Opinion: The Cold Chain’s Future Efficiency

By Doug Lenz

Director of Product Management and Marketing

Thermo King

This Opinion piece appears in the May 27 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

A slow economic recovery, volatile diesel fuel prices, more stringent environmental controls and increased focus on food safety and load security put enormous pressure on every link in the “cold chain.”

Refrigerated transporters cannot do much about most of these issues, and, while they can’t change rising fuel prices, they can instead focus on curbing consumption to lessen the impact of rising prices on their bottom-line performance.

Much has been done in recent decades to improve the fuel efficiency of tractor and truck engines. But savvy operators know that innovative technologies and better operating practices also will help them achieve better fuel efficiency from their transportation refrigeration units (TRUs).

Technology has advanced dramatically since the “ice age” of refrigerated transportation, 75 years ago. The next 75 years surely will deliver many more customer-driven innovations in technology, service and operations that pack an equal punch.

Fuel represents the largest component of total operating costs for most refrigerated fleet operators. TRU original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have made enormous strides in improving fuel efficiency in recent years.

For example, thanks to new ways of dealing with TRU architecture, new-generation units being developed and tested are showing a 10% to 30% increase in fuel efficiency. OEMs will no doubt continue to develop these technologies, which will pay for themselves over time with better fuel economy, lower operating costs and greater reliability.

Highly efficient diesel engines will continue to power refrigeration units on most longhaul trucks, trailers and railcars for the foreseeable future. But OEMs are making progress with other technologies and fuels — including a new generation of hybrid-electric TRU engines.

With a plentiful supply and lower cost, natural gas is emerging as a viable TRU fuel option, primarily in the shorthaul end of the market — at least until adequate interstate highway infrastructure is developed.

Advanced electronic controls have been a major contributor to fuel-economy improvements in recent years. Today’s control systems automatically cycle the TRU through its various operational modes, maintaining the desired set point and control parameters for a given load — or even for multiple loads carried in the same trailer. Use of automated control technologies can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 80%, compared with running the TRU continuously.

With new intelligent solutions, refrigerated fleet operators can squeeze even more fuel economy from their TRUs. Sophisticated analytical and modeling tools give fleet operators and their customers the data they need to determine the optimal set point and control parameters for a given load.

These modeling tools take such variables as box size and insulation rating, load type and size, door openings, set point, restart temperature, operating mode and ambient temperature into account to enable operators and their customers to choose the optimum control parameters for a particular load.

My company’s studies have shown that increasing the set point by just 1 degree can yield as much as a 2% improvement in TRU fuel economy. The ability to do “what-if” modeling using multiple variables gives shippers and operators the information they need to make data-supported decisions to improve efficiency and reduce fuel costs, while still protecting cargo safety and freshness.

Operators can apply advanced tracking capabilities that use GPS data and advanced wireless communications technologies. These systems provide real-time and historical information about load temperature and asset location — for one trailer or an entire fleet — giving operators better safety, security, accountability and efficiency for their fleets.

They also can monitor temperatures and other variables, change set points and control parameters, download reports, change operating modes and respond to alarms remotely. They can use any smart device connected to their secure network. These capabilities free drivers from having to operate the TRU so they can focus on the safe and efficient operation of their vehicles.

Many things have changed since the beginning of the refrigerated transportation industry 75 years ago, but the industry’s mission has not. Now, as then, refrigerated haulers and TRU manufacturers, dealers and service providers are dedicated to moving temperature-sensitive shipments from producer to consumer safely, reliably and economically.

While it is impossible to predict the price of highway diesel fuel day to day, there is much that fleet owners and operators can do to improve fuel efficiency, mitigate the effect of price volatility and improve their financial and operating performance. Innovative, fuel-saving TRU technologies and sound operating practices need to be part of every operator’s strategy for the future.

Thermo King, Minneapolis, is a manufacturer of transport temperature-control systems for mobile applications. The company — a brand of Ingersoll Rand — is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.