Tripling up on Port of Wilmington’s refrigerated storage capacity

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by Matthew Tilley, Project Engineer at S.T. Wooten

Situated on North Carolina’s bustling coastline, the Port of Wilmington has quickly transitioned into the fastest growing port in the country. Thousands of containers pass through the area each year carrying wood products, automotive parts, furniture and other materials. For items that need to stay cold, such as poultry and produce, it’s the refrigerated storage units known as “reefers” that help keep things preserved.

As demands began to increase in the cold storage warehousing market, the Port of Wilmington decided it was time to conduct a major expansion of its refrigeration storage capabilities. In July 2019, S.T. Wooten was the low bidder on the 2019 Reefer Yard Redevelopment Project.

Up to the challenge
Port of Wilmington chose an existing container yard, across from its cold storage warehouse facility, as the location for its reefer expansion project. Working with the port, S.T. Wooten crews began to construct a dedicated reefer yard that would safely accommodate around 500 new reefers using two different types of container racks:
• 4-container racks. These can power 4 containers across, stacked 3 containers high. That’s 12 reefers total for one 4-container rack.
• 8-container racks. These power 8 containers across, stacked 3 containers high. That’s 24 reefers per large rack.

Installing these reefer racks within a condensed space – ensuring the right storing and powering requirements across the board – was certainly no small task. Below are few challenges that the crews faced on this unique project:
• Getting the lot level
Reefer containers were stacked on top of each other to maximize site capacity, so finding the right balance in leveling the lot was key. While the site had to be extremely flat to keep containers from falling over, a gradual slope was also needed to allow stormwater to drain off the pavement.
• Making sure everything lined up perfectly
Because the reefer racks were designed to fit tightly together with only two feet of surrounding space, alignment of everything was critical. If electrical conduit was installed in the wrong location, it would not come up through the foundation and into its assigned electrical box. Thus, crews worked carefully to install all of the racks identically with three rows of perfectly symmetrical foundations.
• Creating the slot drain
Since the port needed the flattest surface possible for the containers to remain stable, crews constructed one long slotted drain across the front of the site to move stormwater. To make the drain work, the entire site was built with a very slight incline, so all water runs toward the drain. The slot drain was cast in place by several S.T. Wooten crews using a pipe that was specifically fabricated for this project. At ground level, the drain slot’s elevation did not appear to change much. However, the pipe underground did, slowly dropping in elevation to allow the stormwater to drain.

While this project was led by their commercial division, it would ultimately involve every unit in the company, plus subcontractors. The port was eager to get construction completed quickly, so all of the crews worked at an accelerated pace – which requires close communication. Multiple project managers were onsite each day to coordinate and juggle schedules of every crew to ensure our collective success.

An immediate payoff
Despite facing some unique obstacles on the job, working efficiently and practicing good communication helped to complete the project successfully in time for the target deadline of April 8, 2020. By the time it was all said and done, the S.T. Wooten team had placed 2,000 cubic yards of ready-mix concrete, 10,000 tons of asphalt and 12,000 tons of aggregate base course.

There was no room to spare in application of this new reefer yard, which helped the port break new ground shortly after it opened. Just a month after the project was completed, the Port of Wilmington made history by welcoming one of the largest container ships in the world – marking its first visit from an ultra-large container vessel.

Thanks to its project with S.T. Wooten, the Port of Wilmington is in a solid position to answer the demands of the evolving agriculture and grocery industries. The added capacity will help the port continue meeting the needs of cold storage container ships coming through the harbor and reach new milestones along the way.