Refrigerated Trucking How-To For Motor Carriers

04/24/2023 by Kristin Deno

Refrigerated Trucking How-To For Motor Carriers

Refrigerated trucking can be a complex, but rewarding job.

You might be transporting anything from fresh produce, frozen food, or important medicines like biologics. But, no matter what it is, the items you’re hauling are vital to many and there’s great pride that comes with that.

Refrigerated trucking is not only more specialized than dry freight hauling but offers more earning potential, and there are certain times of the year during which you can count on higher freight volumes to keep your company profitable.

Whether you’re new to refrigerated trucking or a veteran, it’s important your company knows how to properly transport temperature-controlled products, from pick-up through delivery. At Trinity Logistics, we sometimes see claims on temperature-controlled shipments, and we want to help you avoid any costly mistakes with a few tips specific to refrigerated trucking. So, we’ve crafted this guide to help you prepare for your hauling your next temperature-controlled shipment.‍


The purpose of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is to prevent foodborne diseases, and FSMA rules contain essential requirements for shippers, loaders, receivers, and carriers like you to follow with refrigerated trucking. FSMA requires those transporting food to follow best practices for sanitary transportation, such as proper personnel training, maintaining shipment records, and following shipper instructions to keep food properly temperature-controlled during transit.

FSMA Responsibilities for Motor Carriers

Keeping Your Equipment Clean and Operable

You must keep your refrigerated trailer clean between loads and make sure it is running efficiently to maintain any required temperatures to keep food safe while transporting.

Your Equipment Must Meet the Shipper’s Needs

Shippers are responsible for communicating any food safety requirements to providers they work with, such as specifying temperature and pre-cooling requirements in writing. It is your responsibility to adhere to those requirements specified by the shipper.

Keeping Records

When it comes to FSMA, verbal confirmations don’t stand. Shippers and providers you work with require records of previous cargo hauled, equipment cleaning, inspection, and temperature records. This includes recording if your reefer fails or containers are compromised, allowing contaminants in, and showing via documentation that you took action to correct the issue. Keeping thorough documentation will help you, in the long run, should you face any potential claims. It’s recommended to keep all records for 12 months, minimum.

Training Employees

Under FSMA, motor carriers must train all drivers and transportation personnel on their role, FSMA rules, the awareness of potential food safety problems like cross-contamination that can occur during transportation, and sanitary transportation practices. It’s also important to keep records of this training and hold refresher training from time to time.


*This blog content provides suggestions only and is not meant to take the place of your own company procedures.*

Cleaning Your Refrigerated Trailer

1. If the previous receiver cleaned your trailer, request documentation from them to share with the shipper for your upcoming temperature-controlled shipment. It’s important to keep any trailer washout records and receipts to provide to shippers upon request.

2. Open your refrigerated trailer and remove any items that shouldn’t get wet.

3. Sweep out any debris.

4. Prepare a bucket of food-grade detergent and water.

5. Scrub all interior surfaces with a clean cloth and the detergent mix.

6. Use a hose to spray down the inside, including the ceiling and walls. Pay special attention to any cracks and crevices.

7. Keep doors to the trailer open, allowing the inside of the trailer to air dry.

8. If the outside of the truck and your trailer is dirty, wash down the exterior as well.


1. Review shipping instructions and confirm the cargo is at the required temperature before it is loaded. Refrigerated trailers are meant to maintain temperature, not change it. For fresh produce, verifying temperature usually involves pulping product with a thermometer or probe dial. 

2. Run your refrigerated trailer for at least 20 minutes in “high speed cool” mode to remove any residual heat. Pre-cooling may take more than one hour depending on factors such as equipment and ambient temperatures. Therefore, be aware of the temperature requirements in advance to ensure equipment is at the proper temperature before you arrive at the shipper and the loading process starts.

3. Perform an automatic pre-trip test to confirm that your refrigerated trailer is running properly and confirm that it passes the test. Keep a record of this. If your auto pre-trip test fails, refer to your company’s prescribed procedures or contact your maintenance provider for repair.

4. It’s time to set your refrigerated trailer to the required temperature specified by the shipper. Verify the set temperature after adjusting it to its requirement to confirm it is set correctly. Next, confirm that the unit is set to the correct date and time. If this is not done and the shipper requests a reefer download after delivery, the data will be inaccurate. Some drivers will take a picture of the reefer unit dashboard to document settings before they leave the shipper.

5. Confirm that you have the correct mode of operation selected on the reefer unit prior to loading. Again, refer to your shipment instructions for this. Often, the shipper will require perishables to be hauled in continuous mode as opposed to cycle sentry or stop-start cycle.

6. Allow your refrigerated unit adequate time to pre-cool before loading.

7. Document all pre-trip cleaning, inspecting, and pre-cooling to share with the shipper upon request.


1. Ensure you witness the loading process, visually confirming product temperature, count, and quality match your shipment tender. If a carrier cannot verify loading conditions or discrepancies exist, the carrier notates the issue on the bill of lading and request the shipper to sign this. 

2. Carriers are responsible for the final blocking and bracing of product, so make sure items are not over-stacked or loaded in a way that impedes airflow or circulation. As a carrier, if you are not comfortable with the load condition, you have the right to refuse the shipment. 

3. Once loaded and final blocking and bracing are completed, immediately close the doors to maintain temperature. Once again, verify that the correct cycle and temperature are set. If a trailer seal is required, its presence should be documented on the bill of lading by the shipper. 

During Transit

1. Make use of the strip curtains as this helps keep temperature-controlled air in and any outside air out.

2. Limit the number of door openings throughout transit to keep temperature-controlled air in and outside air out. Only allow doors to be opened by verified shippers or receivers. 

3. Keeping proper airflow is critical. Even with adequate running equipment, poor air distribution can cause spoilage. Verify all sides of the cargo have proper airflow before your trip and any time you make a stop.


Pulping is an essential task when hauling produce with your refrigerated trucking. Pulping is the act of taking the product’s temperature before and upon delivering the shipment.

How to Pulp Produce

For produce that is unbagged, one must insert a pulp thermometer into a piece of produce, inserting for three to four minutes to get the most accurate reading.

If the produce is bagged, like salad mixes, fold the bag in half and place the probe between the two sides, with the produce as close to the thermometer as possible.

Why Pulping is Important

Before loading, it is the shipper’s responsibility to pulp the product, and should be done in the presence of the driver. However, it is the carrier’s responsibility to confirm the proper temperature of the product before allowing it to be loaded on the truck, so there may be the case you need to pulp the product.

Pulping temperatures should be recorded on the shipment’s bill of lading and signed by both the shipper and driver. This can help protect both the shipper and motor carrier from claims if the product arrives at its destination off temperature.

Throughout transit, it is the carrier’s responsibility to monitor the refrigerated trailer temperature, usually with some sort of sensor technology providing real-time information, or with older refrigerated trailers, a temperature download that is available upon delivery.

Upon delivery, it is the receiver’s responsibility to pulp the product for a temperature read and to determine if the shipment will be accepted. 

Under FSMA, be prepared to provide a record of temperatures in transit via reefer download. Failure of a carrier to provide a record of unit temperatures in transit will prevent a carrier from disputing temperature deviations should there be a claim. 


One thing you may be asking with your refrigerated trucking is, how much is too much when it comes to temperature variances? Well, that can depend on several factors.

One factor is the type of product. For example, there are some perishable products that are very sensitive to temperature variances, where even a two-degree difference could reduce the shelf life by 50 percent.

Another cause could be the location where the temperature was taken in the trailer or the recording device’s accuracy. Or if a shipment has multiple stops versus one that goes right to the destination.

Temperature variances are usually expected, so it’s important to determine when a variation is tolerable versus when it places the product at risk for spoilage.

It’s also important to note the amount of time the product has been off temperature. For example, frozen goods might be subjected to some temperature variance without much effect on the shipment, whereas refrigerated goods often spoil at a quicker rate.

When it comes to claims due to temperature variances, there simply is no one-size-fits-all for processing these. Shipment claims due to temperature variances are treated on a case-by-case basis depending on the above-mentioned factors. Verifying temperature prior to loading, maintaining proper temperature in transit, and the ability to provide a reefer download documenting transit conditions are ways for carriers to prevent temperature damage.


First and foremost, be sure to communicate your transportation status and any issues to your point of contact in real time. If there are any overage, shortage, or damage issues at delivery, the receiver should document it on your bill of lading (BOL). If there is a reported issue and you are unclear about the next steps, contact your insurance agent to report the issue and request direction. 

If the product is produce, a USDA inspection may be requested to document the condition of the product. 

Whenever a temperature problem is reported, get a reefer download for the trailer used for the shipment to document the temperature conditions for the time the cargo was on your truck. 

Your cargo policy will not pay for temperature damage if it is caused by an incorrect reefer setpoint or driver negligence. However, if your refrigerated trailer experiences issues during transit, your cargo insurance may step in to pay a cargo claim related to any temperature damage. However, be prepared to provide supporting documentation. To be proactive in the prevention of any issues caused by your equipment, it’s important to perform regular maintenance according to your cargo insurance requirements and company guidelines. 


There are a few shipper red flags to look out for before accepting a refrigerated trucking shipment or having your trailer loaded.

Mixed temperature shipments can be a red flag. Sometimes shippers will want to try to ship products together that need vastly different temperature requirements to reduce costs, like fresh and frozen products. These types of shipments are “high risk” and not recommended. Whether a shipper is using a bulkhead or not, to keep your company safe, it’s recommended to avoid shipments that combine frozen, fresh, or dry loads on the same truck.

Now, let’s say you’ve accepted a refrigerated trucking shipment but when you arrive at the shipper you notice one of these things:

  • There is food labeled improperly (no USDA logo),
  • Spoiled or overripe food products or evidence of spillage, such as juices or blood in the cargo area,
  • Food products being shipped with chemicals,
  • Evidence of product tampering, like a broken seal or cut tape on boxes.

If you notice any of these things, do not get loaded and immediately contact the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).


Now that you’re prepared to handle the complexities of refrigerated trucking, it’s time to find available shipments. Here’s where Trinity’s Carrier Portal is beneficial.

Our online load board allows you to search for available shipments, filtering by equipment, lanes, and more. Many of our available shipments even allow digital freight matching, providing you the opportunity to Quote Now or Book Now, saving you time from calling or emailing in. Additionally, new shipments get directed to our Carrier Portal first, meaning you’ll have access to exclusive Trinity loads before they get posted to the public load boards!

Find my next refrigerated trucking shipment

*This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.*