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How to Choose a Used Reefer

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How to Choose the Best Reefer Trailer

So you have decided to buy a refrigerated trailer, but you’re not sure which trailer would be the best fit for your application.  No problem.  This article provides a comparison of new vs. used, Thermo King vs. Carrier reefer units, major brands, and some of the common reefer options, such as skirts, tails, and tire systems.

Buying New vs. Used

The decision is not as simple as deciding where or not you can afford a new trailer.    These days, the hot trend is companies buying a lightly used trailer with a brand new reefer unit installed.  These “retro’” or “upgraded” reefers are popular because they deliver the advantages of a brand new reefer unit without the high price tag.

Reefers Age Differently than Dry Vans

When you are buying a dry van trailer, it is all about the structural integrity of the trailer – it’s about the doors, the cross members, rust, etc.  Those factors still apply to a reefer trailer, but there are many other important factors to consider.  Repairing the reefer unit and fixing damaged panels, are far bigger concerns for a smart reefer buyer.

Reefer Hours Matter Most:

To most reefer buyers, the hours on the reefer unit are much more important than the date the trailer was manufactured.  They would prefer a 5-year old trailer with 10,000 hours on the reefer unit to a 3-year old trailer with 14,000 hours.  The average trailer logs between 3-4,000 hours per year on the reefer unit, so expect a trailer that’s been running for 3 years to have 9-12,000 hours on the reefer unit.

More hours means heavy usage, like higher miles on a truck.  So, how many hours is a reefer good for?  There is no hard fast number, but we generally consider a reefer to be “older” at 20,000 hours, and wouldn’t rely on anything above 30,000 hours. Manufacturers routinely claim their reefer units will last 40,000 hours, but that’s a lot like a car with 300,000 miles.

Hot Trend – New Reefer with Used Box:  This is the latest trend in reefer trailers, and the best price/value combination.  Buyers are getting a lightly used “box” with a brand new reefer unit.  The price is often $15-$20,000 less than you would pay buying an entirely new refrigerated trailer with the exact same reefer unit.  If the trailer box has been properly maintained, the trailer performance will be nearly the same as a new trailer but at a much, much better price.  You get the same reefer unit warranty and the same 7 years of CARB compliance that you would on new reefer trailer.

Thermo King vs. Carrier:

Like Chevy vs. Ford, the rivalry between Thermo King and Carrier is intense. You won’t convince a TK user that Carrier is as good, and vice versa.  What’s the truth?  Well, in our opinion, the truth is a little bit of both.



This is the single most important factor for most buyers.  The problem is that both makers have historically had different issues.  The Thermo King units have a smaller, but more reliable compressor, while the Carriers tend to have better electronics and microprocessors.  We believe that in the 90s and early 2000s, Thermo King produced a more reliable unit, but these days we get fantastic reports back about the Carriers as well.

What are You Hauling

Carrier reefer units have a 6-piston compressor that moves roughly 150% more refrigerant than the 4-piston Thermo King compressors.  If you’re going to be handling frozen loads, you may find that the Carrier units are better because they don’t work quite as hard to keep your trailer at the right temperature.  As one reefer technician put it recently, “if I’m hauling ice cream I’m going to own a Carrier, but if not I’m going with a TK.”

Where are You Driving?

The gap has narrowed, but there are still more Thermo King repair locations across the country.   You can certainly find Carrier technicians in any mid to large cities, but the more remote your route, the more you may want to consider TK.  No matter which you choose, it is a good idea to carry a list of repair facilities.

Are the Bells & Whistles Really Worth It?

The easy answer is “yes”. When we talk about optional features on a trailer, we are talking about things like PSI tire inflation systems, skirts, tails, and wheel covers. What do these all have in common? They exist ONLY to save you money. Unlike extras on a truck that might be there for driver comfort, extras on a trailer are about money in your pocket. Each option can make a major difference on your fuel costs over the life of the trailer. Consider that even something as small as wheel covers can improve fuel mileage by 3-4%. When you save 3% here, 3% there, these options really add up to a major savings for you..

Consider Buying Wholesale:
We are all used to the old model where you visit a dealer, walk around his lot, and choose your trailer. That’s great for buyers that need to see it and touch it to feel comfortable with the purchase. For other buyers, paying the lowest price for a trailer is the goal. If that describes you, then you need to buy wholesale (from the same places dealers get the trailers for their lot).

Buying wholesale means that you’ll be buying from a company who sells cheap to other dealers. Wholesalers buy big packages of equipment and get a great price. They don’t operate a retail showroom or sales lot. Prices are usually $5-10,000 cheaper than a retail sales lot. The downside? You won’t usually be able to pick out your trailer in person, and instead will just have pictures and written specs. That is how other dealers buy inventory, and if you can handle not kicking the tires in person, you may be able to save big.

Utility vs. Wabash vs. Great Dane:

When it comes to choosing the brand of trailer, our only advice is go with one of the big three.

What Does Your Competition Do?

If you’re looking for the best trailers to buy, why not take a cue the #1 and #2 reefer carriers in the country – Prime and CR England.   These companies have internal teams that do nothing but compare trailers, track performance, and operating cost.  Both carriers run Utility and Wabash trailers in their fleet.   C.R. England runs trailers with TK reefer units, and Prime puts only Carrier units on their trailers, but they both operate Wabash and Utility trailers.  They’ve done all the research, you can just copy their work.


Who Sells the Most Trailers?  If you look at the number of refrigerated trailers sold each year, it is clear that Utility is the king.  In 2016 Utility manufactured just over 25,000 reefer trailers, compared to roughly 5,000 each for Wabash and Great Dane.