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A reefer trailer is hauled on a highway on a sunny summer day.

Reefer maintenance: How to survive the summer

June 12, 2024
Summer brings unique challenges for refrigerated fleets, with breakdowns potentially leading to financial losses. To avoid this, fleets must prioritize regular inspections, monitor TRU power and temperature, and ensure timely preventative maintenance.

Keeping perishable foods, pharmaceuticals, and other commodities fresh is essential all year round, but in the summer, the stakes are even higher for refrigerated fleets to keep their equipment on the road. Transportation refrigeration unit breakdowns don’t just risk the load being late but lost.

“If the reefer fails in the summer months, maintaining the desired setpoint becomes increasingly challenging due to higher ambient air temperatures, potentially leading to spoilage or damage to the cargo,” said Greg Schueller, District 6 service manager for Thermo King. “This could result in lost loads and financial losses for both the shipper and the carrier.”

Fleets need to ensure that refrigerated equipment is routinely inspected for issues, monitor TRU power and temperature routinely, and check that preventive maintenance has been performed properly and on time.

Inspect for success

Edward Goh, senior director of strategy and services at Global Container Refrigeration, Carrier Transicold, noted that technicians and drivers must pay special attention to refrigerant levels when inspecting their reefers before a trip.

“Check [the] refrigerant levels to ensure that they are adequate and that there are no leaks in the units, as low refrigerant levels can reduce cooling efficiency and cause the unit to overwork,” Goh advised. 

Schuller also noted that refrigerant leaks, if left unchecked, can lead to a system failure. Additionally, ensure no dirt or debris obstructs the condenser or evaporator coils, as this can also reduce the cooling capacity. Schueller warned that this precaution extends to cargo within the trailer, too.

See also: Cold chain startup wins $1M investment

“Ensure there are no obstructions in the box promotes proper airflow, enabling the reefer to evenly distribute cold air and maintain consistent temperatures,” the service manager cautioned.

Worn, loose, or damaged components may also indicate that a reefer isn’t ready to hit the road, especially if the damage is due to “acid contamination since buildup in the refrigeration system can damage components and degrade performance,” Schueller said.

For drivers, monitoring engine revolutions per minute can also indicate dropping efficiency and a need for service.

Providing power

Especially since batteries can lose some capacity and resiliency in extremely warm temperatures, it’s essential to keep a careful eye on a reefer’s power supply and cargo temperature throughout the summer.

Telematics systems are a great way to do this, along with programs such as Carrier Transicold’s Lynx Fleet telematics system. Solar panels on a reefer to support these monitoring systems can also help extend a refrigerated trailer’s lifespan.

“Solar panels help maintain the battery charge (units should be >12.2 vdc), ensuring the TRU starts reliably when needed, even after extended periods of inactivity,” Schueller said. “For customers who use telematics, this is even more important.”

But for both cooling and electrical components, Carrier Transicold's Goh recommended shops use OEM parts to increase vehicle lifespan and efficiency, even if they’re a bit more expensive: “In contrast, with grey market parts, there is a higher risk of compatibility problems and performance standards, leading to potential reliability or starting issues and these can pose significant risks, especially in critical applications like transporting pharmaceutical products or high-value goods.”

But overall, if reefer fleets and shops keep up on their inspections and preventative maintenance, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to keep cool for the summer.

About the Author

Alex Keenan

Alex Keenan is an associate editor for Endeavor's Commercial Vehicle Group, which includes FleetOwner magazine. She has written on a variety of topics for the past several years and recently joined the transportation industry, reviewing content covering technician challenges and breaking industry news. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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