How to Buy the Best Reefer Trailer

We’ll look at upgrades and options to consider for reducing your maintenance cost, reducing downtime, and maximizing efficiency and return on your investment.

Here are just a few of the topics we’ll cover:

  • What options and specs should you consider for heavy-haul applications?
  • Fighting the battle between mother nature and multi-temp trailer zones.
  • What are the best floor options for your application?
  • How much weight can you haul in a reefer trailer?
  • What is a High Cube Trailer?
  • How can you maximize your back-haul opportunities?
  • What interior dimensions will you need, and how can you increase those dimensions without sacrificing thermal efficiency?
  • How can you reduce damage, and what will help reduce corrosion?
  • And many more topics to consider before your next reefer trailer purchase.

Questions to ask yourself before buying a reefer trailer.

Let’s say you, and I just met, and you told me you’re looking for a used refrigerated trailer, 53’x102”, with air ride, swing doors, and you have planned on a budget in the range of $35,000.

My goal is to find you the best trailer within your budget that will meet your specific needs, but I’ll need some more information.

What are you hauling?

The trailers I show you at will depend heavily on the specs you need for the product type you are hauling. For example:

  1. Flat Floor Trailer: If you’re hauling beer, you need a flat floor trailer with heavy-duty ratings so you can take a 20,000 LB. forklift with two pallets full of beer to cut down on loading time.  It’s a heavy haul operation, and beer will weigh out before it cubes out.
  2. Duct Floor Trailer: If you’re hauling lettuce, for example, it’s a lighter load, and we can load that higher up to the ceiling so that you’re going to cube out before you weigh out. You’ll need the duct floor to get the proper airflow through the pallet to the back of the trailer keeping your produce at 36 degrees.

What about your backhaul? 

  • Design your reefer trailer for back-haul opportunities.

Read: What is a High Cube Trailer

Read: Deep Frozen Reefer Trailer Spec’s and Options

  • You might have a contract hauling west with a product at 36 degrees, but maybe there is a deep-frozen operation where you can make a lot more money coming back east six months out of the year.
  • Do we need to look at a trailer that can accommodate multiple types of backhaul opportunities vs. limiting you to just general commodities?

The (4) basic types of reefer trailer hauls.

  • General Commodity:
    • 55 degrees
    • Example: chocolate, marshmallows, dry goods. You don’t want it to freeze, and you don’t want it to melt.
  • Produce:
    • 36 degrees
    • Any perishable food/produce
  • Deep Frozen:
    • 0 to -20 degrees
    • Example: Frozen food, Ice-cream, and food-grade sushi
  • Food Service:
    • 2-5 temperature zones, center divide, remote evaps

Winning The Battle Between Mother Nature And Your Multi-Temp Trailer.

This is the reason you’re buying a multi-temp trailer. Controlling temperatures at different ranges in the same trailer can be more challenging than it might seem.

If you have experience with single-temp trailers, you understand the battle between mother nature and ambient temperature and the temperature of your product.

Temperature ranges and control on multi-temp trailers

The critical factor in the design of the trailer is the ability to maintain proper airflow around the product in each Zone.

Bringing the battle to the doorway.

When you walk into a grocery store, you’re washed with air, cold air in summertime, hot air in the wintertime. That’s because the store has learned to bring the battle to the doorway; that’s where you want to fight it off.

The same thing holds true in each one of the zones in your trailers.

Battling outside ambient temperature.

Suppose you have a frozen product -20 in Zone #1. And the ambient is 80 degrees outside the trailer. Mother nature is trying to bring your ice cream to 80 Fahrenheit, and you’re trying to keep 20 below, and that’s the battle we’re talking about.

* Use return air strategies. Be aware of the direction and volume of the return air.

How Much Product Weight Can I Haul in a Standard Reefer Trailer?

80,000 lbs. GVWR is the federal maximum allowable weight. If exceeded, you will receive a fine unless you have a permit to exceed the limit. (Example: Adding a 3rd axel to your trailer will permit you to haul 90,000 lbs.)

Total combined weight includes:

  • Truck and driver and all personal materials
  • Trailer and product inside the trailer
  • All fuels for truck and reefer unit

Lightweight Scenario:

If you’re driving a Peterbilt day cab that weighs 13,500 lbs. with driver, fuel, and your product weighs 15,000 lbs. You can put 49,000 in that trailer under the 80,000 GVWR limit.

Truck Weight: Truck, Driver, Fuel (13,500 lbs.) 

+ Trailer Weight: 53′ x 102′ Utility Reefer (+ 15,000 lbs.)

+ Product Weight: (+ 49,000 lbs)

Total GVWR (Max 80,000 lbs.):   = 77,500 lbs. GVWR

Overweight Scenario:

Truck Weight: Truck, Driver, Fuel (20,000 lbs.) 

+ Trailer Weight: 53′ x 102′ Utility Reefer (+ 13,500 lbs.)

+ Product Weight:  (+ 49,000 lbs)

Total GVWR (Max 80,000 lbs.):  = 82,500 lbs. GVWR

Backhaul Restrictions on a Multi-Temp Trailer

Consider your backhaul options when designing your trailer. Make it as large as you can to take advantage of backhaul opportunities.

You’re probably already aware that a multi-temp trailer just can’t carry a 53′ foot load. You’ve got bulkheads you’re trying to store, you’ve got an evaporator that’s hanging down, you might have a low ceiling height because you’re running in cities, and you might have a narrow width, 96 inches wide.

Consider this when you’re buying a multi-temp trailer and build them as large as you possibly can so you’re not missing out on backhaul opportunities because you’re just a couple of inches too short one way or the other.

Building a deep-frozen reefer trailer for various backhaul product types.

If you’re planning on hauling other types of product on your backhauls, you won’t be able to get a standard pallet in that trailer insulated for deep-frozen products. Are you sure you want to do that? What happens if you’re in California needing to go back East, and produce is the only backhaul freight available?

Consider building your reefer trailer to haul deep-frozen and produce or other general commodity products.

  • 2″ insulations in the Side Walls to accommodate standard pallets
  • 4″ insulation in the Floor and Ceiling
  • Add a 4″ Wedge to keep the 105″ floor-to-ceiling height


By increasing insulation and using the wedge design,  you gain versatility with various backhaul opportunities and increased earnings potential.

And, you won’t be building a white elephant. Instead, the versatility of this reefer trailer can increase your ability to resell it in 5, 7, or 10 years.

Read: The advantages of a High Cube Trailer Design “Spec’ing a High Cube Trailer

Drive Safety Challenges Unique to Multi-Temp Trailers

We all want to protect our drivers, they’re hard to find and hard to replace, and you don’t want them to get hurt. They are your best friend out there on the highway, protecting your equipment and your product, and taking care of your customers. 

Typically they’re running in non-commercial areas. You’re not going into a big parking lot with plenty of room to swing around a trailer.  

  • Tight Spaces
  • Tight Turns
  • Pedestrian traffic behind you when trying to back up.
  • Frequent Stops
  • Increased driver entry/exit of truck and trailer. He needs good secure footing, good handle holds, and good visibility.

Read: Driver Safety Tips for Multi-Temp Operations

Rear Work Area Lighting

Multi-temp-trailer interior-exterior-lighting-utility-keystone-paRear exterior lighting options are available for safe loading and unloading operations.

  • Work area lights: Work area lights can be put outside the back of the trailer or at the trailer’s side doors.
  • Reverse Lights: Some work area lights can serve the dual purpose of work and reverse lights. Be sure to ask your trailer salesman about wiring these rear work lights to assist your driver in backing into docks at night and in difficult situations.

Read: Multi-Temp Trailer Interior and Exterior Lighting


Trailer Efficiency Options

Remote Control Panels

Remote temperature control for each zone is available through:

  • Host unit control
  • Rear-mounted control (recessed into the sidewall). Allows dock workers to reprogram all zones without going around to the front of the trailer.
  • Remote Telematic system control

Dock Seals

  • Protect against air leaks that affect temperature control.
  • You’re typically going to have a rollup door if you’ve got a multi-temp trailer. And dock seals will help protect your product from the ambient air temperature outside bleeding in the loading process while you backed up to the dock.

Shore Power

  • The shore power plug option allows for control when idling.
  • There are rules, laws, regulations about not idling your trucks, running your refrigeration units when you’re backed up to the dock.
  • You can have shore power, or auxiliary power, or electric backup, a high voltage cable that extends from your trailer to the warehouse allowing you to run your refrigeration unit electrically rather than through the diesel engine.

Product Safety Features for Multi-Temp Trailers

Regulations and legislation require that you protect the load from temperature variations and bacteria contamination of all sorts

  • Protect Yourself and Your Customers from Temperature Variations.
  • Trailer Cleanout. A strong drainage system and antimicrobial surfaces can help manage product safety.

How Much Insulation Do I Need in my Reefer Trailer?

More insulation means greater ability to hold temperatures, and more insulation means thicker walls, which reduces interior space.

Common insulation thicknesses:
  • 2” on the side
  • 3” on the roof
  • 3” in the floor,
  • 4” on the front wall
  • and 3′ in rear doors

When you have a High Cube or Deep-Frozen situation, we’re either adding to the insulation or removing from it.

Read: Insulation, Lights, and Stainless Steel Options

Read: Interior Dimensions and Insulation Packages

Designing Your Reefer Trailer to Haul Multiple Product Type

Building a deep-frozen reefer trailer for various backhaul product types.

If you’re planning on hauling other types of product on your backhauls, you won’t be able to get a standard pallet in that trailer insulated for deep-frozen products. Are you sure you want to do that? What happens if you’re in California needing to go back East, and produce is the only backhaul freight available?

Consider building your reefer trailer to haul deep-frozen and produce or other general commodity products.

  • 2″ insulations in the Side Walls, to accommodate standard pallets
  • 4″ insulation in the Floor, and Ceiling
  • Add a 4″ Wedge to keep the 105″ floor to ceiling height


How Thicker Insulation Can Affect Earning Potential

If you’re running a multi-temp trailer, chances are you don’t have a 53’ long 102″ wide, 13.6” high trailer. Instead, you’ve got something shorter in length, height, and width.  

This means the wall thickness (insulation) becomes an even bigger issue for you because it reduces your inside width and potentially the number of pallets you can fit inside. The thicker the walls and the better insulation you have, the lower number of pallets you can put into the trailer, allowing you to haul less product, which will directly affect your earning potential.

Read: How to Increase your Reefer Trailers Interior Space to Fit Standard Pallets: Spec’ing a High Cube Reefer Trailer.

Duct Floor and Flat Floor Advantages / Disadvantages

Floor Type Options

To answer that question, you’ll need to know:

  1. What type of product are you hauling?
  2. Understand the pros and cons of each type of floor, flat floor, or duct floor.

Duct Floor Option:

This 1 1/2 inch deep aluminum duct floor will allow airflow to travel through the ducts and allow boxed floor loading or palletized loading. 

Comes standard on reefer trailers. 90% of owners use a duct floor.

Example: Meat or yogurt is a boxed product that goes right on the floor on a slip sheet. The duct floor allows air to flow through the grooves in the floor under the product without needing the product to be elevated on a pallet.

Flat Floor Option:

Flat floors will typically require you to palletize your product so the air can flow through the pallet. The flat floor is easier to clean out. It is stronger, and it allows your product carts to move around easier without getting stuck in the duck floors.

But It is heavier and it will cost more than a duct floor.

Extruded Aluminum Flat Floor

Extruded-aluminum-flat-floor-hauling-produce-reefer-semi-railer- Utility-Keystone-Trailers-PA

Read more in this series, How to Buy the Best Reefer Trailer
Options and Upgrades to a Standard Reefer Trailer
Multi-Temp Design Strategies and Perspectives for Single Temp Operators