Refrigerated Shipping Container Buying Guide

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If your business needs to utilize refrigerated shipping containers frequently, you might find yourself wondering whether it’s better to purchase your own. Frequent rental fees can rack up to quite a bit of money over time, after all. 

But if you’re considering this and you’re new to reefers, things like what to look for, what to avoid, and how to make that decision can all get pretty confusing.

That’s why we’ve compiled some of the most important questions surrounding refrigerated shipping containers for business owners.

**Do you need a refrigerated shipping container for your business? Click the button below to get access to refrigeration units across the nation that are perfect for frozen goods, seafood, perishables, or any other temperature-sensitive material!

In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to consider, from the basics of refrigerated containers and how they work to what sizes, types, and features are available and what to consider when evaluating refrigerated containers for sale.

What Is a Refrigerated (Reefer) Container?

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As the name suggests, refrigerated shipping containers are containers fitted with cooling units to maintain low temperatures during shipping.

Now, reading about reefer containers online might make them seem quite complicated, but how they work, their main features, and how they can be used are actually pretty straightforward. 

How Does a Cold Storage Container Work?

The main idea of a refrigerated container is simple. On the far end, there’s a cooling or refrigeration unit, which is essentially a really powerful air conditioner installed into the wall.

This unit supplies cold air to a duct that goes almost all the way to the other end of the container. The duct is at the top of the container and has relatively small vents along the sides which let out cold air across the whole container.

The main vent is at the end of this duct, facing the container’s door. As the cooling unit pumps air into the duct, the air coming out of its other end hits the door and slides down into the floor and back to the cooling unit and that cycle continues.

To help warmer air flow back into the cooler, the floor has T-shaped bars—similar to the shape of metal beams but just a couple of inches high. 

These bars also allow the air to flow underneath the cargo which is essential to evenly maintain the temperature of the whole container.

Additional Features

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Source: Premier

There are a few things that all refrigerated containers should have in perfect working condition.

All refrigerated shipping containers have control units that adjust things like temperature, humidity levels, and other climate settings.

They also have generator sets (gen-sets), often shortened to Genset, which can work with electricity from the shipping vessel, or fuel for when it’s being transported to and from the port.

You might find other features such as plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets, and modified interiors for sensitive materials such as corrosive or explosive chemicals.

Automatic fresh air management systems are also available and are particularly important for perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables, or remote climate monitoring to ensure nothing goes wrong during transportation.

Benefits and Uses

delivery of stainless steel refrigeration units with freezer shipped to your door
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One of the biggest selling points of cold storage reefer containers is that they can be used in so many different ways, especially compared to some other types of regular containers such as dry storage shipping containers.

Refrigerated containers can carry liquid, dry, frozen, chilled, or even just temperature-sensitive goods (think chocolates in the summer!) in large quantities.

In more recent years, refrigerated containers have also become a popular choice for businesses that require a portable walk-in cold room. These can be particularly useful for things such as events where chilled goods are needed over a number of hours or even days.

Drawbacks of a Refrigerated Container

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Source : Youtube

The biggest drawback of using a refrigerated shipping container is probably the LTL or less-than-truckload. Filling a refrigerated container can be a challenge considering the short shelf-life of the sort of goods likely to require a reefer.

Not only do you have to fill a whole truckload fast, but the goods carried must have the same climate requirements to be combined.

Other downsides may include extra maintenance and expenses, but these are often covered by the higher cargo prices.

Finally, spoiled cargo. While there are lots of procedures and mechanisms to minimize the chances of this happening, a technical issue in a long ride can obliterate the whole shipment. Needless to say, this can get extremely expensive.

How Much Do Refrigerated Containers Cost?

cold storage refrigerated container with cargo doors, cool temperature inside, and easy access
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Source: CRS

This is where things can get a bit tricky, as there have been big price hikes in the shipping and containers market since the pandemic. 

Just a few short years ago, you were likely to find refrigerated containers for somewhere between $3-4k. After the sudden shift in numbers over the past two years, though, this number has since doubled or even more since then.

Want access to affordable refrigerated shipping containers? Fill out the form below and we’ll have someone reach out to you.

Container type

Average cost (in USD $)

20ft refrigerated containers (New)

5,600 and 7,000

20ft refrigerated containers (Used)

3,900 and 4,400

40ft refrigerated containers (New)

10,000 and 12,000

40ft refrigerated containers (Used)

4,600 and 6,300

40ft HC refrigerated containers (New)

10,000 and 12,400

40ft HC refrigerated containers (Used)

4,700 and 6,400

Not looking to buy a container? Renting a refrigerated container is a great option if you only need it on a short-term basis.

Types of Refrigerated Shipping Containers Available

refrigeration units with refrigeration equipment, cold storage, and controlling temperature ranging from -66 degrees
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Modified Atmosphere, cryogenic, blast freezers, super freezers; there are lots of refrigerated container options available. So for the sake of simplicity, let’s go over the top three most common types.

The three types we’ll cover in this section are: conventional closed reefers, Modified or Controlled Atmosphere (MA/CA), and Automatic Fresh Air Management or AFAM reefers.

  • Closed Reefers: This is the most widely used type. It maintains the correct temperature through cooling and allows for drainage.
  • MA/CA Reefers: This type maintains temperature through a combination of insulation and maintaining oxygen levels to limit the deterioration of cargo.
  • AFAM Reefers: This is the most technologically advanced type. It automatically detects and controls the levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and other gases by controlling the rate of fresh air supply going into the container.

Sizes of Refrigerated Containers

Reefers also come in lots of different sizes that differ from one manufacturer to another, so let’s review the golden standard in the world of shipping: TEUs and FEUs.

It’s important to remember that the internal dimensions of a reefer are smaller than common containers. This is because of the space the Genset, cooling unit, and vent take, as well as the empty space needed to maximize airflow.

Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU)

Twenty-foot equivalent units have the standard external dimensions of 20×8×8 feet. These can fit around 9 industrial pallets.

Forty-Foot Equivalent Unit (FEU)

FEUs are double the length of TEUs with the same width and height. They fit up to 20 industrial pallets or 23 Euro pallets.

FAQ

Do You Need a CSC Certificate?

Yes, your shipping container needs to be CSC-approved to ensure the highest level of safety during the shipping process.

What Types of Goods Are Transported with Refrigerated Shipping Containers?

There are tons of different goods that require the use of a reefer. The most common examples are fresh produce, meat, dairy products, pharmaceutical products, flowers, live plants, chemicals, batteries, and some electronics. Art and antiques can also require reefer transport sometimes.

How Do You Maintain the Power Supply When Shipping?

During shipping, your reefer unit will run on the power supplied from the container ship it’s on, or reefer points at the port. When it’s being moved, the unit will generate its own electricity via diesel Gensets.

Are Refrigerated Shipping Containers Insulated?

Yes, refrigerated containers are insulated to maintain the temperature of the cargo. This insulation is also responsible for the difference in internal dimensions between reefers and dry containers.

What Is the Prescribed Temperature for Chilled Cargo?

Chilled cargo such as fruit and vegetables, fresh juices, and cheeses should often be kept at a temperature range of -2 to 12 degrees celsius.

Conclusion

Refrigerated shipping containers offer a unique solution, giving them a clear advantage over most other types of containers. However, operating a reefer can become tricky if your shipments don’t often make it to the LTL capacity.

Depending on your budget and the type of goods you work with, you’re likely to be considered one of the three most popular types available: closed, MA/CA, or AFAM reefers. But don’t forget that there are other types that may better suit your needs.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

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