Reefer Fuel vs Tractor Fuel: What’s the Difference?

Recently read the word "reefer fuel" at the truck stop and wondering what the heck it is? Well, it's a kind of fuel but it's far from the fuel you typically fill up your vehicle with.

What is reefer fuel? To the average Joe, it’s a fuel type that will more than likely have no relevance at all in the world. Let’s just say that it’s a special type of fuel, and it also commonly gets associated with tractor fuel. However, the two are very much different (kind of).

While we’re going to dive into the specifics of what both reefer fuel and tractor fuel are, here’s the main difference between the two fuel sources. Primarily used on refrigeration trucks, reefer fuel is meant to be used for the refrigerator unit of such trucks to keep them cool. Meanwhile, tractor fuel is known as a standard number 2 diesel. When the distillation of crude oil happens, it’s in-between diesel and gasoline. Its use ended around the start of World War II.

So… that’s it, right? Not so fast, and if you’ve read our content in the past, you know the drill. There’s still a ton of information that we want to uncover and bring to the light. Alright, let’s stop being all philosophical. This is about man-type stuff, dang it! Let’s talk some fuel!

What is reefer fuel, and will it damage pickup trucks?

black ford f150 drifting through sand in the desert
Image credits: Bradley Dunn

We gave the basic definition, so to speak, of reefer fuel, but the fuel source still needs to be discussed in more depth to truly understand what it is. Most importantly to know is the fact that it’s marked with a red dye in the United States. The reason for this comes down to taxes.

It always does, right? On-road fuel diesel and gasoline are usually subjected to some type of tax. However, reefer fuel is an off-road diesel and the red dye marks it as such. Due to its off-road uses, it’s a fuel that has different tax regulations.

Regarding if the fuel will damage pickup trucks, it should work well in trucks such as the Nissan Titan. Here’s the problem with that, though, it’s illegal to use reefer fuel for on-road purposes. Because it’s used primarily for the refrigerator units of refrigeration trucks (or other equipment), it allows companies and such using the trucks to save some money on taxes.

The consequences of using reefer fuel in your on-road diesel tanks

When operating a reefer trailer, using reefer fuel can help to reduce the overall cost of such. Yet, using reefer fuel in the primary engine tanks is illegal, as previously mentioned. If you ever get caught doing so, the consequences are going to be very steep. It will depend on the state that your infraction takes place in, but it’s possible to face a fine of up to $10.000.

Alright, but what if you attempt to dilute the fuel to get rid of the red dye? It would require a lot of fuel to do so, and it would be pretty obvious, and therefore more or less pointless to try and do so. There’s a reason it’s marked with a red dye, as it makes it very easy to identify.

What is tractor fuel?

Okay, so “what is reefer fuel” has now been cleared up, but what about tractor fuel? Let’s just say that tractor fuel has a very intriguing history. We’re not going to go over its entirety but diving into its history (a little) can help to understand it a little bit more.

As mentioned at the beginning, this fuel type is a standard number 2 diesel. Its use ended around the start of World War II, however, as new refining techniques were making it possible to convert the fuel into more useful fuels. Manufacturers started to build all-fuel engines that were designed to burn kerosene, gasoline, and tractor fuel.

A higher grade of tractor fuel was also created called Power Fuel, and it was sometimes formulated to avoid road taxes. As far as tractor fuel engines go, they run on modern gasoline.

What happens if your reefer trailer runs out of fuel?

red and white truck towing a reefer trailer
Image credits: Shaylin Wallace

Alright, so now we want to take some time to dive into some very critical questions for anyone who uses refrigeration trailers and needs reefer fuel. We’ve established the difference between reefer fuel and tractor fuel, and there’s really not much more to say on the matter.

We also don’t mind admitting that we wanted to focus primarily on reefer fuel for this post, while also discussing the difference between it and tractor fuel. Now, enough of that, let’s now shift to this. What happens if your reefer trailer runs out of fuel? Nothing good.

If this happens, the refrigeration generators will shut down, and this could then lead to the loss of goods on the trailer. The cargo will be temperature-sensitive, so keeping the generators running is very important. However, if they do run out of fuel, you want to make sure that you have access to reefer fuel.

Using on-road fuel would incur higher costs, so you really don’t want to have to resort to that. We’ll discuss here shortly how you even get reefer fuel, in the first place.

How often will you need to fuel your refrigeration trailer?

This is going to depend on how often the reefer trailer is being opened. Typically, if it’s only being opened a few times a day, you can run for two days without needing a refuel. Possibly, this could be extended to three if the trailer doesn’t get opened at all. If the door is being left open regularly, however, don’t be surprised to have to refuel daily.

It’s also important to know that a reefer unit will typically be on a closed-loop system not attached to the actual truck. Basically, this means that driving habits shouldn’t affect fuel efficiency. Gee, all this is most certainly different than figuring out how long a generator will run on five gallons of gas.

Where can you get reefer fuel?

white and brown truck stop in the middle of nowhere
Image credits: Juan Carballo Diaz

Knowing “what is reefer fuel” is nice, but what good does that do if you don’t know where to get it, in the first place? It’s not as if you can get it at every corner gas station that you come across in the United States, after all. One way to get it is via a reefer fuel delivery company that provides such a service.

Take this company, as an example, as they advertise that they will “travel to your fleet and refrigerated trailers whenever and wherever your trucks or equipment are parked day or night.” Now, clearly, you’d have to get the logistics figured out and whatnot for such a service, but they do exist is what we’re getting at.

What about truck stops, do they have reefer fuel?

The easier solution would be to just stop at a truck stop and get some reefer fuel there, right? That would most certainly be the easier solution, and it can be done if the truck stop offers reefer fuel. Well, duh, right? But do truck stops offer such fuel?

We attempted to research to see if all truck stops do so to no avail. However, this type of fuel is offered by truck stops, and you’ll know if the pump asks you if you want tractor or reefer fuel. For off-road fuel, some truck stops may have different tanks.

However, as we mentioned before, there are dedicated businesses out there for your reefer fuel needs if you want to go that route. That might be the safer option because if you rely on truck stops then find a certain truck stop doesn’t offer reefer fuel when you need it, you’ll be forced to use on-road fuel to keep the generators running (which will be more expensive due to tax reasons).

Final thoughts

What is reefer fuel and how does it differ from tractor fuel? Truthfully, the main difference is one is for on-road purposes, and one is for off-road purposes, and the red dye of reefer fuel makes this apparent. If you had to take one thing from this post, it would be not to get the two mixed up because it could result in a massive fine if you end up using reefer fuel in your primary fuel tanks.

Thankfully, it’s not as if it’s hard to avoid doing so. It’s not as if you’re going to accidentally pump reefer fuel into your vehicle at the gas station. That just won’t happen.

All this talk about fuel and diesel has us thinking about a different post that we uploaded. Are you possibly in the market for a diesel heater for your camper van? No? Huh, well this is awkward. Do you want to click on that link anyway to make us feel better?

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Tyler Jones

Tyler is much like a swiss knife. Even though he has a degree in Computer Science, he knows almost everything there is to know about camping. He has been writing for HeadlessNomad since 2021 and has contributed with over 100 articles. If you have an outdoor-related question, then Tyler much likely knows the answer.