Below is useful information about how refrigerators work and common problems with refrigerators.  As with any appliance, refrigerator maintenance is important to keeping it operating efficiently.  Many appliance maintenance tasks are also important for safety and longevity. This information applies to most makes and models of refrigerators.

Warning!  Appliance repair and troubleshooting can be dangerous for the average homeowner.  Reduce risk of death or injury by unplugging the appliance before making repairs.  Appliances may have sharp edges so use caution when working inside any appliance. Make sure you baby, infant or child is not near.

Most residential refrigerators work the same.  All have a compressor, condenser, evaporator, capillary tube and a thermostat.  Refrigerators take warm air and make it cooler by transferring the heat using evaporation principles.

The compressor is the hardest working part of the refrigerator and is commanded by the thermostat.  It compresses refrigerant gas, causing it to heat up and pressurize as it flows through the condenser coils to dissipate heat and condense into a liquid.

The condenser coil is a system of tubes running through thin pieces of metal resembling fins.  The high-pressure gas from the compressor flows into the condenser coils and changes to liquid while the tubes radiate heat from the coils by the fins attached to the tubes.  The capillary tube controls the pressure of the refrigerant as it enters the coils.

As the refrigerant passes through the capillary tube the liquid expands, boils and evaporates to become a cold, low-pressure gas.  The cold gas flows through the evaporator coils to allow the gas to absorb heat; thus, cooling down the air flowing past the coils.  The fan inside the freezer compartment circulates the air to keep the temperature consistent.  The process continues to repeat itself, controlled by the thermostat, to keep frozen foods at a consistent temperature to maintain freshness.

Modern refrigerators have an automatic defrost system which includes three major components; the defrost timer, defrost thermostat and defrost heater.  Every 6-12 hours, the defrost timer cuts off the power to the compressor and turns on the defrost heater.  As the ice melts, it drips through a tube into a pan where it evaporates with the help of a fan blowing warm air over it.

Refrigerator and Freezer Troubleshooting Tips:

Refrigerator not working at all:  Check the power supply.  Make sure the outlet is working properly by plugging something else into it.  Check fuses or circuit breakers.  If this is not the problem, it could be a number of things including the compressor, overload/relay, thermostats or wiring.

If the power supply is good, check the troubleshooting section of the manual.  Do not toss this aside; read it to learn how to maintain your refrigerator before something goes wrong.  Appliance manuals have preventative maintenance tips and operating instructions that must be followed to ensure performance.

Food not frozen consistently:  This is not an uncommon problem.  First, check the temperature which should be between -10F and +10F.  Refrigerator temperatures should be 36F to 45F.  Adjust the temperature accordingly.

Try rearranging the food as temperatures can vary in different compartments.  Check for a warn gasket by putting a piece of paper between the gasket and frame as you close the door.  If it slips out easily, you need a new door gasket.

RefrigeratorRuns too Much:  The thermostat controls the compressor, turning it on and off as needed.  The compressor will run until the temperature is lower than the thermostat setting.

A new refrigerator will run for a long time, almost constantly, before it cools enough to maintain the desired temperature, about 24 hours.  Keep the refrigerator at least half to two-thirds full to help maintain a stable temperature.  If you have a small family and cannot keep it full, fill the space with jugs of water.  The cold items inside will help maintain the temperature as the door is opened and closed.

Make sure the refrigerator has air clearance on all sides.  Refrigerators with a condenser coil on the back need room to radiate heat away from the coils. Make sure the light is turning off when the door is closed as it can warm the interior of the refrigerator.  Push the switch with the door open and if the light stays on, fix or replace the switch.

The refrigerator will run more if the room is hot and humid or if you have just put a lot of warm food into it.  If the compressor does not shut off when the temperature is cold enough, it may need to be replaced.  A refrigerator thermometer can help you determine an ideal setting to keep food cold and prevent the compressor from running too much.

Refrigerator Maintenance Tips

You can extend the life of your refrigerator and improve performance by properly maintaining the unit.  Always unplug appliances before performing any maintenance or repairs.

Proper refrigerator installation is very important.  The unit should be level and placed on a hard floor, not carpet.  It should be plugged directly into a properly grounded outlet without using an extension cord.

Older refrigerators without automatic defrost will need to be defrosted with the ice is about ½ inch thick in the freezer compartment.

For self-defrosting refrigerators, wash the drain pan periodically. The water should evaporate, but in damp weather, water can linger, promoting mold and bacterial growth.

Wipe the interior as needed and keep food covered or wrapped to prevent odors.

Clean door gaskets with warm, soapy water and check them for stiffness or cracking.  Replace as needed.

The most important refrigerator maintenance task is cleaning the condenser coils, located in the back of older models or at the bottom of newer models.  Dust, lint and dirt can inhibit the coil’s ability to exchange heat and cause the unit to us more energy.  Use a condenser coil brush to clean the coils and keep the floor around the refrigerator swept.  The coils should be cleaned at least twice a year and more often if you have pets.  Daylight savings time changes are a good time to do this, or when you do spring cleaning and holiday cleaning.