What should you know before buying a refrigerated van for your business?

Joined Feb 18, 2007

Our pastry business is doing well, and we have a venue that we service frequently during the summer that is, on average, about 2 hours from our commissary.  It's time to buy a refrigerated van; something that you don't need a CDL to operate, something that gets good gas mileage, and is small enough for anyone to drive, but large enough to transport 20 to 25 half sheet boxes and four tiered wedding cakes (in 16x16x16 or 18x18x18 cartons).

I especially like the look/size of the Transit Connect, the Dodge Ram, the Nissan NV2500 and wonder if I should buy a new one and then get the refrigeration installed or look for a used refer van.

I don't know anything about how refrigerated vans work, so I've come to you for help in learning about them, learning from your past mis-steps and successes in buying/servicing them, and one question I am embarrassed to ask - but have to! is, can you turn off the refrigeration unit when the cargo area is empty so you're not wasting fuel or running the unit needlessly?  Normally I would not buy used refrigeration but this is a vehicle and not just refrigeration so what other concerns should I have?

Any and all advice is appreciated.

Joined Oct 10, 2005
O.k. good questions.

Firstly the biggest cost (other than the van itself!) in a refrigerated van is the insulation of the cargo unit.  Walls, floor, and ceiling have to be insulated and then paneled over.  Most refrigeration units are powered by the truck's engine, and the hook up from the engine to the compressor unit is the second biggest cost.

So the big question for buying used is, is the van itself in good shape?  Engine not a gas guzzler? Not requiring major repair work?   Body not all rusted away?  Then the cargo area:  Fiberglass panels not cracked or split? Not used as a fish delivery van?  The coil unit and the compressor unit can be easily swapped out and replaced with new units if need be.  Then get some quotes for a new one and see what major price differences there are.  Oh, and don't be embarassed, yes you can turn off the refer unit any time you like from inside the cab.

Next question is how you want to store your stuff in the cargo area.  Shelves are just asking for trouble, and bulky to boot.  Your best bet is those collapsable/stacking bread trays that most bakeries use.  A stack of these--say four trays--are bungee-corded to the wall, and bungee corded together  for one location's delivery with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of flexibility.  Next stack is for another location, and so on.

There is a third and cheaper option:  Cambros  These are giant insulated boxes that caterers use, and you can get them big enough to hold 24,  18 x 26 sheet pans if you like.  If cold items are loaded in cold, they will stay that way for 2-3 hrs provided they are not opened up, and can go longer with optional ice packs that slide in the box.  However, in some municipalities Yea Olde Health Inspector will insist on mechanical refrigeration, so check first if you want to consider this option. 

Hope this helps
Joined Jul 28, 2001
I have a 2012 and a 2013 Transit Connect. The refrigeration is a package deal. I had to go out of state to Sanderson Ford in Arizona and had them shipped to Texas. I'm pleased with them, but we don't run daily deliveries. Anyone can drive them. We deliver Wedding cakes and things mostly on the weekends. If you are going to crank on the miles then I would consider a regular cargo van. The transits are nice for Wedding Cake deliveries because the are really designed as a passenger vehicle. So the suspension is much softer then a regular cargo.

  I have them with Thermo King cooling units.200's. I would definitely get the electric standby. You can plug them into an exterior outlet. The controls are installed in the cab.

  Does not take a long time to cool down before delivery and we do get 100+ in the summer. Constant temp.

I had back up cameras installed. I also had and interior cameras with led lights so my drivers can see the cakes as they drive. Most all of them

are nervous with big cakes.

  I'm not sure if the 2015-16 have premade units. I found that only some dealerships install the the units. I could buy one local but did some snooping and found that your local dealership will get them from the dealerships that do a lot. It was cheaper to go to Arizona because the had the authorized facility, I negotiated and save some monies to have them delivered.

Most dealerships will say they have them. Some install their own, I would not go that route.

I don't know if I'm helping you. If you have questions just PM me.
Joined Feb 18, 2007
Thank you both for your excellent advice and experience.  I found a 2 year old Nissan NV2500 on the cape cod area craigslist, and at $24K and 65K miles, thermoking 300, rear camera, it seemed a little too good to be true.  Based on what Foodpump said about the insulation, I started comparing pictures of the insides and saw that the craigslist model had barely any insulation compared to what I was finding in google searches. I would not have known to look for that without your advice, thank you.  Granted, the searches were coming up with newer models at twice the price and  the closest ones were in Ohio and Virginia (very far from me in Boston), but the difference in the insulation was huge.

I like the bread rack idea, sometimes we're sending hundreds of individual desserts and sometimes we're sending tiered wedding cakes; I didn't really want to do shelves because that would limit how we can load the cargo area.  The bread racks are perfect.

We will definitely be using the van for the long delivery runs on Fridays, Saturdays and/or Sundays; and it's about 200 miles (RT). So while I know we'll be putting heavy miles on it from May through October, I'm not sure I want to do a bigger cargo van (like the Econoline style).

Now, I'm trying to figure out what's around here that can install the refrigeration so I can see what it would cost to do them separately.  It's probably easier  to do the vehicle loan for the entire vehicle, rather than pay cash for the vehicle and then have to finance the refrigeration part.  Thanks Panini for that info!

Thank you both for the great information and help.
Joined Feb 18, 2007
I wanted to post an update and say thanks again to both @foodpump and @panini.  I ended up waiting and buying a Metris; it's bigger than the Connect and the ProMaster and is ideal for the Saturday runs.  The insulation was well-done (no seams and they hid the tubes/pipes behind the wall so the interior is straight and you can make full use of the space.  I got it two weeks ago and while I'm still terrified to drive it in the city (it needs bigger mirrors and the one I got was already on the lot and didn't have driver assist :(; it is nice to drive and the deciding factor for me was learning that the compressor is not engine-driven but run by the electric system (MB won't allow an engine mount; if you did it, you void the warranty).,  Since one of our venues is in a resort area with heavy traffic ("seven mile back up at the Sagamore bridge" is a constant refrain) that made the decision easy.  Now I don't have to worry that an idling engine stuck in traffic will make the temp in the cargo area go up. 

I don't have shelves in it; the bread racks the pizza guy next door gave me are working beautifully for stacking the pastry boxes.

Thanks again!
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