Will I blow more money on a repairperson or by screwing things up myself?
June 24, 2009 3:30 AM   Subscribe

When is it worth trying to fix your own appliances (an Amana ARB1917 bottom-freezer fridge in my case)?

I've fixed a few little things around the house before -- replaced the thermal fuse on a coffee roaster, the gaskets etc. on an espresso machine, the headshell on a record player -- but I've never done any Appliance Repair per se. I can't read those funky diagrams with the squiggly lines, etc.

My Amana bottom-freezer fridge is dying, though, and I THINK I might know what the problem is after a lot of time doing research on various parts and repair sites: the back wall is frosting over and the fridge is not cooling, which by most indications means the defrost timer needs replacing. We're on our third "defrost" -- a 30-hour turn-off of the fridge last time -- and the problem keeps recurring faster and faster and faster.

Here's the thing: I'm 75% sure that's what's wrong, thanks to identical symptoms being posted, and solutions being prescribed, on various Internet forums. But I'm not 100% sure. It might be the defrost heater, it might be the thermostat control.

And these parts are -- for a broke guy trying to make ends meet with his new wife -- expensive. $60 for the defrost timer (I'm in Canada), $30 or so for the heater, plus shipping, etc.

So the spectre of getting something wrong, either in breaking the fridge even worse by mucking around, or just screwing up the part, or not having the right problem identified in the first place, makes me think the probable $100+ or so for a repairperson to come and know what exactly to do might be a worthwhile investment.

Then again, that's another $100+ I don't have.

So I'm really quite torn, and I'm hoping somebody with more DIY and appliance repair expertise than me will be able to offer some advice: how likely is it that a modestly skilled newbie will be able to open, disassemble, and reassemble a fridge without incident?

Is it worth trying to fix myself, given the expense of the parts, or should I just bite the bullet and pay a repairman?
posted by Shepherd to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
These kind of things are always tough to answer. I'm the sort of person who thinks nothing of doing things that a less enthusiastic psychotic person would take to a pro every time. It's not like you're going to have to take it apart, no piece touching another piece. However, you've hit upon the big issue with fixing things yourself - you don't have the baseline for diagnosis that a pro is going to have, and there is no "Refrigerator Talk" on NPR.

I'd get on the forums and ask if there was a sure fire diagnosis you could do and how hard the task was. I mean, when I was 80% sure my Volvo's drive shaft was going, I was delighted to find out I could just yank the part off the car and, drive around for a while, and see if the problem continued. (Think of it as an AWD to FWD conversion.) If you can do X and confirm the issue, you win. Pat self on back. Order part.

Another thing to consider is that this is likely to be very model specific. It could be like changing a light bulb. It could be like a heart/lung transplant.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:17 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

After years and years of doing my own repairs on bikes, cars, appliances, etc I can say one thing with great authority:

The first time you try something really new, it'll cost 50% more in time+money than hiring a pro.

The second time, it'll cost 50% less.

The third, 75% less.

And so on.

Learning something like this is an investment. Like all investments, your returns on it over your lifetime will be greater if you start now.
posted by paanta at 5:28 AM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think you are underestimating the cost of a repairman. In the US they charge about $75 to show up at your door, plus another $75 an hour while they are there, rounded up to the next hour, plus full retail for the parts.

Coincidentally, I had a repairman out yesterday for the same symptoms. There is one other possibility though - it could be the main control board. That board (in GE fridges anyway) is damn expensive - $200. Luckily for me, we just replaced the board 9 months ago and it was still under warranty so this one was free - I just paid for the labor. I believe Amana and GE are basically the same thing.

My rule with the fridge has been if I have have time to research and figure it out myself, I attempt the repair. If a freezer full of food is melting (like I discovered on Monday) I call the pro and get it done quick.
posted by COD at 5:42 AM on June 24, 2009

I've replaced a timer before and it was an easy job on my model, and fixed the problem, which sounds just like what you've got. My model also used what seemed to be a fairly standard and generic timer. I got it from the place that sold me the (used) fridge, free.

So there is the possibility that you don't need a $60 timer and a significantly cheaper one would work.

But, as you say, how do you know that's the problem? On mine it was easy to test. I pulled off the back of the refrigerator and the timer was bolted to the rear of the frame, a plastic box with a wire plug connector. Handily, it had a slot in the exposed plastic shaft of one of the gears, that you could turn with a screwdriver. Don't use too much force because it's just plastic and there's a ratcheting mechanism allowing it to turn in one direction but not the other.

It may be harder to find timer box, and you might need to unbolt it to access it. But if yours has a slot like that just stick in an appropriate screwdriver and turn. Be careful since you'll have electricity in there and the timer box will still need to be plugged in. If the problem is the timer you'll turn it past the point where it's sticking on the defrost cycle and the compressor will turn on.

If this doesn't fix it you know the problem is elsewhere (or a more serious failure in the timer box) but I'm pretty sure this will fix it. The timer may work for a bit longer or it might hang on the next defrost cycle (and you can do the screwdriver trick again to turn it past the defrost spot). If this does fix it take the box down to a local used appliance store and see if they've got one that uses the same plug. This does appear to be pretty standardized stuff, as far as I can tell. It's possible a new box will be a functional replacement but need to be mounted a bit differently.
posted by 6550 at 7:43 AM on June 24, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you for replies to date. I generally agree, paanta, which is what gave me the gumption to try to fix the espresso machine and coffee roaster; this, however, is a bigger-ticket item that is more central to my life (and, importantly, my wife's life) so my nervousness is a little higher.

6550, the problem I seem to be experiencing is that when I find the defrost timer (which is helpfully shown on an exploded diagram of how the fridge is constructed on part-ordering sites), it seems to be housed in a location I can't access without disassembling the fridge to the point where it pretty much has to be unplugged.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the fridge has to be running for two or three days before the build-up of frost gets bad enough that it starts freaking out again, so there's no opportunity to turn something, turn the fridge on, and get immediate yes/no feedback on whether something I've done has worked. Another reason to be nervous, I suppose.

I've managed to get the back panel off, to see how bad the frosting is behind it: it's bad enough that I suspect I might find a paleolithic hunter/gatherer sealed in there somewhere. I'm currently trying to get to where I THINK the defrost timer is, but have hit a snag in that I can't seem to unhouse the light assembly at the top of the fridge.

My current philosophy is "disassemble, and if not confident, call a repairman." It's St-Jean here in Quebec today, so there are no service people working, so it has to wait until tomorrow either way. I'm using today to go on exploratory missions and see what I can see, and then make the call re. buying parts/calling for help.
posted by Shepherd at 9:02 AM on June 24, 2009

Response by poster: And hooray, I finally managed to get to the defrost timer.

Follow-up question: the freezer is defrosting. The ice is melting. There is a lot of ice. Where is all this water going?
posted by Shepherd at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2009

There is usually a drip pan under the fridge which catches condensate. You will no doubt have to empty it several times.
posted by plinth at 1:06 PM on June 24, 2009

Another issue is energy efficiency. We had a refrigerator that had the timer problem and spent about $170 for a guy to come out and replace it. A year later, the refrigerator died again. It was about 15 years old, by the way. This time the original repair guy said it wasn't fixable. I called someone else and he said we needed to recharge the freon, which didn't work at all. AFter some negotiation, that guy charged us only for the gas. I considered that a stupidity tax.

I then looked at buying a new refrigerator. An Energy Star GE that fit in the space we had in the cut out in the counter cost about $600. It also reduced our electric bills by almost $20 per month. You have to remember that the refrigerator efficiency relies on the timer, the coolant, the seals an the thermostat, and all of those become less efficient as the refrigerator gets older.

Ps. We had a Hotpoint range/oven that went south a couple of years ago. I figured out that the likely culprit was the glowbar, and after reading up on it decided that the piece was too costly and the installation complicated enough that we would get a pro in. He came and he fixed it in less than an hour. Earlier this year the glowbar failed again, and it turns out their expected life span is anywhere from 1 year to 7 years.

Again we decided to buy a new one, but this time we're not saving any money. Ranges and ovens aren't more energy efficient. And modern appliances are disappointing in their build. There was nothing satisfying about buying the new range, except that it works.
posted by pkreutzer at 7:54 PM on June 24, 2009

I have a similar fridge with the same problem, the timer you're looking for is in the roof of the fridge where the lights are. You can easily remove the timer and test if it's working : some pins should conduct or not depending on the mode. (google this) It should also change mode by itself when plugged.

To defrost it quickly, remove the back metal panel in the freezer and blow air with a fan for one hour. À 30° it should take an hour. You'll also get to see the thermostat which is behind the plate and is easily testable too (it should conduct electricity if it's cold enough).
posted by isobar at 10:18 PM on June 24, 2009

Response by poster: Trying the timer test... I found it, plugged the fridge back in, turned the timer until it went "click" and the fridge shut off. It's been 35-40 minutes and the fridge hasn't kicked back on, so I suspect I've found my problem.

Confusing things, though -- before I plugged the fridge back in, I found the thermostat and tried to find the lead wires going into it. Its red wire leads to a white plastic plug-in connector (the sort of thing I'm more used to seeing on computer power supplies), and the brown wire is bundled with five other wires in a kind of big white plastic multi-connector.

I have a multimeter, and the probes SEEM to be designed to fit right into this type of connector. They slot right into the open ends.

But since the connection on the thermostat is supposed to be open, I can't tell if the multimeter is WORKING and the thermostat is BROKEN, or if the thermostat is working and the multimeter's leads don't work like that in this connector type.

The tone generator sounds on the multimeter when I touch the probes together, but when I insert the probes into these white connector things for the respective wires, I don't get any tone.

So I'm still a bit baffled -- the defrost timer doesn't seem to be kicking the fridge back on, but I'm not sure if I'm using the multimeter right (on the tone setting) to test the thermostat. Might it even be both parts?

How do I disconnect the wires from these plastic connectors? It might be a simple as "a sharp tug", but I'm obviously nervous about just reefing on the things in case I break something badly.
posted by Shepherd at 4:14 AM on June 25, 2009

Response by poster: EDIT: whoop, never mind, the fridge just kicked back on at about the 42-minute mark. So the timer might not be the problem at all. That leaves the heater and the thermostat, so the above question about the multimeter/how to disconnect the thermostat is now much more relevant.
posted by Shepherd at 4:17 AM on June 25, 2009

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