Refrigeration: Chilled out on the road

Date: Friday, September 30, 2011

The variety of conversions available to refrigerated van operators is on the rise, reports Steve Banner
Buyers of refrigerated vans are increasingly favouring better-  quality conversions over the lower-grade and less-efficient packages. So says Dave Evenett, general manager of fridge van specialist Somers and group sales manager at Paneltex, its parent company. The still-tough economic climate is obliging them to keep vehicles for longer than they did in the past before replacing them, he contends, so they want products that are durable.
“Businesses that used to hang on to their vans for three years are now running them for four,” he says. “In some cases they’re planning to run them for five or six years or more.”
While not all operators are extending the lives of their vehicles, they are certainly working them harder says Paneltex MD Chris Berridge. “As a consequence many of them are exceeding the mileage predicted in their contract hire agreements,” he says.
Although conversions solely designed to handle chilled loads remain popular, there is an appetite for dual-compartment vehicles that can transport both chilled and frozen cargo. Often including an ambient compartment too, it is a configuration favoured by the supermarket home-delivery fleets. Ideally, each temperature-controlled compartment should have its own evaporator, but that means added weight says Evenett. “Admittedly, we’re only talking about 10kg to 15kg, but that’s a lot on a refrigerated 3.5-tonner, and in effect equates to 10kg to 15kg of goods you will be unable to carry,” he says.
Standby systems that allow a van to be loaded in the evening then plugged into the mains so that the cargo is kept cold overnight ready for an early-morning departure add weight too –“about 20kg to 25kg” calculates Berridge – as well as bumping up the cost.
Based not far from Blackburn, CoolVan says they can cost an extra £1000 but make the vehicle more attractive to used buyers.
“I calculate that over half our clients take them,” says Duncan Read, MD of Leeds-based fridge van conversion specialist GRP.
“I would estimate that two-thirds of our customers who want a frozen conversion specify a standby compared with one-third of those specifying a chilled vehicle,” says Evenett.

Budget price

Customers are in search of quality, but they do not expect to pay a king’s ransom for it. In response, Somers has come up with a range of budget-priced conversions marketed under the Paneltex brand-name. They remain solidly built, says Evenett, but do not boast quite as many features as the mainstream Somers conversions and are not quite as aesthetically pleasing in appearance.
Not to be outdone, GRP is introducing the Enviro-lite range. With the accent on cost- effectiveness it is aimed at less- arduous applications says Read.
“It’s fine if all you do is sell sandwiches around industrial estates at lunchtime, but probably not what you want if you are carrying heavy boxes of frozen fish day after day,” he says.
One way in which cost-conscious businesses are attempting to save money is by buying used vans that are about a year old and having them converted rather than acquiring brand-new ones, says Read. That way, they save themselves a year’s depreciation.
While some light commercial manufacturers offer refrigerated vans under their ready-to-run conversion programmes, many do not. That’s because customer requirements differ so widely that it is difficult to devise a standard specification acceptable to everybody says Evenett.
So far as refrigeration units are concerned, GAH and Hubbard dominate the van market.
One firm that has recently opted for Hubbard equipment is Somerset- based Fine Food Company. It has taken delivery of four multi- compartment long-wheelbase Ford Transit 3.5-tonners fitted with Z30SA systems that can among other things pull the frozen compartment down to -22ºC.
Showing that insulated box bodies have a role to play alongside van conversions, organic fruit and vegetable home-delivery specialist Abel & Cole has put 20 Iveco Daily 3.5-tonners with boxes equipped with Hubbard 360AM chiller units into service. They have to cope with the impact on temperature of around 140 door openings per delivery round. It has also ordered a further 21 built to the same specifications.
While most van refrigeration systems are driven directly from the engine, there is increased interest in electric units that are driven off the alternator. Their performance is not related to the engine’s speed so their cooling capacity is constant. Furthermore, they do not impose so much of a load on the engine, which is good news for fuel consumption.
So why not equip all refrigerated LCVs with electric systems? Unfortunately, not all van manufacturers offer sufficiently large alternators, and features such as heated windscreens already place a heavy-enough load on van electrical systems without adding to it.
“Direct-drive units provide more power, and whereas an electric system is suitable for fully frozen applications on a small van, it is difficult to get it to do fully frozen on a big one,” says Berridge.“On the other hand, direct-drive is problematic on vehicles fitted with stop/start systems because it cuts out every time the engine is switched off,” he adds. “That’s not the case with an electric unit.”
Although some firms may be electing to keep their fridge vans for longer, there eventually comes a point when they grow so old, tired and expensive to run that they have to be changed.
“We’re expecting a 10-15% increase in our sales over the next 12 months,” says Read. “Many of the people who retained their existing vehicles during the recession now have no choice but to replace them.”

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