Refrigerator Troubleshooting & Repairs Refrigerator Troubleshooting & Repairs
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Refrigerator Troubleshooting & Repairs

Expert DIY advice for troubleshooting and fixing a refrigerator, including how to fix refrigerator problems such as poor cooling, noises, and unwanted freezing of foods.

Though refrigerators generally operate very dependably year after year, they can break down, and, when they do, the result can be serious because food can spoil in a hurry.

Though many problems call for a refrigerator repair person, you can handle some simple repairs yourself. By doing so, you can save both money and the time and hassle of waiting for help. DIY fixes tend to involve checking the power, controls, condenser coils, and other parts outside of your refrigerator’s sealed, hermetic system.

Refrigerator Parts Diagram

Refrigerator Parts Diagram

The best way to increase the life of a refrigerator is to clean the condenser coils at least once a year—in fact, it pays to clean condenser coils on certain types of refrigerators, such as side-by-side and built-in models, at least twice a year. (For instructions on how to do this yourself, see How to Clean Refrigerator Coils.) If you have a refrigerator with black coils mounted on the back, these coils don’t require semi-annual cleaning.

Refrigerator Runs Too Much

If the refrigerator’s light works and you can hear the refrigerator running but it hardly ever stops running, make sure nothing is blocking the passageway between the freezer and the refrigerator compartments.

If airflow is restricted by, for example, a loaf of bread shoved in front of the passageway, the refrigerator won’t get cold—and it will keep running in an effort to reach the set temperature. Be aware that a refrigerator will tend to run longer when it’s full of food, the door is opened frequently, or the room temperature is hot.

If your refrigerator runs without stopping, it may be too low on refrigerant to reach the low temperature of the cold control dial setting. More likely, this is a defrost problem in which a component in the automatic defrosting system is faulty. This could be a defrost heater, a defrost timer, or a defrost terminator.

Before you call a repair person, do the following (also see Refrigerator Cools Too Much or Too Little, below):

1Determine whether the refrigerator section is being cooled. If you see frost at the top of a frost-free refrigerator even when the cold control is set low, it means the refrigerator probably has a full charge of refrigerant but the thermostat is faulty or out of calibration.

Try testing the refrigerator’s cold control.

2Try turning the cold control both up and down. If the compressor doesn’t shut off, the cold control may be broken. Call a refrigerator repair person. It is also a good idea to have the defrost timer and heaters checked to ensure they are working correctly.

3Look at the condenser coils, located at the bottom of the refrigerator (behind the kick plate) or, in some cases, at the back. These coils disperse heat from inside the refrigerator out into the room with the aid of a fan. If the coils are dirty, the refrigerator won’t operate efficiently. Most manufacturers recommend that you clean the coils on a regular basis.

4Make sure the drain line isn’t plugged. It is under the evaporator coils, which goes to a pan underneath. Water should drip into the pan when the refrigerator is defrosting.

5To put off having the refrigerator repaired for a few days, you may be able to defrost it manually with a hair dryer—if you can access the cooling coils in the freezer section. Excessive moisture in the coils can turn into a frozen mass, reducing efficiency. Caution: Be very careful when using the hair dryer near a water source as there is a serious risk of electrical shock. Also be careful not to melt the refrigerator’s plastic parts.

Cools Too Much or Too Little

As a rule, refrigerators are designed to maintain 36 to 40 degrees F. in the refrigerator box and 0 to 5 degrees F. in the freezer box. If your refrigerator compartment freezes its contents, even when the cold control is set to its lowest setting, the control is probably defective. Setting the cold control to a higher temperature will not get to the root of the problem. Instead, call an appliance repair person.

If a refrigerator doesn’t cool at all, the problem is often with the basic electrical controls and almost never with a need for a refrigerant boost. Also, do not assume the problem is related to the compressor or the sealed, hermetic system; these types of malfunctions happen rarely. Instead, the unit may have dirty condenser coils, a door that doesn’t seal tightly (see below), or a defective temperature control.

Before you call in an appliance repair person:

1Check the cold control. Be sure it is set to COLD. Normally, the temperature inside the refrigerator should be about 37 degrees F.

2Listen for the freezer fan inside the freezer. When the freezer fan is running, it means the defrost timer and the cold control in the refrigerator are both set to COOL.

3Listen for the compressor fan (which will also tell you where the compressor is located—typically behind or beneath the refrigerator). Most of the time, when the freezer fan is operating, the compressor fan should also be working. If one of the fans is not working or the compressor is off, the refrigerator will offer very little cooling or none at all.

Refrigerator Does Not Run

If the refrigerator’s light doesn’t work and its motor doesn’t run:

1Check its electrical power. Make sure the receptacle the refrigerator is plugged into is receiving power (plug in a working lamp or a circuit tester). If the receptacle doesn’t work, check for a tripped circuit breaker or blown fuse.

2Be sure the cold control is correctly set.


3Get help if necessary. If you discover that the refrigerator is plugged into a working outlet and the cold control is appropriately set but the device still shows no signs of life, leave the door closed to retain the cold air and call an appliance repair person.

Fridge Smells, Rattles or Leaks

If your refrigerator smells bad inside, even after you’ve removed all suspicious foods, unplug it and remove the drawers and shelves to give it a thorough cleaning with soap and water. Next scrub it with a solution of 1/2 cup of baking soda dissolved in warm water.

Next, clean the drip tray underneath the refrigerator (if there is one)—it can become moldy and funky. If the smell still doesn’t go away, try putting few charcoal briquettes in shallow bowls and placing them on the shelves inside the refrigerator to absorb odors.

Vibrating noises are generally caused by loose parts such as loose condenser coils, by compressor tubing rattling, or by rollers and feet that sit unevenly on the floor.

Look for any part that is loose and tighten it with a wrench or screwdriver. Then remove the bottom trim piece by lifting it off its supports and check the feet at the front of the unit to be sure they are all bearing the weight of the appliance—the refrigerator should not rock. As necessary, turn the adjustable feet up or down so they contact the floor squarely.

Leaking under a refrigerator may be caused by a condensation tube that doesn’t drain into a pan or by a clogged freezer drain.

Door Does Not Seal Properly

A common cause of energy inefficiency in refrigerator operation is a door that doesn’t seal properly. If you test your door and realize it doesn’t have a decent seal, then you can either adjust the door or you may have to replace the door gasket to remedy the problem.

You can buy a new refrigerator door gasket in an appliance repair shop or online. To buy it online, go click here: Refrigerator Door Gasket.

Refrigerator door gasket is relatively easy to replace. Photo: Frigidaire

Refrigerator door gasket is relatively easy to replace. Photo: Frigidaire

Here are instructions for adjusting or replacing your refrigerator door gasket:
1Remove any coverings that conceal the hinges. For models where the freezer and refrigerated sections are located side-by-side, slightly loosen the top hinge using a nut driver. For models with the freezer on top, adjust the top hinge of the freezer door with a nut driver and the bottom hinge of the refrigerator with a socket wrench.

2Put a level on top of the refrigerator door and move the door around until it is level. Hold it in place, and refasten the screws. Reaffix any coverings that you removed earlier.

3Retest the door’s seal. If it is still faulty, open the door and peel back the rubber gasket. Along the top and partway down the door’s sides, loosen the screws that fasten the strip. Take off the gasket in this area.

4Apply a new gasket, slipping it underneath the metal retaining strip and then slightly tighten the screws.

5Follow steps 3 and 4 with the bottom half of the door. Finish securing all of the screws once the new gasket is entirely in place.

Refrigerator Light Stays On

Test the refrigerator door’s switch by pressing it in. The light should go off.

Do you suspect that your refrigerator’s interior light is staying on even when the door is shut? A refrigerator light that stays on will warm the refrigerator’s interior, cutting down on its efficiency. Of course, you may not be aware that this is happening because, obviously, you can’t see what’s going on inside the refrigerator when the door is shut. But, with most refrigerators, you should be able to see the light go off when the door is a fraction of an inch from closing.

You can also feel the bulb when you open the door—but do so carefully. If it has stayed on, it will be hot. It’s actually very easy to tell whether this is happening. Test the light-switch button that the door closes against. When you push it in all the way, the light should go off. If it doesn’t, the light switch is defective and must be replaced.

If you are adept at simple repairs, this is a job that you may be able to handle yourself, but be sure to unplug the refrigerator before working on it. You can buy a replacement refrigerator door switch online at; be sure to get one that matches your model of refrigerator. Instructions for replacement will be inside the package.

Refrigerator Does Not Defrost

Most modern refrigerators defrost automatically. They have a defrost timer, a defrost heater, and a defrost terminator.

Frost in a freezer compartment reduces efficiency and ruins food. Photo:

Frost in a freezer compartment reduces efficiency and ruins food. Photo:

When a frost-free refrigerator is running, it builds up frost on the tubing in the back of the freezer wall. Normally, the defrost timer cycles the refrigerator to defrost for about 20 minutes every six to eight hours—it essentially heats up coils to melt the ice. If it isn’t working right, ice remains on the tubing and, eventually, restricts airflow through the refrigerator.

With some refrigerators, you can manually advance the defrost timer, a small black box that may be located almost anywhere but is usually on the ceiling of the fresh food section. Advance it until it clicks into the defrost mode (you should be able to hear the heaters come on). If this works, the defrost timer is defective and will need to be replaced. If this technique doesn’t work, the problem is probably the heater or the terminator. Either call the manufacturer for advice or call in a qualified Refrigerator Repair Pro.

Call for free estimates from local pros now: 1-866-342-3263

About Don Vandervort
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Don Vandervort developed his expertise more than 30 years ago as Building Editor for both Sunset Books and Home Magazine. He has written more than 30 home improvement books and countless magazine articles. He appeared regularly on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert. Don founded HomeTips in 1996.

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