Containers of various sizes contribute over 90% of global freight transport. Multimodal container shipping helps move cargo between locations using more than one method of transportation without having to unload and load between different containers in various locations and the different modes of transportation. Last year, around 20-23 million TEUs (twenty equivalent units) were used to move goods globally.

Sea containers are generally classified as dry or refrigerated containers. Dry containers are sometimes referred to as general purpose (GP) containers or dry van (DV) containers, while refrigerated ones are called reefer. Dry containers store and transport general dry goods, while reefer containers are used for temperature sensitive materials.
Reefer containers have generators attached to them to run the refrigeration unit which keeps the goods inside at desired temperatures. These units run on electricity and fuel. Temperature sensitive materials, such as perishable food items, medicines, etc., are transported using such reefers.

So, what is an inoperative refrigerated or NOR container?

In some cases, reefer containers are used to transport general cargo items, but with the refrigeration units turned off. Such a container is called a Non-Operating Reefer or NOR Shipping Container. A reefer container can sail as a reefer to one location, and the same can serve as a NOR shipping container to another location.
What is the use of transporting dry items in an unlit refrigerated container? Why aren’t these dry items transported in dry containers?
Most major container carriers offer NOR services. As with all commodities, the principle of supply and demand also applies to containers. Increased demand for containers to a particular destination can fuel their price, but what if there isn’t enough demand to fetch these containers? In this case, the container rate naturally decreases. An imbalance in the availability of containers in locations can hinder the movement of goods.

Repositioning of containers

To counteract this situation, ocean carriers often offer their customers empty reefer containers with their refrigeration units turned off. Repositioning refrigerated containers, therefore, like NOR, to the places where they are most needed primarily helps carriers maintain some balance in container availability. Eliminates the need to transfer empty reefer containers to locations, thus losing revenue.
Non-operating refrigerated services are generally available to customers at a reduced rate. Besides being convenient for the customer, this method of repositioning containers generates revenue for the carrier. However, reefer containers cannot carry the same volume of cargo as their dry counterpart. They have much less cargo space as part of the space inside is taken up by refrigeration equipment and insulation. The thicker wall of reefer containers made of insulation materials or padding significantly reduces storage space. Furthermore, the door dimensions of a refrigerated container are much smaller than that of a dry one.

Not all types of dry cargo are allowed in NOR containers. Only cargoes that do not damage the equipment and insulation material are allowed by the carriers in their NOR containers. Normally, cargo packed neatly in carton or similar cartons without sharp edges is allowed. Cartons should be such that they can be stacked and secured securely so that they do not move within the non-functioning reefer. Loose loading is not done in such containers.
Likewise, there are weight restrictions as well. The normal maximum permitted weight is 3000 KG/M. Dangerous chemicals, heavy machinery with sharp edges, abnormally sized cargo, fertilizers, batteries, items with strong odors, etc., are not permitted in non-functioning reefers. NORs are generally used to transport food and beverages, textiles, toys, and other similar items.

Converting a reefer container to a NOR shipping container

A refrigerated container has to go through a certain process before it can be used as a NOR. After discharging a chiller of its refrigerated contents, the chiller unit is shut down and deactivated. It is then taken to the respective container depot and the interior is thoroughly cleaned and dried. Once these steps are completed, the container is ready to transport the designated dry cargo.

Why NOR Shipping Containers?

As we saw earlier in this article, NOR containers are a beneficial solution for both the carrier and the customer.
The shipping company manages to compensate for the shortage of containers in certain places – both dry and refrigerated. Shipping dry cargo using NOR containers is economical for businesses as the costs are much lower than for a dry container of the same size, albeit with some space restrictions.
NOR containers are given priority on board carrier vessels as they are mainly used to fill container shortages at their destination. This also means a shorter lead time for the customer.

Limitations of NOR Shipping Containers

The following are some limitations of NOR containers:

  • Non-operational reefer containers cannot be used in the transportation of all types of goods.
  • Since they are technically classified as reefer, they do not get the extended detention-free demurrage days they enjoy dry containers.
  • A NOR container can accommodate a smaller cargo volume than a dry container of the same size. This is due to the space occupied by the refrigeration unit inside the container and its thicker insulated container walls.
  • Can accommodate less weight than a dry container of the same size. This is usually set at 3000 KG/M.
  • A NOR container is estimated to hold 10-15% less cargo than a dry container of the same size.
  • Dry containers usually have multiple lashing points to secure cargo, another reason why not all types of dry cargo can be transported using a NOR container.
  • For the transport of dry goods, the inside of this container must be dry and  above all, washed before loading. Sharp edges of boxes or machinery can cause damage to the insulation material, so extra care should be taken when loading and unloading cargo.
  • The door dimensions of some refrigerated containers may be smaller than those of a dry container. The feasibility of loading through the narrow opening should be considered before booking a container.
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