My fridge is failing to cool my food.
May 17, 2008 12:17 PM   Subscribe

The side-by-side fridge in our rental (a GE tfx22zrs, tfx22jrs) has been failing to keep the refrigerator side cool (freezer side works fine). I think I have traced this down to some kind of lightbulb short -- the bulb heats up so much, so fast, I presume it is keeping the food from getting cool; possible fuse problem? Do fridges have user-serviceable fuses? Or is this a compressor problem and the lightbulb a red herring?

So the lightbulb DOES go off when the door closes, but when I put one in, it cooks up fast enough to be too hot to touch in under a minute. Even a CFL gets hot in there in under a minute, which I've never seen before. The lightbulb supposed to be max 60 watts, and I'm using the correct wattage for the incandescent. Unsure what the CFL is, but it's got to be under 60. Here's what else I know:

1. Freezer side works mostly fine

2. ice-maker on freezer side does not work. whatever is under the icemaking contraption thingy after you pull out the plastic ice tray is cold enough to burn your finger.

3. I unplugged and plugged back (into diff socket, but same circuit, presumedly) the fridge. Socket is presumedly properly grounded (it's not on some sort of two-prong adapter, and this building's electrical was probably done in the mid-nineties). I flipped the breaker on and off for the fridge, I believe it is on its own circuit. Fridge has plenty of clearance around the back, but there is some (black) discoloring on the wall near the bottom of the fridge from either an exhaust fan or the compressor.

4. Again, lightbulb DEFINITELY goes off when the fridge door closes. It's a regular socket. I've tried a CFL and an incandescent in there. They both get crazy hot.

5. The freezer lightbulb does not seem to have any problems. It's warm-ish but not hot.

6. I've got the (thermostat?) dial cranked on the fridge side to 9 (the highest), and the compressor is definitely running. There is a second thermostat for our freezer and I have been playing around with the settings on each of them to see if there's some kind of crazy voodoo sweet spot where my fridge will get close with no luck.

7. The compressor in the fridge side shuts off when you turn it all the way to the off position. Does not shut off anywhere before the actual OFF right now, but keep in mind my fridge is pretty warm at the moment. Our electrical usage here seems abnormally high -- we used 120% more electricity than when we were heating our warehouse in the midst of winter with space heaters), but that could be because we have a dishwasher and washer/dryer (electric) here. Also I think we are using our hot water heater more.

8. When we first moved in (2 months ago), the fridge side was cold enough to ice over stuff near the back, so I turned it down. Started noticing it wasn't getting cold enough about two-three weeks ago.

Whew -- thanks for reading all that! I'm pretty sure I'm going to let my landlord know about this and ask him to fix it, but if it's something as simple as swapping out a fuse I'd rather do it myself (and have cold beer by tonight) than deal with scheduling, etc.

"Tell your landlord to fix it" is not what I'm looking for here -- I'm looking to exhaust most all simple DIY remedies before picking up the phone. I'm aware of the many home repair sites on the web, and I've looked through their forums, thanks -- I'm really hoping to find some specific anecdotal experience with this situation.

So, seen this before? Anything I can do? Bonus question: I have the bulb out right now to prove my theory about it causing the food to warm, but if that is going to cause a dangerous situation due to moisture building up on the light socket, well, I don't want to do it.
posted by fishfucker to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
The lightbulb is a red herring.

There should be a fan that will blow cold air from your freezer into the fridge. Try to find this, and make sure that it is working properly.

I am almost certain that this will be your problem - either the fan motor is burnt out or there is an obstruction blocking the air flow. On my GE fridge, this is up near the top of the freezer section.

Having the bulb out is not a dangerous situation, unless there is someone in the household that may stick their finger in there. If you'd feel better, screw the bulb back in, just not all the way.
posted by davey_darling at 12:59 PM on May 17, 2008

99% you've got a defrost system problem, frozen freezer and worm fridge is classic symtoms. There are five components in the defrost system that can cause this symptom: pan heater, defrost timer, limit switch, coil heater, and clogged drain. 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 confirmed some kind of defrost problem.

The above will also explain why the fridge worked when you first moved in; it takes 6-8 weeks for the frost to build up to the point you notice the fridge compartment getting warm.

If it is a defrost problem the solution is going to possibly require tearing apart the inside of the freezing compartment. It'll be a "call your landlord to get them to call in a technician" class problem.
posted by Mitheral at 1:12 PM on May 17, 2008

The other one percent is as davey_darling indicated a cooling system problem, often the fan but possibly the compressor. Usually though you'll hear the fan making making noise before it fails, it's pretty rare for them to just up and quit and SxSs bury the fan pretty deep minimizing the chance for something to jam it. Quite a bit of back and forth in this askme on this subject. The appearance of ice in the fresh compartment when you first moved in would tend to rule out compressor failure or refrigerant leak.
posted by Mitheral at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2008

awesome Mitheral -- I've seen your advice in other fridge threads and was hoping you'd comment, i just didn't know it'd be so fast!

i guess i'm resigned to manually defrosting to confirm the defrost issue (was hoping to avoid this, as i don't have anywhere to put perishables). Thanks for the fan advice, davey, I'll make sure to check that first. Also thanks for the confirmation that the lightbulb out isn't an issue. it's hidden behind a plastic shroud so I don't think anyone will touch it, although I was foolish enough to put my finger on whatever the hell it was in the freezer that burned with a coldness, and i almost stuck a finger into a moving fan in the freezer back as well.

Huh, hey -- would that fan (it's at the top of the freezer, behind the ice cube container) be the one supposed to blow cool air into the freezer? it's actually off right now, but it was spinning crazily earlier. Should I try to crank up the freezer to see if that helps, or should that fan switch be tied solely to the fridge thermo?

fwiw, just opened it up and it's making a soft clicking noise rather than its usual hum (presumedly because that freezer fan is now off), when I rotate the thermo off all the way the soft click turns off. Fridge is still pretty warm (hasn't been opened in an hour), so light bulb must've def. been a red herring.
posted by fishfucker at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2008

When you do the defrost, make sure it is REALLY defrosted. Some fridges have a passageway or drain that connects the freezer/fridge sections, and that will still be frozen after all the ice in the freezer has melted. So you can be in the frustrating position of having to do the defrost routine two or three times before you do it deeply enough for it to work, if you don't nail it on the first try.
posted by Forktine at 1:42 PM on May 17, 2008

oh, and saw your post in the other thread about the ice formation symptoms -- my camera battery is dead right now (just plugged it in), but the build-up on the back of the freezer wall is snowy (like shaved ice) and more than 1/8" thick (but not by much). I can't check it against the pics from that thread because they're no longer up.

Looks like we're pointing towards a defrost prob, though, so maybe it's time to mail the landlord.
posted by fishfucker at 1:44 PM on May 17, 2008

When you do the defrost, make sure it is REALLY defrosted. Some fridges have a passageway or drain that connects the freezer/fridge sections, and that will still be frozen after all the ice in the freezer has melted. So you can be in the frustrating position of having to do the defrost routine two or three times before you do it deeply enough for it to work, if you don't nail it on the first try.

hangon though, the defrost process just confirms there's a problem, right? It doesn't fix it -- or does it? I'd love if all this could be solved by just unplugging the thing for a couple days.
posted by fishfucker at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2008

Defrosting the fridge manually by leaving it with the door open for a day should be sufficient to melt the ice you can't see. This will only "fix" the problem until the ice builds up to the point the fridge doesn't stay cold again; about 4-8 weeks depending on weather and usage. Your landlord will need to get someone in to service the fridge.

I'm not sure what the soft clicking is, could be part of the operation of the icemaker. An even coating of heavy frost isn't usually associated with a cooling problem though the frost can build up in extreme cases till it blocks the movement of the fan. The fan not turning in those cases is a secondary symptom.
posted by Mitheral at 1:59 PM on May 17, 2008

alright, i think that's good enough for me! next steps are to try the defrost method so we can at least have a cold fridge while we deal with scheduling issues. Thanks everybody!
posted by fishfucker at 2:49 PM on May 17, 2008

Defrosting the freezer so that the air can circulate is the immediate solution.

In my experience, though, the freezing up is happening because one or both doors has a worn gasket. Try the dollar bill test. If you close the door on a dollar bill (several places) and can pull the bill out with no resistance, your gasket is no longer sealing properly. Replacing the gasket will prevent the build-up of humidity that is frosting over the airflow. All it needs is a little bit to block the fan, then the process speeds up exponentially until you have the situation you describe.

Gaskets can be ordered and installed yourself. Having a tech do it will be faster but almost as expensive as buying a new (used) fridge (point this out to the landlord if you're game to do it).

Anyway, if you're paying for the electricity, this will save you money.
posted by dhartung at 3:04 PM on May 17, 2008

update: so I defrosted the freezer over the weekend, plugged it back in, and after about a day the fridge returned to a mostly normal temp. I wrote the landlord and he's decided he'd rather replace it than repair it (apparently it is 14 years old), so hey, new fridge, plus cool food in the meantime (hopefully).

Thanks all!
posted by fishfucker at 11:53 AM on May 20, 2008

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