Refrigerator Troubleshooting and Repair

refrigerator repair

If your refrigerator is giving you problems, the good news is that several quick fixes are extremely DIY friendly. Even if you choose not to repair it yourself, knowing what might be wrong saves time and stress. First, get a basic understanding of how a fridge operates. With that basic understanding, narrow down the possible causes by examining the symptoms.

For repairs that require getting “under the hood,” so to speak, or for which you cannot determine the cause or solution, always consult a qualified refrigerator service technician.

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Under the Hood: How a Refrigerator Works

Underneath the refrigerator, in the rear, is a compressor. The compressor, as the name suggests, compresses a refrigerant gas, which makes the temperature rise. The warm refrigerant then circulates through the tubing on the rear of the refrigerator, called condenser coils, where it releases the heat to the room. The refrigerant gas, which is now cooler in temperature, returns to the refrigerator interior and flows through an expansion valve, where the pressure drops. As gas drops in pressure, the temperature drops as well.

Inside the freezer compartment, a fan blows air across the chilled refrigerant tubing. As the cold air flows across the tubing, it absorbs heat. The now-warmed refrigerant then returns to the compressor, to start the cycle over again. Meanwhile, cold air circulates from the freezer to the fresh food compartment, though in some models the refrigerant tubing flows through the fresh food area as well.

The “brain” behind the process is, like most heating and cooling items, a thermostat. The thermostat monitors the refrigerator’s internal temperature and tells the compressor when to kick on. The result is the humming noise you hear when your refrigerator is in an active cooling cycle and cold air blowing inside the refrigerator.

A side effect of cooling is condensation. In the fresh food compartment, you likely never notice the moisture. In the freezer, on the other hand, the condensation turns to frost and eventually ice, if left long enough. Most modern freezers are frost-free, otherwise known as automatic defrost. These fridges turn off the compressor and turn on a heater to melt the ice periodically, following with a cooling cycle to maintain the refrigerator temperature. This saves time and is convenient in contrast to older freezers that needed to be manually defrosted every so often.

If your refrigerator has an automatic ice maker or fresh water dispenser, it must also be connected to a plumbing line for a water supply. From the water line the water flows to a fresh water tank – usually located beneath the fresh food compartment – and then to the water dispenser or ice maker.

Before attempting any repair work on a refrigerator, unplug it. Do not attempt more complicated repairs involving parts around the motor unless you have the knowledge to do so properly and safely. On some refrigerators, the compressor has a capacitor located inside a housing at the top of the motor (compressor). Capacitors are always “live” – even when the fridge is turned off, some electricity is stored inside the capacitor. Qualified repair technicians know how to discharge the capacitor to prevent a severe electrical shock.

Troubleshooting by Symptom

Observe your refrigerator closely and note sounds and irregular operation. Here are some common refrigerator problems along with potential causes and solutions:

Refrigerator Doesn’t Work, Light Won’t Come On

Refrigerators are designed to last for years. Usually, if neither the fridge nor the light inside it comes on when you open the door, something is interfering with the power flow. As with all troubleshooting, start at the simplest and most obvious causes before digging deeper.

  1. Check your circuit breaker or fuse box. Due to the high power draw when the compressor is on, a refrigerator may blow a fuse or trip a breaker out of the blue. Simply replace the fuse or flip the breaker off and then back on again to solve.
  2. Check the power cord. See that it’s in good shape, without visible damage, and that the cord isn’t pinched or bent.
  3. Test the outlet. Plug in a nightlight, hairdryer or another easily moved item to see if it works. If it doesn’t, you have a problem with the electrical outlet itself. Consult an electrician for assistance.

Refrigerator Doesn’t Work, Light Comes On

If the refrigerator light comes on when you open the door, the fridge is definitely getting power. Still, the fix might be something simple.

  1. Place a thermometer in the fresh food compartment and check after about 15 to 20 minutes. A properly running refrigerator will register under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Check the clearance around and behind the refrigerator. Typically, your fridge requires a 3-inch gap between it and the rear wall as well as on the sides, and at least a 1-inch gap above. This allows air to circulate properly. If it can’t, the compressor and other components may overheat and the fridge can begin to fail.
  3. Clean the refrigerator’s condenser coils. Dust, dirt and any number of contaminants are attracted to, and quickly coat, the condenser coils on the back of the fridge. When the buildup gets too thick, it smothers the coils and interferes with their release of heat. Of course, if it can’t release heat, it can’t cool properly. Take a soft cloth or vacuum to the coils and clean thoroughly. Look at the opening that contains the motor and other internal parts and clean off any clogged dust and dirt.
  4. Pull the plug. If previous efforts fail, unplug your fridge, wait an hour or two, then plug it in again. If you hear the compressor kick on, whereas before it was silent, something is causing your compressor to overheat. Consult a professional for further assistance.

Other potential causes include a faulty temperature control, a bad evaporator fan, a compressor motor failing, and malfunctions of the defrost timer, compressor relay or overload relay protector. Contact a service technician for these more intensive repairs.

Refrigerator Light Doesn’t Work

Many a child has stood in front of the refrigerator opening and closing the door to see if the light really goes off when the door shuts (yes, it really does). As the door closes, it hits a protruding prong on the refrigerator frame. This tells the light to go off and sometimes controls the fan as well.

When suddenly the light doesn’t work at all, it’s not critical to the fridge cooling, but it is inconvenient. In most cases, it’s simply a matter of the light bulb burning out. Replace it with a low-watt bulb designed for your appliance.

If the bulb isn’t burned out, manually push in the switch to see if it’s stuck. It’s possible, however, that the switch itself is bad. This isn’t a complicated repair. Typically the switch is held in place with a retaining screw. Remove it, pry it up from the frame, and disconnect the wiring. Ask a professional for assistance if you’re unsure of the process.

Refrigerator is Loud, Makes Funny Noises

If your fridge suddenly makes an unusual sound, watch it closely. If it still works fine, most of the time the refrigerator is okay.

  1. Rattling, vibrating noises: If the rattling stops when you put your hand on the fridge, it’s likely your refrigerator is not level. Use a carpenter’s level to check, both side-to-side as well as front-to-back. To level the fridge, have an assistant lift up while you adjust the leveling legs or rollers underneath. Another possible cause of rattling is a loose drip pan. Pop off the access panel at the bottom front of the fridge. Pull the drip pan from below, clean it out, and replace it securely.
  2. Rattling, vibrating noises from rear of refrigerator: Sometimes a noise coming from the lower rear of the fridge indicates a dirty compressor fan – possibly bound up with something obstructing it – other times the compressor fan requires replacement. Consult a qualified repair professional for replacement assistance.
  3. Odd noise coming from top of refrigerator: Open the freezer compartment to see if the noise gets louder. Look to see if there’s evidence of frost buildup or if ice or food is blocking the fan blades hidden behind the rear wall (small things can get caught in the vent holes). Loosen and remove the screws holding the plastic housing in place over the fan to access it. Sometimes, the fan simply needs to be replaced. Alternatively, the defrost timer may need replacement.
  4. Ticking sound coming from the bottom of the refrigerator: This may also be a sign that the defrost timer is malfunctioning. The tip-off is if the fridge has been defrosting or if the ice is building up. Some timers are simply louder than others. Contact a service technician for further assistance – replacing the defrost timer is a repair best left to the professionals.
  5. Banging or squealing noises: One of two things generally causes a squealing, banging or shrieking noise: the motor coming loose, or the compressor going bad. Sometimes you can simply tighten the motor in its mount. In most instances, either repair requires a technician’s attention.

Refrigerator Doesn’t Cool

The light comes on and the refrigerator appears to work. Why, then, isn’t anything cool – or as cool as it should be? If you’re asking yourself this question, first verify the temperature inside the fridge with a thermometer. Proceed to DIY-friendly causes and solutions before consulting a professional.

Other possible causes include the defrost timer, the defrost heater, the evaporator fan, and a faulty temperature control or thermostat. A bad compressor can also be the culprit – normally you will hear a clicking sound when the compressor goes out. These are more in-depth repairs. Contact a service technician for more information.

Refrigerator Cools Too Much

One possible cause is a bad temperature control on the thermostat. The temperature-setting dial actually pulls away to reveal the control. A fairly inexpensive part, it’s also easy to test with a multimeter and to change out – it connects to colored wires. Contact a service repair technician for more information.

Refrigerator Starts and Stops Constantly

Other than cleaning the coils and testing the voltage in the electrical outlet in which your refrigerator is plugged, there’s not much you can do yourself to fix a refrigerator that struggles to stay running. One of several items could be causing the problem, including a bad compressor, a faulty condenser fan or compressor relay, or a malfunctioning overload protector. Hire a qualified professional to diagnose and repair the problem for you.

Refrigerator Runs Non-Stop

If your refrigerator won’t stop running, or rarely stops, usually it indicates a struggle to keep the interior cool.

  1. Check the freezer compartment for excessive frost buildup. If there is, it can interfere with the flow of cold air into the fresh food compartment. As a result, the fridge will struggle to cool fruitlessly. A frost-free refrigerator normally melts ice for about 20 minutes every six or eight hours. If the defrost timer, heater or terminator malfunctions, it can lead to frost buildup and a failure to cool properly. Contact a qualified professional for further information and assistance.
  2. Clean the back of the fridge, the condenser coils and the motor compartment if open to the rear. Use a vacuum to suck up excess dust and dirt and a cloth to wipe down parts. Be careful with the coils – any damage can cause a coolant leak.
  3. Perform the dollar bill test to check your door seal. Insert the dollar bill into the doorway and close the door, trapping the dollar between the frame and door. If you can pull it loose easily, the seal is likely bad. Replacing the rubber gasket is fairly simple.
  4. Test the refrigerator door switch. Wiggle it and push it in manually. If the switch is bad, the refrigerator will act as if the door is always open (no cooling) or always closed (constantly cooling).

Interior and Exterior Leaks

If you find water or what you suspect is water on the floor behind or underneath your refrigerator, it could be the drain pan overflowing. Another possibility is that the water line coming into the fridge is dripping or leaking. For leaks inside the refrigerator, check the drain tubes and clean them as necessary. If your refrigerator is equipped with an automatic ice maker or ice and water dispensers, a water supply line may be broken or leaking, or the unit itself. Consult a repair technician if you’re unable to determine the source.

Comments

Dawna spurging - February 16, 2015 at 11:37 am

Our fridge set in the garage for a few months we tried putting groceries in there and it froze everything. So we tried to put it inside, once we put it in , now the ice maker and water doesn’t seem to work. Any ideas. It makes noise and a little water trickles out .

Tiffany - February 13, 2015 at 10:30 pm

I bought a house and noticed the light on in the top of refrigerator with little bugs flying around. Can not open bottom of freezer drawer and was told the person living in the house prior left food in the freezer and power was turned off. House sat for two years! Can this problem be fixed!

Raymond Burrell - February 11, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Maytag refrigerator just three years plus. When I squeeze the up or down arrow sign it run briefly what should I do .I need refrigerator fix

Tom M - January 19, 2015 at 7:52 am

I put some warm soup in the refrigerator one evening and noticed that the temp in the ref the next morn was at about 57 deg , the temp one day later is still only about 52 deg but the freezer is at about 2-3 deg any ideas, was it just a coincidence that the temp went down after putting the hot soup in the ref?

sushil - January 10, 2015 at 1:37 am

my Samsung double door fridge refrigerator compartment not cooling .i check no cold air comes from freezer but when we open freezer door ,cold air started coming in the refrigerator compartment.

Khalid abdalla - January 2, 2015 at 6:11 pm

Hy. I hve a small fridge, when ever i put it on its works normaly the freezer compatment becomes cold but after half an hour the compressor stops working and become very hot. I need assistant

Bill - January 28, 2015 at 5:43 pm

Sounds a lot like the Evaporator fan is not functioning properly causing the compressor to overheat and the high limit overload is doing its job cutting off the compressor to protect it from damage.

judy - December 30, 2014 at 12:30 pm

My 1 yr LG fridge makes loud bang like noise.The sound is like a paper being busted.What could be the problem.

james - December 30, 2014 at 10:13 am

I have a fridge that is making a loud humming/buzzing noise, but works great. Wondering if its as simple as unlevel,dirty, compressor or bad fan?

Chisunnwa - December 26, 2014 at 4:25 pm

I have a refrigerator that has the freezer compartments down closer to where the compressor is and the refrigerator compartment up. The problem us the freezer compartment closest to the compressor freezes normally, those above only cools, while the refrigerator compartment doesn’t cool at all. What could be the problem, pls?

abubakar - December 20, 2014 at 12:19 pm

my fan blow water dispenser is no cooling, i checked the fuse is blown i replaced the fuse but still the dispenser the work as before

merrio fryman - December 16, 2014 at 3:09 pm

my fridg is on the same circuit as two other out lets. one is my computer. if I
have my computer on when the fridg is running the fridg stops and so does
my computer. (separate plug ins] after a while the fridg comes back on, as
does my computer. the circuit never trips during the shut down

Bill - January 28, 2015 at 5:45 pm

brown out !!! up the amps on the breaker from 10 to 20

Wayne Fagg - December 9, 2014 at 3:27 pm

My two door fridge turnes itself off after a few hours and then won’t turn itself on again until you turn it off and on again

Jean - December 9, 2014 at 10:02 am

About a month ago we started hearing an occassional knocking noise a couple of times a day coming from the kitchen. It has progressed from a couple times a day to about once an hour. We have determined it to be coming either from the bottom of the refrigerator or possibly the wall behind the fridge. Do you have any idea as to what could be causing this noise that is getting very annoying?

UndertakerHD - December 10, 2014 at 10:38 am

I would check that the rubber isolation mounts on the compressor and check that they are intact and that none of the locking pins have come off on the mounts.

Gia - November 28, 2014 at 8:42 pm

My partner and I recently got an old fridge. We recently have turned it on and have left it on running all night. The next morning we ended up tipping it on and angle to clean under the fridge. it was for a short time on an angle as we started hearing and seeing a large amount of gas exit the back of the refrigerator. we have turned it off to let the gas leak out..we then turned it on to see if would still work , when we did so more gas expelled out of the fridge and so died down and settled. Our fridge is still on but would like to know is: with the gas leak will it blow up if i turn the stove on? its not and open flame. will ? my fridge continue to freeze and cool my food? is the gas leaking bad to our health ?

UndertakerHD - December 10, 2014 at 10:36 am

I am a superintendent for an apartment complex. No it will fail to cool, gas coming from the fridge itself is freon gas which is what is needed to cool the fridge. It is cheaper to buy a new fridge than it it is to fix the leak. The only other gas would be if you fridge runs on propane and you had a propane gas leak, but it would have to be hooked up to a propane gas tank which is an alternative to electricity.

Joan - November 20, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Yesterday, a new Samsung side by side (RS22HDHPNWW) was delivered. Today, I occasionally hear a loud ‘whiney’ noise. I think it’s something to do with the water line/ice-maker. It’s very loud, but brief. I emptied the 3 gallons of water last night through the dispenser like the manufacturer suggested.
Any suggestions? Thank you!

UndertakerHD - December 10, 2014 at 10:45 am

Before you turn it in as a claim, check the water valve in the wall or the saddle valve for full water preasure. I like using a wetvac to suck up the water as I turn on the valve. The saddle valves are know for hardwater deposit build up around the needle, sometimes just closing it and opening it fixes it. Also if you have a supply line with a backflow preventer, replace it with a supply line without the backflow preventer as these cause sparatic preasure problems.

Bill - January 28, 2015 at 5:47 pm

adjust your water pressure up and down until you find a point that the icemaker likes

Thulani - November 1, 2014 at 5:57 am

My refridgerator is working properly but it trip down the ectricity i don’t know the problem.

Tyrell M. Thomason - December 7, 2014 at 11:16 pm

This is all due to your compressor.. Get it check or repaire from customer care officer

Barb - October 28, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Hello,
I just bought a new Maytag 19cu ft fridge with freezer on the bottom. they ran all night and when I woke up it was 65 in both the fridge and freezer. I called the people I bought it from and they came over. They looked it over and the compressor ran but no cold air. It never tripped a breaker once not once. They tested the outlet that they plugged it into but told me I should drill a hole in the floor and use the plug in down the basement because it would be the only thing on that outlet. I did this right away. When they put the tester on the outlet it shorted out and blew a breaker ( the original outlet) they said that is why the compressor didn”t blow cold air and took they took the fridge and said they would talk to the sales rep and see if they would take it back and bring me a new one. My husband is really upset and said if the compressor worked and the lights then it wasn’t any outlet. They did say if it shorts out the brain it won’t tell the compressor to blow cold air. What the heck???????

Barb - October 28, 2014 at 5:18 pm

sorry for the poor typing , I have arthritis and can’t type very well.

Rudy Morales - October 21, 2014 at 5:08 pm

For last several months–the Freezer side of my Kenmore refrigerator — as you open door, excessive ice keeps forming on front side of ice cube container/ice maker. Problem has gotten worse and I have to chip away ice caking on door makes it harder to open. Any tips on how I can solve this issue would be appreciated….hate to call technician cause high cost of repair…. Thanks.

Robert - October 25, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Interesting; we have what appears to be the same problem. I see cold air vapors blowing down by ice maker and ice cakes up in the ice dispenser and the door release bin. We have to chip away the ice every week or so. The fan is always on. The defrost coils are cold, but not caked with ice. I wonder if the fan is not directing the air properly in freezer compartment. Fridge and freezer both keep foods cold OK.

Jamie - November 5, 2014 at 8:28 am

I had the same problem and found the sounce to be that the mechanism below the ice maker that dispenses the ice had detached so the little trap door to send the ice out was not closed propearly and was letting air in. As a result I had ice crystals forming in just those areas (as both have described). I just fixed the latch so the release flap stays closed…and no more issues. Hope that helps

Rudy Morales - November 11, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Thanks Jamie—-sealed opening with clear wrap 2 days ago—to see if keeping air out would help…and looks like problem may be solved. Now I have to fix trap door for ice chute so it seals correctly. Thanks for helping solve problem. (I hope) Thanks again.

Wolf - October 16, 2014 at 4:40 pm

My GE refrigerator won’t stop running.
HELP!

ananda - May 30, 2014 at 7:13 am

hi i have a frost free two compartments fefrigerator the freezer compartment is woking fine but the lower fresh food compartment is not cooling at all , the ffc fan is running and i have checked all the electrical system and found o.k pse advise.

Daniel S - January 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm

We had the problem of the fridge nor the light turn on at our home and it was due to water build up in the freezer circuitry. Every time we turned the fridge on, it would short the entire house. We recently had a power outage for a few hours which caused water in the freezer to drip on its circuitry. We emptied the fridge let it dry completely and removed the inner panels of the fridge. I used a blow dryer to completely dry the circuitry for a whole 10 minutes. Turned the fridge back on and it worked! A technician we called had said its most likely a water problem that needed to dry out, and thankfully he was spot on.

Daniel S

Yusuf malik - September 26, 2013 at 7:43 pm

My dear, It is an excellent and exhaustive explanation on the working philosophy of a refrigerator . I want to know about about the working of timers in electronic time controllers in autodefrost . Does the clock in timer circuit keeps moving irrespective of peripheral parameters. Secondly in case of electric supply cut off it restarts from begining or continues from its previous time where it stopped. Thanks. I shall be obliged .

UndertakerHD - December 10, 2014 at 10:53 am

I am a superintendent for an apartment complex. Our fridges purchased in 2000 have what is called a Bi-Metal defrost module that clip onto the inside coil, they are temperature based and have no circuitry inside, they quit working when the filler material is forced out of place by constant temperature changes until the contacts inside if the bi-metal defrost loses connection then frost builds until air flow is cut off. They are pricey too some cost around $50.