Repairing Your Refrigerator
A refrigerator is a hard-working appliance in your home. Myriad components can begin to fail over time. So when the time comes to decide between repairs or replacement, consider what the issue might be and how the solution fits into your budget.
New refrigerators are expensive, so replacement is kind of a last resort. If you decide to look into repairs, you’ll likely get sticker shock from the repairman’s invoice too. Instead, troubleshoot the problem, order your parts, and make the repair yourself.
Can You Repair Your Own Refrigerator?
It might be intimidating at first, without an understanding of how a refrigerator works. But many refrigerator repairs are within a capable DIYer's wheelhouse. Start by reading up on the different components and how they work together. Then review your appliance’s owner’s manual for specifics about your brand and model.
Note your model number, which will come in handy when hunting down parts.
If nothing else, it’s worth spending a bit of time and money to review the most common problems, and simple solutions, that can save you a ton of money.
What Do I Need to Repair My Refrigerator?
A VOM will be needed to check certain parts. This is a small electrical tester that will help you assess where the problem lies.
Note—Always turn the power off, or just unplug the refrigerator, when working with components.
It’s helpful to keep a notebook handy. You’ll need to write down part numbers, record what you’ve checked, and make other notes. Also take pictures using your phone as you progress. It will make it much easier to have a reference when it’s time to put things back together.
What Are the Most Common Problems with Refrigerators?
The refrigerator is a pretty complex appliance, and there are quite a few potential causes for each problem. We'll examine the easiest solutions to these common issues.
Some of the more major repairs should be done by a professional, such as replacing the condenser or compressor, but if you have to go that route, you may just want to buy a new fridge. Let's hope we can save you the trouble and handle your problem here first.
1. The Refrigerator Won't Run
It’s not making noise, it’s losing its chill, and the lights aren’t on. If your fridge has no power, start at the circuit breaker inside the breaker box. Locate the proper breaker. Then flip it off and back on.
If that doesn’t help, grab your VOM and check for power at the outlet. An outlet that doesn’t have power means a problem between there and the circuit box. Start by turning off the power. Then remove the old outlet and put a new one in its place, paying attention to how the wires are connected.
If the outlet wasn’t the issue, the problem may be with the circuit breaker or the box itself. There may also be a break in the circuit somewhere along the way. That might be a job for an electrician.
Before you make the call, though, check the length of the refrigerator cord looking for breaks or cuts. If needed, you can replace the refrigerator cord yourself.
2. Everything Freezes Inside the Refrigerator Compartment
There are several solutions for the common issue of a refrigerator that freezes everything. The core of the issue is that the fridge is getting a false message that it needs to keep cooling.
This might be because the thermostat is set too high. Turn the dial down slightly. You don’t want to have huge temperature variations that overwork the appliance, so start by moving the dial one number cooler. Then wait several hours.
If you’re not seeing results, turn it down to another number and again wait for several hours or overnight. If the temp doesn’t drop, the thermostat could be faulty.
Unplug the fridge before starting this test. Open up the control panel; the thermostat is located directly behind the dial. Turn the dial to the coldest setting. If you hear a click, it’s likely working properly. If you don’t, you can investigate further or just try replacing it.
To test, set your VOM to RX1 and probe the two terminals (with the leads off) and look for a reading of zero. Remove the thermostat, set it on the warmest setting and place it in a working freezer for 30 minutes. Re-probe the terminals, and the reading should be infinity.
You could also have an issue with the thermistor or the temperature control board, which both require a few more steps and expertise.
3. Refrigerator Runs but Doesn't Get Cold
At any point, you can place a refrigerator thermometer inside the fridge to measure the temperature. Your fridge should hover between 37-41 degrees. If it’s not getting that cold, start by making sure you have power, as outlined above. If your lights come on, you have power, and there’s no need to investigate further.
The simplest possible solution is that your thermostat dial got turned down. Check the setting and turn it to a higher number, again waiting several hours in between adjustments.
While you wait, check to make sure the condenser coils aren’t clogged up. If you haven’t regularly cleaned them, now is the time.
You’ll find the coils via a panel along the bottom front or rear of the appliance. Use a vacuum with an extension wand and crevice tool to thoroughly clean the coils.
The next component to check is the condenser fan. Remove the rear panel of the fridge to access it. Unplug the refrigerator and remove anything blocking the fan. You need that airflow to effectively cool the inside of the refrigerator, so clean out any debris.
There are a couple of other common issues to consider too.
Bad Evaporator Fan—Remove the back panel on the inside of the freezer. Unscrew the fan housing and remove the leads from the fan. Probe the two terminals with your VOM set to RX1. If you get a reading under 50 ohms or an infinity reading, replace the fan.
Bad Condenser Fan—The condenser fan is located underneath the fridge. Access is easiest through the rear bottom panel. Disconnect the leads and follow the same instructions as the evaporator fan.
Low on Refrigerant—A technician would need to be called to test for this problem.
5. Issues With the Doors Closing or Sealing
When debating the question, “What would cause a refrigerator to stop getting cold?” the answer might be as simple as making sure the door closes securely.
If there is a broken seal anywhere in the system, cold air can escape, and warm air will enter, dropping the internal temperature of your fridge and often causing ice build-up in your freezer.
Door Not Closing—Check to make sure the fridge is level. If it's not, there are legs with threads underneath you can screw/unscrew to the desired effect. Also, check the door hinges to make sure everything is lining up right.
Bad Door Gasket—To replace the gasket, lift the gasket and unscrew the holding screws. As you remove the old gasket, feed the new one into place and tighten down the screws.
Bad Door Switch—If the switch is bad, the light will stay on inside and keep things warm. The switch can be pried out with a flat screwdriver. Remove the leads and set your VOM to RX1. Clip the probes on the terminals, and you should read zero with the switch open.
Close the switch by pressing the plunger; the reading should be infinity. If not, replace the part.
6. Refrigerator Exterior Sweats
In many refrigerators, there is a switch that controls the fridge from sweating in humid weather. It's located near the control panel inside the fridge. Make sure it is turned on (turning it off in cooler, dryer weather helps conserve energy).
To test the switch, open the control panel and remove the leads from the terminals. Clip the probes of your VOM, set to RX1, and take the reading. It should read zero when it's switched on and infinity when it's turned off. If not, replace it.
If the switch is in good order, then the heater itself, called a mullion heater, could be bad—this would require a professional to repair.
7. The Refrigerator Cycles On and Off Constantly
You may not initially realize how hard your fridge is working. At some point, though, you’ll become aware of how often the fridge is making noise. If your fridge is constantly kicking on and off, it’s likely you have an issue with a condenser or compressor.
If the compressor is bad, it’s time to call in a pro or start fridge shopping. It’s a technical and spendy repair since it’s the heart of the cooling system.
However, before you throw in the towel, clean your condenser coils as described above. Also check for anything blocking the condenser fan and check the seals around both the fridge and the freezer sections.
By keeping the area around your refrigerator clean, you could save yourself from a number of these potential problems. Vacuuming the condenser coils on a routine basis is a great way to ensure they don't get clogged. With pets in the house, you may want to clean it more regularly because of the hair buildup.
If you let these minor clean-ups go, it will cause your electric bill to increase, and eventually, what would have been an easy repair will turn into a more problematic and expensive one.
8. Frost in the Freezer
Frost build-up in the freezer section contributes to food waste because of freezer burn. It also takes up usable space and causes serious issues with airflow. Blocked vents mean the appliance works extra hard, costing you money.
Plus, if there is excessive ice in the freezer, that results in problems within the fridge as well. To find the problem, start by checking the seals. It’s a very common issue and an easy one to fix. Replace any questionable seals.
You may also have an issue with the defrost sensor. Basically this means it’s not kicking on when it’s supposed to. This repair is best left to a professional. However, you can manually defrost the freezer to reset things. Remove all food from the freezer and refrigerator and find alternate storage.
Then unplug the appliance until it finishes defrosting. Plug it back in and wait for it to get back to the right temperature before putting food back in. Check your freezer every few days to see if frost build-up is still an issue.
9. Broken Ice Maker
This is one of the most common issues with household refrigerators and there are several possible solutions to solve the problem.
Firstly, make sure the ice maker didn’t get turned off. There are a variety of ways to control this feature, depending on your model. It might be part of the digital controls on the front of the fridge, or it might be a simple metal bar attached to the ice maker inside the freezer.
Next, make sure the ice maker is receiving water. Pull out the fridge and check for kinks or tears in the line.
Another common culprit is frozen water somewhere in the line. Disconnect hoses along the route through the fridge and check for blockages. For hoses that can’t be removed, use a hair dryer to warm them until water flows out.
Similarly, look for blockages within the water filter and make sure the water inlet valve is both open and unclogged.
10. Puddles Below Fridge
It’s another common issue. You walk into the kitchen (typically at night with your socks on, just so it’s a bit more annoying) and step into a puddle of water emanating from the fridge.
Start by checking any and all water inlet hoses. You may have a disconnect or tear. These are an easy fix.
Next, check the level of your fridge. Place a level on top of the appliance to see where adjustments need to be made. Then turn the feet at the bottom of the fridge to raise and lower sides as necessary to bring it into balance.
11. Refrigerator Is Running and Cooling, But the Light Is Out
If everything else is working properly, but the light doesn’t come on when you open the door, it’s likely (hopefully) a burnt-out bulb.
To fix it, head to the home improvement store and purchase an appliance bulb for refrigerators. You may have a cover to remove in order to access your bulb. Once exposed, simply unscrew the bulb and replace it with a new one.
Many newer fridges have a complex system of electronics involved that can result in expensive repairs. If replacing the bulb doesn’t help, look into the mechanism for your model.
However, if the part runs a few hundred dollars, you can easily get by with a $20-$30 rechargeable light that sticks to the inside top of your fridge. Get one with a motion sensor and a magnetic strip that holds it in place so you can easily remove it when it needs to be charged.
Learn more with this Refrigerator Q and A and dig deeper by Troubleshooting a Noisy Refrigerator.
Stay chill and keep your cool. You’ve got this!