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The challenge of refrigeration on electric vans is being met head-on by converters. Innovation in refrigeration

The challenge of refrigeration on electric vans is being met head-on by converters. Peter Ringham reports from last month’s CV Show where plenty of innovative solutions were exhibited

More and more businesses look set to switch to electric vans over the next few years. They include firms that deliver goods such as frozen food and pharmaceuticals which have to be transported under temperature-controlled conditions; and their battery-powered vans will almost certainly have to be fitted with electric refrigeration systems to preserve their zero-emission status.

“Electrification is almost like a new religion at present,” remarks Stephen Williams, UK sales manager at refrigeration unit manufacturer Thermo King. “Everybody is getting into it.”

In response, Thermo King has come up with the all-electric E-200 fridge unit. About to go into production at the time of writing, it is suitable for single- and multi-temperature applications and its power draw is modest says Williams.

“It is lighter than conventional refrigeration systems, requires less maintenance and uses less refrigerant,” he states.

It can be fitted to diesel as well as electric light commercials. 

“We had one on display on a diesel Tesco home delivery Mercedes-Benz Sprinter on the Solomon Commercials stand at the recent Commercial Vehicle Show,” says Williams. Solomon is a leading refrigerated van conversion and body building specialist.

Electric units have a key advantage so far as diesel vans are concerned, he says. They do not depend on a compressor directly-driven by the vehicle’s own engine, which means they will not get in the way if the van has been specified with air-conditioning.

Fit an engine-driven fridge unit to a diesel and the stop/start system may have to be disabled so that the unit is not constantly cutting in and out. Install an electric one and it can be specified with its own hold-over battery so that it functions whether the engine is running or not.

Thermo King is by no means the only refrigeration system producer marketing electric units. Its rivals are heading in the same direction, including Carrier Transicold and GAH. 

One of the latter’s electric units was installed in a temperature-controlled battery-powered box-bodied light commercial on display at the CV Show on the Paneltex stand. Boasting dual compartments – chilled at the front, ambient at the rear – the vehicle is partly based around a Fiat Professional Ducato, and is powered by electric vehicle technology sourced from Turkey’s BD Automotive.

The electric Citroen Relay and Peugeot Boxer which appeared on the manufacturers’ stand at the CV Show are also converted by BD Auto.

A 4.25-tonner offering a payload capacity of 1100kg,  and with nearside and offside access to the body as well as barn-type doors at the back, the Paneltex exhibit can be driven on an ordinary car driver’s licence. That is thanks to a government concession intended to encourage the use of zero-emission vehicles. 

Car licence holders are not normally allowed to drive anything heavier than a 3.5-tonner without taking an additional test, unless they passed their car test prior to 1 January 1997 and can claim grandfather’s rights.

Squeezing frozen as well as chilled and ambient compartments onto a light commercial chassis can be a real challenge, but it is one that a number of body builders have overcome, including Paneltex. It has developed a low-access-height triple-compartment body which can carry 108 home-delivery-style tote boxes on a Sprinter chassis; 60 in the ambient section and 30 and 18 in the chilled and fully-frozen sections respectively. 

Access to the ambient area at the front of the vehicle is through a roller shutter door while the chilled and fully-frozen compartments are accessed through side-mounted insulated doors. An electric GAH unit provides the refrigeration.

Temperature-controlled light commercials can be configured in a wide variety of different ways to meet the exact needs of customers, a point demonstrated at the CV Show by CoolKit.

It was displaying a Ford Transit with a skeletal chassis that is 250mm lower than the standard chassis, says CoolKit, and is fitted with an insulated body designed to transport pharmaceuticals. 

The temperature in the main part of the cargo area can be kept at 8°C to 25°C by a GAH VLA – Very Low Ambient – fridge unit.  The area has enough space for 192 tote boxes and the floor is covered by a matting overlay designed to ensure that air can flow beneath the load as well as above and around it. 

Also installed is a separate Melform refrigerated box which is accessible from the nearside and wired into the vehicle’s electrical system. It can maintain its contents at 2°C to 8°C.

Beneath the box is a separate lockable drawer which can be used to hold controlled drugs. 

Portable insulated refrigerated containers are available which can be slid into a van’s load area. Depending on the model they can either be plugged into its electrics or are fitted with their own battery with enough capacity to keep them cool for a day. 

Eberspacher supplies them with capacities of 22 litres to 915 litres for local delivery work and additionally offers transportable fridge containers from 760 litres to 1640 litres for long-haul journeys. They all come with a digital touch-screen controller which allows the required internal temperature to be set.

The pressure on companies that run refrigerated light commercials tasked with distributing goods that have got to be delivered quickly cannot be underestimated, says Paul Jackson, managing director of Chiltern Distribution. 

“Businesses don’t carry so much stock nowadays because buying and storing products costs money,” he observes. “People require smaller, more regular deliveries, and remember that the generation we are now dealing with grew up with Amazon.”

“They want their goods yesterday.”

In recent years a number of body builders have constructed big-capacity dry freight Luton bodies, sometimes on low-height 3.5-tonne chassis platforms. One or two of them, including MaxiMover and Maxi-Low, have started introducing temperature-controlled models too.

MaxiMover was displaying one at the show based on Boxer running gear. Sitting on an AL-KO chassis and equipped with a GAH fridge unit, it can handle a 1300kg payload. 

Marketed under the Iced Box banner, Maxi-Low’s model was at the show too using a Sprinter with a low-height chassis – because drivers on multi-drop delivery work have to step in and out of the cargo compartment umpteen times a day, the lower the height, the less tired they will get and the quicker the delivery round will be completed.