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.
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, called condenser coils, on the rear of the refrigerator, 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.
Before attempting any repair work on a refrigerator, unplug it. Do not attempt more complicated repairs that involve parts around the motor unless you have the knowledge to do so properly and safely.
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 is 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 that involve 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.
- 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.
- Check the power cord. See that it’s in good shape, without visible damage, and that the cord isn’t pinched or bent.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rattling, vibrating noises: If the rattling stops when you put your hand on the fridge, it’s likely that 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.
- Rattling, vibrating noises from the rear of the 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.
- 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 that hold 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.