4 Reefer Challenges & How New Tech Can Solve Them

March 1, 2021

Refrigerated trailers have many of the same issues as dry vans, but there are a few key differences that make temperature-controlled shipping a bit more complex. When a refrigeration system breaks down, the problem becomes an urgent matter because temperature sensitive products can quickly spoil.

Let’s take a look at four common problems that arise with reefers and how to prevent them with the help of operational best practices and technology.

Reefers suffer from many of the same issues as dry vans but addressing them is often critically important given the sensitivity of their cargo. Click To Tweet

#1. Poor Loading Practices

Industry analysts estimate that nearly a third (32%) of all refrigerated cargo is loaded at the wrong temperature. Oftentimes, the cargo spoils from being left at the loading dock for too long before it’s even loaded onto a reefer. These so-called “hot loads” can result in shipper compensation, disposal costs, and empty miles when rejected on delivery.

Advanced temperature monitoring solutions can help quickly detect temperature anomalies and directly alert carriers. For instance, the PowerFleet LV-400 integrates with all major refrigeration brands and enables carriers to remotely monitor and make changes to reefer units without necessarily involving the driver.

In addition to avoiding “hot loads”, pallets should be properly designed to avoid temperature related problems during transport. Pyramid stacking, for example, limits contact with interior walls that may become too warm and enables air circulation along the side walls. Pallets should also be properly braced to avoid blocking airflow—particularly along the rear.

#2. Equipment Failures

Equipment failures are another common source of problems for reefers—particularly with aging fleets. While most drivers run refrigeration hardware before loading products to assess temperature readings, these efforts don’t account for failures in the temperature sensors themselves nor address potential problems as they occur on the road.

There are several types of equipment failures:

  • Fluid leaks in equalizer tubes or cooling hoses can cause problems for the compressor and condenser that cool the reefer.
  • Air leaks from broken seals near doors or air chutes are another common reason that reefers lose their cooling capabilities.
  • Sensor calibration issues can cause problems if they give inaccurate readings or fail to give alerts at the right time to drivers.
  • Bulkheads that separate different temperature-sensitive cargo within the same trailer could experience issues if airflow is blocked or faulty.

The best way to avoid equipment failures is to ensure that the reefer is properly maintained with regular inspections for fluid leaks, broken seals and other issues. When on the road, it helps to have another set of eyes on the temperature since drivers have other priorities. The PowerFleet LV-400, for example, lets dispatch keep an eye on the load and adjust temperatures remotely.

#3. Driver Errors

Reefer drivers are similar to pilots in that there are a lot of instructions to memorize. In addition to configuring the reefer properly (e.g., not forgetting a zero), modern refrigeration units have hundreds of different alarm codes that indicate problems of varying severity. Drivers don’t always have the time to address these issues while remaining safe and on time.

Driver training can help avoid many of these problems. Like pilots, drivers should be trained to make use of checklists to ensure that everything gets done properly with each job—even when checklist items seem trivial. For example, a checklist might include setting the temperature and checking it once more prior to departure from a sensor reading.

Temperature monitoring solutions can also help by putting a second pair of eyes on the temperature readings. Dispatchers can check settings and return air temperatures to ensure the reefer unit is set to the proper temperature for the load and is maintaining the temperature during it’s transit. They can set up automated alerts for any abnormalities to quickly respond to corrections that may need to be made.

#4. Rules & Regulations

Perishable foods are some of the most common products shipped in reefers, and they’re subject to certain rules and regulations. In particular, the FSMA Rule for Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food was written to provide an audit trail in the event of any issues that arise when they reach their destination.

The rule has several key requirements:

  • Vehicles and equipment must be properly designed and maintained to ensure that it doesn’t cause the food it carries to become unsafe.
  • Transportation companies must take measures to ensure food safety, such as maintaining adequate temperature controls, preventing contamination and incorporating food allergens.
  • Carrier personnel must be trained in sanitary transportation principles and document that training. The FDA provides a training module for that purpose.
  • Written records of procedures, agreements and training (for carriers) must be maintained for at least 12 months.

Reefers may also deal with regulations governing pharmaceuticals (such as vaccines), hazardous materials, bulk liquids, flowers, paint or other refrigerated goods.

Temperature monitoring solutions can help meet all of these requirements by providing an in-transit record of temperatures and consistent vehicle updates. For example, the PowerFleet LV-400 automatically monitors temperature, alarms, operational status and changes, as well as geofences for accurate reporting of arrival and departure times.

Additional Benefits of Tech

Temperature monitoring systems and other new technologies are extremely helpful for overcoming many of the most common problems facing refrigerated trucks, but they also provide a variety of other benefits that carriers should keep in mind. These additional features can help with everything from minimizing dwell time to improving maintenance scheduling.

Common Reefer Problems

The PowerFleet LV-400 can help in many areas:

  • Dwell time reporting to show you how much time reefers are spending at the loading dock versus on the road.
  • Automated yard check capabilities that eliminate the need for an employee to conduct manual yard checks.
  • Landmark reporting with fuel level capture upon arrival and departure to help identify potential issues with fuel efficiency.
  • Door open and close capture to prevent theft and identify any problems that occur en-route without driver notification.
  • Improved preventative maintenance scheduling capabilities with automatic recording of engine hours and fault codes.

With rules-based alarms that only generate alerts when necessary, carriers and their drivers can focus on what matters without worrying about what could be going wrong.

The Bottom Line

Refrigerated trucks play an important role in the supply chain by transporting food and other perishable products. Like any other trailer, they experience regular maintenance issues that require attention, But unlike dry van trailers, reefers often require immediate action to avoid costly damage to the sensitive cargo that they carry.

Modern temperature monitoring solutions in place in combination with operational best practices can help prevent many of the most common issues from occurring and mitigate their severity when they do occur. By keeping detailed records, you can also ensure that contracts are fairly enforced when blame goes around for spoiled products.

Learn more about PowerFleet for Logistics.

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