What Is Reefer Freight? A Full Overview

April 15, 2020
What Is Reefer Freight? A Full Overview

What's the deal with reefer freight, you ask? If you talk to anyone in trucking, they'll tell you reefer freight is a unique beast. In fact, running reefer freight is very different from running dry freight. Regardless of your role in the logistics industry, it's wise to have a general understanding of reefer freight. So, today, we'll provide a full overview of reefer freight.

We'll cover what's commonly considered the good, the bad, and the ugly of running reefers. So, let's chill for a moment and see what we can learn!

Reefer Freight: A Definition

First, what's reefer freight anyway? Reefer freight is any shipment that requires its temperature to be controlled, monitored, and maintained within specific limits. Reefer can apply to FTL, LTL, intermodal, ocean, and air freight. The most common products that require reefer freight are food, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

In reefer freight, temperature control falls into three main categories:

  1. Frozen: The standard is that the freight must be kept at -10 degrees F.
  2. Refrigerated: This freight is typically kept at 32-36 degrees F.
  3. Heated/maintained: If its 16 degrees outside, and the freight needs to be maintained at 32, the reefer technically acts as a heater.

Reefer Freight: The Good

Here are the general positives about reefer freight according to drivers:

Constant Work

First of all, unlike certain types of dry or flatbed freight, reefer isn't seasonal. Food is an essential, steady need everywhere. Food is always moving. Therefore, you don't see slowdowns with reefer freight, even during the holidays.

Higher Reefer Rates

Because the freight is generally more valuable, the loads will pay a trucker more per mile than run-of-the-mill dry freight. This is for a few reasons related to temperature management.

One such reason is that reefer freight can be fairly delicate. For instance, ice cream or strawberries need to stay within a very precise range. Frozen foods need to ship at -10 degrees F. Strawberries typically need to stay between 32-36 degrees F. The temperature requirements add complexity and additional steps to reefer loads.

Fewer Oddball Locations for Pickup and Deliveries

Sure, some store locations and docks will be a little hairy. But for the most part, the shippers and consignee is easier to navigate because you're consistently dealing with warehouses, distribution centers, and grocery chains.

More Flexibility

You still have the ability to run dry freight. In a pinch, you can still haul whatever will fit on your trailer. Running dry freight on a reefer might not pay as much, but it's a way to avoid a costly deadhead. The opposite is not the case when you have a dry van.

Ease of Operation

Once you get the hang of running a reefer, it's pretty straight forward. Whether you have a Load King or Carrier reefer unit, both are pretty simple to operate. Another way to avoid pitfalls of reefer is to always follow best practices and procedures.

Reefer Freight: The Bad

Now that we've looked at some of the positives, next let's visit some of the common complaints about reefer freight.

Long Wait Times

Long waits go hand-in-hand with reefer freight. It just comes with the territory. One way a driver can help themselves out is to pre-cool the trailer. Every dock manager takes the temperature prior to loading it. It follows that a trailer outside the temperature window will not get loaded. That said, long wait times could be due to several factors outside a driver's control. In general, when it comes to reefer freight, be prepared to chill.

Bad Pickup and Delivery Times

There is a tendency in reefer freight for very early or very late pickup and delivery times. This could be a result of operational workflow at grocers and warehouses or as a way to avoid daytime heat. In theory, unloading and loading trailers when it's cooler reduces the risk of food spoiling.

Extra Time on Loads

There tends to be a lot of extra time on reefer freight. This has to do with the early and late delivery times noted above. Because the delivery times tend to be more rigid, a driver can find they have way more time than needed. Having too much extra time between pickup and delivery can hurt how much extra money a driver makes.

Extra Vehicle Maintenance

The possibility of a reefer unit failing is a constant threat. Nothing is worse than losing a load of freight because a fuse blows or a hose breaks on your reefer unit. Thus, staying organized is imperative with reefer freight. Here's a pre-load checklist that can help reduce risk of a reefer load turning sour:

  • Wash out wet contents from previous load in trailer.
  • Sweep out trailer after last load if nothing got wet.
  • Turn off the microprocessor and/or master switch to make sure it doesn't turn on during your pre-check.
  • Check wires for frays.
  • Visually inspect tubes and hoses for leaks or cracks or cuts.
  • Check the trailer oil level.
  • Check coolant and freon levels.
  • Belts should have no more than about half an inch of play.
  • Check throttle linkage.
  • Inside trailer, check your airflow chute for 4-6 inches of droop and free flow of air.
  • Inspect bulkhead integrity.
  • Check that your wires aren't crimped in the corners of the bulkhead.
  • Check tire pressure, brake lights, turn signals, and brake wear.
  • Pre-cool the reefer according to the load requirements.

It goes without saying that reefer freight is all about managing temperatures. There's an element of technology and hand-holding involved with reefer not seen in other types of freight.

Pre-Cooling

In reality, one easy way to reduce the irritating long waits with reefer freight is to pre-cool the trailer.

Always confirm temperature setting with dispatch or the broker prior to arriving at the shipper. For instance, if you happen to deliver a load of dry freight prior to picking up a load of frozen yogurt, you might need to spend two or three hours getting the temperature of the trailer down to -10 degrees F before you can make your pickup.

Extra Charges

Reefer freight comes with a lot of lumpers. Lumpers are a third party that unload trailers and charge for that service. If that lumper cost isn't negotiated ahead of time, a receipt is lost, or a reimbursement process isn't followed, the driver can end up paying for it out of pocket.

How hard is it to get paid for detention? That can depend on the trucking company and the driver. When a driver is sitting in the yard waiting for a load, that can rack up the detention time. Standard practice is that the first two hours of detention are free. So, even if a driver arrives for his 10 o'clock appointment at 8:45, detention begins at 12:01.

Another potential charge is the cost of a trailer wash. If there is any liquid left behind from a previous load, you need to get it washed out at a trailer wash before your next load. Keep your receipt—you should be able to charge back for that. Now, if the debris is dry, you'll need to sweep it out. A fast and easy way to do a sweep out is with a little battery-powered leaf blower.

Reefer Freight: The Ugly

Finally, let's look at the worst of the drawbacks of running reefer freight.

Smells

Reefer freight often involves meat-packing plants. The smells involved with some meat-packing facilities can be downright overwhelming.

Schedule

As mentioned above, the long waits involved with reefer freight can drive you crazy, especially if detention pay is in question or a driver is burning through their hours of service. New ELD laws are stringent, and if a driver's schedule isn't managed correctly, it can get ugly.

Meltdowns

Reefer failure is the nightmare scenario that haunts everyone's dreams in reefer freight. No one wants to deal with the mess of a spoiled load. As such, prevention is the key to this type of catastrophic melt down. Keep the reefer unit properly fueled.

Always keep a set of 10-foot jumper cables in the truck at all times. If your truck battery dies, you can jump it off the reefer battery. On the other hand, if your reefer battery dies, you can jump it off the truck battery. A set of jumper cables will save you the time of waiting for a jump, and just might save the freight.

Rejects

A reject can a occur in reefer freight for a couple reasons. We already looked at ways to help manage the temperature of the freight. But reefer freight can also get rejected for paperwork reasons. Receivers have to check the date code on every piece of product that comes off a reefer trailer. Most food freight has a specific window that it all must fall into in order to be considered receivable.

This allows grocers the time they need for a certain inventory item to get to the store, get on the shelf and sell before it spoils. The process of checking freight takes time and is another reason reefer takes longer to unload.

But sometimes, when a driver is informed their freight is outside the date code window, they're simply told to leave. It might seem great to get a bunch of free stuff. But it can be a major hassle when you have another load to pick up.

Additional Insurance

As you can imagine, the threat of suffering a reefer breakdown with freight on board is everyone's worst nightmare. Thus, reefer breakdown insurance is a must have. Reefer insurance providers will require proof that a regular maintenance and inspection schedule has been maintained. There is also a tendency for insurers to not insure older reefer units or to only insure them at high rates.

Use Tech to Stay Organized

All the extra inspection reports, receipts, and paperwork related to reefer freight doesn't have to be such a hassle. Tech is especially useful to remain organized and mitigate risk in reefer freight.

New mobile document scanning technology can streamline the workflow of everyone involved on a reefer shipment. The perfect scan technology of a company such as Vector autocorrects all documents and uploads them to the cloud. This allows a driver to attach all pertinent documents to their load file and stay very organized.

Meanwhile, their software can also be programmed for automatic invoicing. That process alone can shave days off of invoicing, which frees up cash flow. When you combine that with how much time this can free up for back-office personnel, you can see how a Vector could be a game-changer for reefer freight.

In Conclusion

Yes, the wait times can be frustrating with reefer freight. Sure, the smells can get interesting. Now and then, you might even run into a nightmare shipper that keeps you in the dock for 5-6 hours. But if you can stay patient and keep all your documents and receipts organized, the higher-paying, more consistent loads can pay off.

And remember, there are going to be times in reefer freight when you just have to chill out.

This post was written by Brian Deines. Brian believes that every day is a referendum on a brand’s relevance, and he’s excited to bring that kind of thinking to the world of modern manufacturing and logistics. He deploys a full-stack of business development, sales, and marketing tools built through years of work in the logistics, packaging, and tier-1 part supply industries serving a customer base comprised of Fortune 1000 OEMs.

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