Spend 30 minutes on these simple maintenance steps to keep your fridge running in tip top shape. It's hard to believe, but six simple maintenance steps will prevent almost 100 percent of refrigerator breakdowns and eliminate those service calls. Take these steps and you can forget about spoiled food, lost time waiting for repair people and shelling out $70 an hour plus parts for the repair itself. In this story, we'll show you how to keep your fridge humming and trouble-free. And we'll also tell you what to check if a problem does occur.
By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine
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An hour or less
Step 1: Clean the refrigerator condenser coils (5 minutes)
Photo 1: Remove the grille
Unsnap the grille at the bottom of the refrigerator to access the coils. If your coils are located on the back, you’ll have to roll the fridge out to get at them.
Photo 2: Brush off the coils
Clean the coils with a special refrigerator coil cleaning brush to loosen the dirt and dust. Vacuum the coils as you brush. Be careful not to bend the fan blades. A gentle brushing will do the job.
Cleaning Coils on the back of the fridge
Some refrigerators have the coils on the back of the unit. Brush and vacuum these coils in the same manner as coils found under a refrigerator.
You can eliminate more than 70 percent of service calls with this simple cleaning step (Photos 1 and 2). Skip this chore and you’ll be contributing to your appliance repair technician’s retirement fund. Not to mention handing over $5 to $10 a month extra to your utility company because the fridge isn’t running efficiently.
Do it twice a year or more often if you have shedding pets. Their fur clogs up the coils fast.
Condenser coils are located on the back of the fridge or across the bottom. These coils cool and condense the refrigerant. When the coils are clogged with dirt and dust, they can’t efficiently release heat. The result is your compressor works harder and longer than it was designed to, using more energy and shortening the life of your fridge.
Clean the coils with a coil cleaning brush and vacuum. A coil cleaning brush does a thorough job and will easily pay for itself. The refrigerator coil brush is bendable to fit in tight areas. They can be used for cleaning your dehumidifier and air conditioner coils too.
Always unplug your fridge before working on it!
Step 2: Clean the refrigerator condenser fan (5 minutes)
Photo 1: Remove the lower back cover
Access the condenser fan by rolling the fridge away from the wall and removing the lower back cover with a screwdriver. Replace the cover when you’re finished. It’s essential for good air circulation.
Photo 2: Brush and vacuum the fan
Clean the fan blades with the brush and vacuum so air can move freely across them. Also clean the shaft by vacuuming the crease where the blade meets the motor. Don’t lubricate the shaft; oil will attract dirt and cause problems.
If the coils are located on the bottom of the fridge like ours, clean the condenser fan and the area around it. (Fridges with coils on the back don’t have a fan.) The fan circulates air across the coils to help cool them. At times, paper, dirt, dust and even mice can get sucked into the fan and bring it to a complete stop.
Photos 1 and 2 show you how to clean the fan. Yours could be in a different area, but it’s always next to the compressor. Most refrigerators will have a diagram on the back or folded up under the front grille showing the location of the major parts. While you’re under there, wipe out the drip pan, a flat pan that collects water from the defrost cycle and allows it to evaporate.
Step 3: Wipe down the refrigerator door gasket (2 minutes)
Clean the door gasket
Wipe the door gasket regularly with warm water and a sponge. Don’t use detergent—it can damage the gasket.
Prevent an expensive gasket repair bill ($100 to $200) and cut down air leaks by keeping your door gasket clean. Syrup, jelly or any other sticky stuff dripping down the front sides of your refrigerator can dry and glue the gasket to the frame. The next time you open the door, your gasket can tear. Keep it clean and you’ll get a nice, tight seal, keeping the cool air where it belongs, in the fridge.
To prevent wear, lubricate the door handle side of the gasket by sprinkling baby powder on a cloth and wiping it down once a month.
Three Types of Refrigerators
All refrigerators work on the same principle of cycling refrigerant through two sets of coils. The evaporator coils do the cooling, and the condenser coils release accumulated heat. Where fridges primarily differ is in how they defrost.
A manual defrost is the oldest and simplest type. As the name implies, you defrost these by turning them off and letting all the ice melt. The water then drips into a pan or runs into the fridge where you wipe it up.
Cycle defrost refrigerators have an evaporator plate in the refrigerator section that warms after each running cycle to eliminate frost buildup. But you have to defrost the freezer manually by turning a dial to the defrost mode. The water in most models flows into a channel in the back and then down through a tube to a drip tray under the fridge.
The frost-free refrigerator, the most common today, uses a heater to melt ice on the evaporator coils. The heater is turned on by a timer and automatically shuts off. An evaporator fan distributes the cold air through the freezer. Many models have an opening under the crisper drawers to draw water to the drip tray underneath.
Step 4: Clear the freezer vents (5 minutes)
Keep the freezer vents unobstructed
Clear food packages away from the vent openings and clean the air return so crumbs and twist ties don’t clog them.
These little vents on frost-free fridges allow air to circulate in the freezer. Don’t block them or let crumbs or twist ties get sucked in around the evaporator fan or clog the drain tube. To help save energy, keep your freezer about three-quarters full to retain cold air. But don’t pack it any fuller because the air needs to circulate.
Step 5: Set the refrigerator temperature controls to the middle settings (1 minute)
Adjust the temperature controls
Set the temperature controls to the middle settings. Make any adjustments according to a refrigerator thermometer. The optimum setting for your fridge is between 38 and 42 degrees F; the freezer, between 0 and 10 degrees.
Save money by keeping your freezer set at 0 F and your fridge set at 40 F.
This step won’t necessarily prevent a repair, but it’ll extend the life of your fridge by allowing it to run more efficiently, which reduces your electric bill. Your fridge has at least two temperature controls (except on manual defrost types, which have one). The one for the food compartment is a thermostat that turns the compressor on and off. The second, for the freezer, is just an air baffle. The baffle lets cold air from the freezer sink into the food compartment. Closing the baffle makes the freezer colder.
Three Ways to Get the Smell Out
Charcoal briquettes absorb the odor just like a filter in a range hood.
Crumpled newspaper. The ink absorbs the odor.
Baking soda is the old standby. Leave an open box in the fridge and replace it every three months for continuous deodorizing.
Step 6: Clear and clean the drip openings (2 minutes)
Locate the drip cup
Find the drip opening on your fridge
Close up of the drip tube opening
Locate the drip opening and wipe it out, being careful not to press any debris down into the hole. Suck out crumbs with a vacuum.
Drip openings allow water that has melted from the defrost cycle to flow down to a pan located by the compressor, where it evaporates. Check your owner’s manual for the location on your fridge. On cycle-defrost fridges, a channel directs the water to a tube in the food compartment.
On frost-free refrigerators, look for a small cap under the crisper drawers that covers a hole, or an opening in the back of the freezer or refrigerator. If the drain opening clogs, water will build up under the crisper drawers and eventually leak out onto the floor.
Service specialists will be the first to admit: A ton of their callers don’t require repair service at all. The solutions are so easy they don’t even require a toolbox. Before you pick up the phone, check the following list. It just might save you $70 and a bit of embarrassment.
Check the circuit breaker or fuse box to be sure power’s coming to the outlet.
Is the cord plugged in tight? Wiggle it around a little. A worn receptacle could let the plug fall out just enough for the connection to fail.
Plug a light or any other electrical device into the outlet to see if it works. If it doesn’t, you’ve got an electrical problem, not a refrigerator problem.
Check for a loose, worn or frayed power cord. Rodents often chew through a wire. Sometimes cords loosen when the fridge is moved.
What if you have power but poor cooling?
Make sure the thermostat is turned on and set right. On some models the dial is easily bumped, shutting the fridge down. Or kids could have messed with it.
Your fridge is running all the time but the food’s still warm.
Vacuum the coils. Dirty coils can eventually cause the overload protector on the compressor to shut the fridge down. It’ll automatically come back on when the compressor cools, but by then your food is usually warm.
Is the condenser fan jammed? (This applies only to fridges with the coils on the bottom.) Remove any obstacles and clean it thoroughly. Unplug the fridge and turn it a few times and see if it comes on. If it’s still not working, you’ll have to replace it.
Is the light turning off when the door’s closed? That little light bulb can raise the temperature in the fridge substantially. To check it, close the door and use a butter knife to pull the gasket slightly away from the frame. If light shines out, the switch is bad or slightly out of alignment. Until you fix the switch, loosen the light bulb so it goes out.
Look for ice buildup (frost-free fridges only) bulging on the inside walls or the floor of the freezer. Manually defrost the freezer by unplugging it. It’s only a temporary fix, so call for service.
Required Tools for this Refrigerator Repair Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
A regular vacuum with attachments will work instead of a shop vacuum.