Last year, van refrigeration firms had two things on their minds: manufacturers producing off-the-peg refrigerated LCVs, and European Community Whole Vehicle Type Approval legislation.

The former was due to the likes of Nissan’s NV200 Fridge conversion, which is sold in several European markets; the latter was as a result of the introduction of regulations that impact how converters go about their business.

For those in the specialist refrigerated pharmaceuticals sector, however, there was a
third development, which has thoroughly stirred up the industry, and that is European law makers’ 2014 guidelines on ‘Good Distribution Practice of Medicinal Products for Human Use’.

“This, basically, says to drug distribution companies that they have to maintain a medicine’s temperature recommended on the packet both in storage and distribution,” says Chris Dore, engineering manager for the climate systems group of Ebberspacher, which makes aftermarket heating and ventilation systems and has specialised in this market, having decided not to compete directly with big players in the home- delivery refrigerated van sector.

“What’s coming from the EU isn’t a legal requirement, it’s more a guide for good practice,” adds Dave Evenett, group sales director for Paneltex Somers, which also supplies this sector.

He says that medicine-friendly conversions could operate between -25°C and 25°C

He thinks the guidelines have had a positive impact for food applications because the more efficient the refrigeration, the less product is spoiled. However, solutions can preclude the use of movable bulkheads, making vehicles less flexible.

Evenett’s company’s food supply clients tend to go for “top-end, multi-temperature conversions,” with about 60% of sales in the dual- temperature sector (for example, offering the possibility of chilling and freezing), with interior layouts varying from client to client.

The ability to find different applications for generic refrigeration components is
an important way to amortise production costs, and it’s interesting that refrigeration equipment supplier Carrier Transicold has also made a concerted push into the medical supplies market, last year exhibiting vans at Germany’s Hanover CV Show.

Ebberspacher does not convert vehicles, but supplies cooling equipment, and insulated refrigerated containers. “These are primarily aimed at the van-derived car market. The biggest one fits in the back of a Fiat Doblo Cargo,” says Dore. “With refrigerated/ insulated containers there’s a lower outlay, and a much longer product life. And whole-life costs are less.”

The EU guidelines have seen healthy trade in both new-build units and retrofitting.

“The medical market needs very tight temperature control because the drugs are often very costly,” says Dore. “We don’t use the whole vehicle for refrigerated transport.

Often we’re involved with multi- temperature applications.”

Evenett suggests that Euro6 anti-pollution regulations have added weight to many LCVs, so refrigeration converters are having to find ways of lightening their systems, which gives their engineers a conundrum.

“These vehicles get worked hard, so systems have to be strong and durable, and that adds weight,” he says, adding that for home delivery, there has been a move to the biggest vans that can be driven on a private and light goods licence, for cost reasons; a staffer excluded from driving some vehicles is inherently more expensive. He says box vans dominate this sector, although supermarket Iceland is looking at panel van conversions.

Overall, the refrigerated vehicle market appears healthy, and its practitioners cautiously optimistic.

“We’re fairly buoyant at the moment,” says Tony Daniels, owner of RVL Northern, which specialises in refrigeration conversions for off- the-peg vehicles, fitting out existing bodies, although it will undertake bespoke work if requested.

According to Daniels, his company has emerged “stronger” from the recession, and clients that might previously have kept vehicles for longer are starting to replace rather than refurbish their vans. He’s seen ongoing growth in the chilled market, with particular demand for duel-compartment conversions.

Daniels appears relaxed about the emergence of so-called factory chiller van conversions, on the basis that UK customers often want bespoke layouts, fittings and design elements, and he believes independent converters will find it easier to make these jobs commercially viable, and will have the advantage of greater flexibility. Generally, there does not seem to have been a rush among LCV makers to actively enter the market, although as Evenett puts it “most of them have had a go at one time or another”.

He too thinks the UK market for such vehicles remains more specialist, with customers still requiring bespoke, or specific features: “Very rarely is one vehicle like another. Take caterers: they’ll want different shapes and racking.” He also claims that some off-the-peg European designs, while “very pretty,” lack stamina, and that continental buyers go for chilled, rather than frozen units.

As for future market growth, Daniels thinks some supermarkets have been slow to enter or expand in the LCV-friendly home- delivery sector, but with intense over-the-counter sales, this is changing and having a positive impact on vehicle demand.