22, 2020 12:00:00 AM

What Are Refrigerated (Reefer) Ships? A Simple Explanation

October 22, 2020
What Are Refrigerated (Reefer) Ships? A Simple Explanation

When shipping items from point to point, consignors need to make sure they’re aligning cargo with the right transportation vessels. And believe it or not, there are many to choose from.

In this post, we’ll provide an overview of refrigerated (reefer) ships, one of the most popular seafaring mechanisms. We’ll take a look at why they’re important, what kinds of reefer ships there are, the pros and cons of this type of vessel, and more.

Let’s jump right in.

What Are Reefer Ships?

Reefer ships are used for transporting perishable cargo—such as meat, fish, dairy, and vegetables—overseas. These ships are specially designed to provide temperature-controlled transportation, allowing safe and efficient shipping.

Most of the time, reefer ships are hired as private carriers, meaning they're second-party logistics (2PL) operations. In other words, companies hire reefer ships to work for them on a contract basis. In many cases, this way is much more cost-effective than purchasing a fleet of ships.

Keep in mind that the term “reefer” isn't exclusive to maritime vessels. It also describes trucks and airplanes that are refrigerated.

Why Are Reefer Ships Important?

Reefer ships provide a guaranteed way to transport perishable items safely to their destinations. Reefer operators specialize in providing safe and secure transportation for customers in dedicated vessels that are specifically outfitted for certain types of cargo.

In addition, reefer ships usually have crew members who are experts in their field. These folks have extensive training when it comes to dealing with loading, unloading, and managing perishable goods.

Types of Reefer Ships

Generally speaking, reefer ships can be broken down into three categories.

1. Refrigerated Container Ships

Refrigerated container ships are purpose-built to hold individual refrigerated containers.

Because of their hefty weight and more stringent requirements, these types of vessels require specific power, electrical distribution, and design mechanisms. In other words, the nuts and bolts of reefer ships are much more complex than you'd see on a typical cargo ship.

2. Side-Door Vessels

Side-door vessels offer more protection against bad weather. These ships are made to prevent water from entering into the cargo hold and potentially damaging refrigerated containers.

Side-door vessels have watertight ports that lead to cargo holds. They also have elevators and ramps that make loading and discharging goods easier. What’s more, side-door vessels also ensure that elements like sunlight and rain can't get inside of the vessel and damage the payload.

3. Conventional Ships

Shipowners can retrofit conventional ships—meaning those with traditional cargo loading and storage—so that they can safely transport refrigerated cargo. These vessels usually contain hatches that are specially sealed to prevent moisture from entering. However, when the final nails are in, they usually closely resemble standard cargo ships.

Because conventional ships require retrofitting to transport perishable items, it's important to inspect them at regular intervals to ensure safety and operational efficiency.

The Pros and Cons of Reefer Ships

Now that you understand the different types of reefer ships, let's discuss why you might or might not choose them.

Pro: Expanded Commerce

Advancements in reefer ships help the global economy. That’s because they enable rapid and efficient sea trade. Reefer ships allow manufacturers and producers to transport items to places that would otherwise be too far or too difficult to reach.

For example, a dairy farmer in California may use reefer ships to transport fresh cheese to customers in Asia and Europe—providing more options for consumers and more opportunities to make money for local merchants.

Pro: Convenience

Manufacturers and producers of perishable goods often lack the expertise to transport their items overseas. Reefer fleets allow businesses to transport items without the hassle of having to worry about items during transport. It’s possible to hire a reefer ship and benefit from a service-level agreement (SLA) that guarantees shipping.

By exercising this option, businesses can ensure customer satisfaction and reduce the risk of losing expensive shipments during transport.

Pro: Diverse Storage

Crews can divide the interior of reefer ships into multiple sections. This allows carriers to transport multiple types of perishable goods in one vessel—saving time and money by allowing companies to use one ship to move many products.

For example, a reefer ship may have a refrigerated section carrying vegetables and fruit. The crew could decide to split up the same boat even further to transport frozen fish and meat. They could also divide the cargo hold so that even items that need to be stored at room temperature for maximum freshness—such as coffee, nuts, and bread—can be part of a shipment.

Con: Port Limitations

Reefer ships are typically very large. This can restrict movement in and out of smaller ports. Therefore, operators sometimes have fewer options when unloading items.

This can be problematic in smaller countries or areas that have limited ports. In some cases, reefer ships may need to dock away from port and hire transport vessels to move items to shore. When this happens, costs and risks increase.

Unloading logistics need to be worked out well in advance of a shipment. This way, your company will have a clear understanding of the effort that it will take to bring items to their destination. For the best results, you can work specifications into the bill of lading or transportation agreement.

Con: Higher Cost

Reefer ships can be very expensive to operate. They require specialty refrigeration containers and partitions, advanced climate control mechanisms, and crew members who know how to operate them, among other things. Using a reefer ship consistently to transport items can eat into a business’s bottom line, big time.

Con: Risk

Relying on a reefer ship to transport items won’t always guarantee safe transport. After all, accidents can happen—such as power loss at sea, inclement weather, or crate misconfiguration.

In addition, using a 2PL reefer ship requires partnering with a third-party agency. Relying on another provider to transport items involves trusting that company to operate safely and efficiently, and to handle customer-facing processes (such as unloading, signing paperwork, and communicating with consignees).

How Reefer Ships Fit Into Logistics and Shipping

As you can see, reefer ships play an integral part of maritime shipping and logistics. Using a reefer ship can be an excellent way to transport perishable goods to their destination while mitigating a large portion of risk. It’s not risk-free, but it’s still very dependable.

You can mitigate many of these risks by using digital apps to streamline communication. This allows shipping teams to exchange vital information and updates to expedite shipping, process paperwork, and complete orders.

For example, a cargo ship may depart for a specific port only to have something happen that could prevent unloading—such as a staffing shortage at the port of arrival, bad weather, or excessive traffic. Using mobile apps, team members can exchange updates and receive instructions in a timely manner, allowing them to chart a new course in advance and save a shipment from sitting too long in port.

Mobile apps can also save a significant amount of time after arrival, enabling team members to rapidly process inspections and returns and even collect customer feedback.

Companies work with Vector to create custom apps that can help improve just about any aspect of shipping. Vector can help businesses more effectively manage items during transport with reefer ships, resulting in a more efficient and profitable operation.

This post was written by Justin Reynolds. Justin is a freelance writer who enjoys telling stories about how technology, science, and creativity can help workers be more productive. In his spare time, he likes seeing or playing live music, hiking, and traveling.

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