What's wrong with my 'fridge?
June 24, 2006 1:57 PM   Subscribe

What's wrong with my 'fridge? The refrigerator is only cooling down to about 60 deg. F, and the freezer is only going down to 30 deg. F, even on maximum cool settings. Secondarily, is it worth getting it repaired, and is that even possible?

I'd understand if it was not working at all, but this kind of mediocre cooling seems very odd to me. Is this something that a repairperson can come out and fix, or have we gotten to the point that it is cheaper and easier to just replace it? It's no Sub-Zero, but it is a decently large side-by-side fridge. It's probably between five and seven years old, if that matters.
posted by Rock Steady to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My parents' fridge did this once and it turned out there's a fan that circulates air that had stopped working. It cost less than a new fridge to get it fixed. I have no idea if this is what's wrong with your fridge, but you should be able to tell if the fan's still working by listening and feeling the vents inside for air flow.
posted by Opposite George at 2:07 PM on June 24, 2006

It could be any number of things such as:

The refrigerant is getting low (easily fixed) which is due to a leak in one of the connections along the refrigerant route or a small hole in the coils.
The compressor is about to die (fairly easily fixed).

Regardless, I would call a repairman fairly soon. It will be much less costly than buying a new fridge, and it could go completely out at any moment.

If you are curious about the various parts in the system: Check this out.

posted by Benway at 2:08 PM on June 24, 2006

This happened to me. It is completely worth getting it repaired. Your food isn't going to keep well unless it's nice and cold inside.

For me, there was some sort of heating element in the freezer that wasn't working. The repairman thought it was a timer? Something that told the heater to turn on, which it wasn't doing. Hence, I had a huge icy buildup all over the freezer, but nothing was ever really cold.
posted by hooray at 2:23 PM on June 24, 2006

Vacuum any dust from the air intake. Power off for a minute and back on, to reboot any internal processor.

Also you can shut it off for a few days and try restarting, which might reboot any internal processor.

Try unplugging it for a few days, until it completely defrosts, its possible to get ice on the thermostat.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:25 PM on June 24, 2006

Look at the back of the fridge first (outside). There should be a mesh of black wires there - that's the heat exchanger. Make sure it's clean. If the wires are covered in dust then your fridge can't move heat away efficiently and the inside won't cool down.

We had an air conditioner that was working poorly and all we had to do was clean the heat vanes off.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 2:26 PM on June 24, 2006

Consumer Reports says (more or less) that you should get a refrigerator fixed if it is still under warranty or is under 4 years old. You should think about the alternatives if the fridge is between 4 and 7 years old and replace it if it is more than 7 years old.

I'd call the repairman and be prepared to shell out a couple hundred bucks. A new side by side starts at about $700.00 and goes up rapidly.
posted by faceonmars at 2:31 PM on June 24, 2006

When our fridge had the same problem it was the thermostat and cost less than a hundred dollars, I think around sixty.
posted by LarryC at 2:46 PM on June 24, 2006

Best answer: There are five components in the defrost system that can cause these general symptoms: pan heater, defrost timer, limit switch, coil heater. Any of these will be less than $200 to fix 19 times out of 20. Maytag stuff will be more. You can test for a bad defrost system yourself:
  1. Empty fridge and freezer.
  2. Leave the door open and allow freezer to manually defrost for 24-36 hours.
  3. plug fridge in and allow to run for a couple days.
  4. If the fridge is working you've got some kind of defrost problem.
There are three components in the refrigeration system that can cause these general symptoms: Evaporator fan/switch, weak compressor, refrigerant leak. A fan will cost less than 200 to fix, a compressor is going to run $300-500 and a leak is going to run $200-400 depending on where the leak is. If you can hear the evaporator fan running when you hold in the upper fan switch it probably isn't the fan.

You could also have a bad control thermostat but usually your freezer and fridge end up at about the same temperature.

There is also the off chance you have some other problem but generally your compressor is the most expensive repair.
posted by Mitheral at 4:06 PM on June 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

I've seen a couple of top-freezer fridges do something like this when a refilled icetray full of water gets spilled in the freezer. The water froze on the circulating fan and cold air couldn't move around. A hair dryer worked well to thaw and dry the fan and after that all was back to normal.
posted by techgnollogic at 4:07 PM on June 24, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the comprehensive answer Mitheral. So, after emptying out the fridge today I'm noticing what seems to be an excessive amount of frost on the rear wall of the freezer. I guess it could be like that all the time (it's usually too full to notice) but does that increase the likelihood that it's a defrost problem?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:52 PM on June 24, 2006

Best answer: If the frost is more than an 1/8" thick and very snowy in appearance there's a good chance it is part of the heating bits of the defrost cycle that have broken IE: defrost element/coil heater, limit switch or timer. If the frost is a solid fairly clear ice it points to a pan heater or plugged drain (the fifth possiblity I left out in my previous comment). A light coating of whitish ice can be normal.

If the frost is not even all the way across then it can point to a weak compressor or leak.

I can often tell with a glance which of the three possiblities it is so if you can post a picture please do.

If it is the defrost system your fridge will work fine after the defrost and then slowly start warming up over the next couple weeks.

If it is the defrost system make sure you let the fridge frost up before scheduling an appointment, the service tech won't be able to test it if it isn't.
posted by Mitheral at 8:14 PM on June 24, 2006

Response by poster: OK, Mith:

1/8" think = yes
Snowy = yes
Solid ice = no
Photos = 1 2 3

Photo notes = The rectilinear shapes are not caused by features on the interior of the freezer wall (the wall is flat), but apparently but something behind it. The (barely visible) Mickey Mouse shape is caused by my hamfingers poking at the frost to determine depth.

Man, I love AskMe. I was ready to buy a new fridge today.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:14 PM on June 24, 2006

Response by poster: but apparently but = but apparently by
posted by Rock Steady at 9:26 PM on June 24, 2006

Yep looks like your defrost system isn't working, 80% chance anyways. I'd call a technician.1 SxS heating elements run a bit more expensive than over under styles because their are two or three instead of just one. But there is an equal chance it's the timer or the limit switch. You can verify the defrost system diagnostic by doing the manual defrost I outlined earlier.

PS: throw a towel or two down around the fridge and in the bottom of the freezing compartment, the manual defrost procedure will probably overwhelm the capacity of your catch tray.

[1] Well I wouldn't, I am one, but you should unless you are good with electricity.
posted by Mitheral at 9:41 PM on June 24, 2006

I recently had an evaporator fan motor go out on our fridge [it's located inside the freezer]. It makes a high pitched sound, so I used this website to narrow it down to the actual part:


When looking back at the entire experience, the part cost me $50 and I did the work myself, but I would consider the following before taking on a DIY project:

1) Are you comfortable as DIY'er?
2) Are you willing to sacrifice time and a fridgeless house for a few hours?

Anyhow, the evaporator fan to my knowledge circulates air onto some heating element coils. These heating elements are part of a system that automatically defrosts your freezer. It heats up the frosted up portions of fridge and the melted water drips into a pan below your fridge. Another fan blows onto it and it helps the water "dry up." Sometimes something goes bad with the process and then you get a "warm" or broken fridge as in your case.

I bought my part from a Sears parts store and they were very helpful.

On a seperate note note, repair labor rates are crazy high, but repair people have to make a living too. So I say go for it if you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself.

Best of luck with your decision!
posted by huy_le at 9:56 PM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again Mitheral. I'm going to do the manual defrost tomorrow, and then I'll be calling a technician to come and take a look. Do you still think US$200 is a good ballpark estimate?

Neat site, huy_le!
posted by Rock Steady at 10:13 PM on June 24, 2006

huy_le writes "the evaporator fan to my knowledge circulates air onto some heating element coils. These heating elements are part of a system that automatically defrosts your freezer."

The evaporator fan does not operate during the defrost cycle.

A failed evaporator fan will sometimes cause similiar symptoms because it can cause the coil to ice excessively at the top of the coil and the heating element at the bottom of the coil can't melt the build up before the end of the defrost cycle. Usually though you hear the symptom as cold freezer warm fridge because the fan is the only thing keeping the fresh food compartment cool as there are no cooling coils in that compartment. Plus 95% of the time failure is proceeded by noise.

Rock Steady writes "Do you still think US$200 is a good ballpark estimate?"

Probably, the big variable is the labour and call out fee but I'm not up on current rates in the US.
posted by Mitheral at 1:16 AM on June 25, 2006

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