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Refrigerator Repair & Icemaker Repair

Chapter 7
UNUSUAL COMPLAINTS and
STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES

Occasionally you will run into an unusual problem that requires you to scratch your head a bit. If you know the basic refrigerator systems and what they do, you can usually figure out what's going on. Following is a smattering of some of the more unusual or flukey things that I've run into as a home service technician:


7-1 KID CAPERS

If your fridge is warm, always check your controls first. Many a time, I was called to someone's house on a "warm fridge" complaint, only to find that the controls had been magically shut off.

When the little darlings of the household were queried about this divine occurrence, you could literally see the halo forming around their heads. "Did you touch the refrigerator?" Mom would ask. Standing beside the refrigerator that hadn't moved an inch in all of his (or her) six years, the child would inevitably reply: "What refrigerator, Mom?" I'm sure that my soul will burn in hell, but it was no moral dilemma for me to charge the 30 dollar service fee in such cases. One fellow whose unit I "fixed" in this way lost well over 500 dollars worth of meats from his packed-full deep freezer.

Only one time did I see a truly unexplainable occurrence of the controls getting shut off. This was a single lady of about 55 with no kids, who had owned the refrigerator for over 25 years. I'm not trying to harp on kids; it's just that as a home service tech, I've seen a lot of money wasted on unnecessary (and expensive) service calls with suspicious circumstances in homes with kids.

Do yourself a favor; check the controls first. Set them on mid-range settings. You might save yourself a lotta time, trouble, and expense.


7-2 THE HOLE-IN-THE-WALL GANG

One of the more perplexing problems that I ran into was a young couple (with 4 or 5 kids) that had a warm fridge. Upon investigation, I discovered that the Freon tubes leading to and from the evaporator (above it on their side-by-side fridge) were heavily frosted with clear, solid ice. Also, the wires leading to the evaporator fan and defrost heater were heavily caked with solid ice. I didn't understand that frost pattern at all, and I was rushed that day, so I replaced the defrost timer and melted the ice, fully figuring I'd get a callback. Sure enough, five days later, they called me back. Same problem, same weird frost pattern.

I took off the evaporator cover panel and just stood there and STARED at the thing for about ten minutes. (Sometimes that helps me to think. You can't do that if the customer is standing there, looking over your shoulder. But he was at work, and she was busy with her kids.) I was just trying to think of where all that moisture could be coming from.

Suddenly, I noticed a hole, about 1" in diameter, in the upper left corner of the defrost compartment. I pulled the fridge away from the wall, and saw daylight through the hole. It was the pre-drilled hole for the icemaker water tube. (They did not have an icemaker, but most modern fridges come pre-drilled and wired for icemakers in case you ever want to install one.) Warm, humid air was feeding straight into the evaporator compartment!! I asked the lady about it. She said that her husband, just messing around, had pulled the little cover off the back of the fridge "about two weeks ago." I stuffed the little hole with some bubble-pack that I just happened to have around and duct-taped both sides to seal the hole.

Ignorance really can cost you. But at least the kids didn't do it this time.


7-3 REFRIGERATOR DOOR SEALS AND ALIGNMENT

I personally think that door seals are one of the most misunderstood pieces of the refrigerator. Ask a do-it-yourselfer about why his fridge is warm, and the first thing he'll say after "I don't do Freon" is "but let's check the door seals." Door seals rarely have problems over the life of the fridge. The only ones I've seen go bad are in households that have dogs or cats that like to chew or sharpen their claws on them, or kids (there's those pesky kids again) that like to climb or hang on the refrigerator door. A really bad door seal problem is most likely to show up as a defrost problem, due to humid air getting into the fridge.

Door seals are magnetically held to the door frame and mullions. (See Figure 43 for a typical cross-section.) Unless the seal is shredded or you can physically see a gap between the seal and the door frame with the door closed, there is no reason to suspect a door seal problem.

Figure 43: Typical Door Seal
Typical Refrigerator Door Seal

To replace the seal, you must have a nut driver of the proper size. A power cordless drill-driver is better. A magnetic tip may prevent you from going crazy trying to hold the driver, the screw and the seal at the same time. There are lot of screws holding the seal on. Remove the screws from NO MORE THAN two sides at a time. One side at a time is better. The idea is to prevent the plastic inner door liner (or shelving) from drifting around — if you have to re-align it, it can be a long, frustrating, trial-and-error process. The new seal will fit in the same way as the old one came out.

You are much more likely to have a door alignment problem or warping. There's not much you can do with a badly warped door except to try to warp it back into shape, or replace it.

With the door closed, measure the gap around it; top and bottom, left and right. Check if the door edges and refrigerator edges are parallel. If the measurements indicate that the door is badly out of alignment, re-align it be loosening the hinges slightly (one hinge at a time) and shifting the door around. It may take a few tries to get it aligned properly.

Remove anything obstructing the seals. Sometimes the kick plate will get in the way. If it's metal, you may be able to bend it slightly to solve your problem.


7-4 MOVING DAY

If you have to move your fridge for any reason, make sure that you keep it upright. If you turn it on its side there's a strong probability that the compressor oil will run out of the compressor and into the condenser, and when you start the fridge, the compressor will burn out within a few hours or even minutes, for lack of lubrication. I've heard of people getting lucky and getting away with it; maybe they just happened to lay it on the "lucky" side of the fridge. It's not worth the risk. If your fridge has been laid on its side, stand it upright again but don't plug it in for a day or two. Just hope that either the oil drains back into the compressor or that it didn't run out in the first place.


7-5 A SHOCKING EXPERIENCE(MULLION HEATERS)

Once I was called to the home of a little old dog-breeder who had complained of being shocked while opening his refrigerator door. When I arrived, I couldn't feel anything at all — until once I happened to be leaning against the metal door of his oven (opposite his fridge) when I touched his door — ZAP! I put a volt meter between the two doors and discovered 50 volts!!

It turned out that the mullion (anti-sweat) heater (see section 4-1) in his door had shorted, and was grounding wherever it could — right through him to the oven door. Since this happened in a not-too-humid environment, the solution was simple. I disabled the heater by disconnecting and insulating the heater leads at the base of the door, where they went into the fridge. This story is made even more interesting by the fact that the little old dog-breeder's wife had just had open-heart surgery and a pacemaker installed three weeks before. I shudder to think what could have happened had she touched the fridge.

Another interesting observation about mullion heaters is that if your fridge starts to become warm, one of the first signs may be that the door jamb start to feel downright hot. This happens when the refrigerator is no longer removing heat from the doorframe and the mullion heater inside. This is especially prevalent in the doorframe between the food and freezer compartment in a side-by-side.


7-6 MICE CAPADES

A few years back, where I lived in Southern California, we had a nasty cold spell; I mean, it was well below 45 degrees every day for a week. (Eat your hearts out, Midwesterners.) About a week later, I got a call from a lady with a warm fridge. Upon investigation, I found that a mouse, apparently seeking the warmth of the compressor, had crawled into there and died (whether from the heat of the compressor or from getting struck by the condenser fan, I don't know.) Anyway, he got stuck to the floor pan near the condenser fan and as he dried out, his feet and tail curled up until they finally got stuck in and stopped the condenser fan. In the home-service biz, you learn to start looking for animal and insect problems after a cold spell; lizards in the dryer vent, birds that fly into the oven roof vent and get baked and jam your oven hood exhaust fan...stuff like that.

Another neat trick that animals (especially rodents, but sometimes cats, too) like to play is to get under the fridge and start chewing wires or insulation. This can cause electrical problems, or loose insulation might get caught in the condenser fan. Cats have been known to tear off the bottom back panel of the fridge. This disturbs the airflow over the condenser and may jam the condenser fan with fiberglass insulation.


7-7 ICEMAKERS AND IN-DOOR WATER DISPENSERS

If you start to get an unusual buildup of ice in one particular spot in your freezer, especially beneath the icemaker, check for water leaks.

 

Water leaking onto the kitchen floor not traceable to one of the problems in Chapters 4 or 6 may be from a leak in the icemaker or door dispenser water system. Icemakers have a water solenoid valve mounted on the back of the fridge, usually behind the back bottom panel, and a water tube that leads straight up the back of the fridge to the icemaker. Door dispensers have a similar water solenoid valve with a water tube that leads beneath the fridge and into the door through a hollow hinge. If your fridge has both features, it's usually a dual water solenoid valve. It can be simple or not-so-simple to fix, but basically it's just a plumbing job.


7-8 SEE THE LIGHT

On several occasions, I have been called to peoples' homes with the complaint that the freezer or food section was cold in the bottom, but felt like a warming oven was on in the top of the compartment.

It turned out in every case that the interior lights were not shutting off. (A light bulb puts out enough heat to actually warm the top of the compartment. Remember, warm air rises.) There are two things that might cause this.

One is a defective door switch, easily diagnosed and corrected.

The other is if nothing is contacting the door switch. Some units were built with a removable interior shelf that also shut off the light by contacting the door switch. Remove the shelf, and nothing hits the switch; the light doesn't turn off.

The easiest way to diagnose this is to peek into the compartment while slowly closing the door. If the light does not shut off well before the door is fully closed, test the switch and look at its closing mechanism and see what's happening.


7-9 BAD ODORS

To my experience, this is one of the toughest problems to solve. I have been called out on a variety of "bad odor" complaints, and rarely are they solvable. Modern fridges, with few exceptions, have plastic interiors that do absorb odors to some degree, rather than the porcelain interiors standard in days of yore. If you have an odor problem, it may help to keep an open box of baking soda in there, or to wash out the interior of the fridge with a very mild bleach solution.

If your fridge has had a meltdown (thawed out with everything in it), try pulling off whatever panels you can and see if any meat blood or other smelly stuff has gotten under them. Styrofoam panels can absorb odors, too, but try washing with a mild soap solution.

One semi-solvable odor problem that I ran into was a fellow whose fire-engine red fridge was getting warm and it had an absolutely acrid smell within. It turned out that the defrost heater lead within the defrost compartment had shorted out and burned off a bunch of its heavy rubber insulation, then melted itself so the defrost system was not working. I fixed the fridge, but I do not know if he ever got out the burnt-rubber smell.


7-10 FIX THE LITTLE STUFF

Have you had a broken door catch or handle? For years? A light bulb out? How about the kickplate...how long has it been falling off? Maybe you have a missing shelf, or one shelf that's cracked.

You know the one I'm talking about; every time you put something on that shelf, you have to do a quick mental weight and stress calculation to make sure everything on it doesn't end up on the kitchen floor. It's really annoying to think about, isn't it? So naturally, you just stop thinking about it.

Take the time to make it right! Plastic parts are usually not that expensive; though things like shelves usually must be gotten through the dealer or factory warehouse. Special appliance light bulbs are a couple of bucks at your nearest appliance parts dealer. How much is your peace of mind worth?


7-11 STRANGE REFRIGERATOR NOISES

Actually, there aren't too many things in a fridge that can cause a lot of noise. A few that you might commonly hear are:

A rattling or a buzzing noise might be coming from the evaporator or condenser fan hitting something. It may also be that the defrost drain pan or compressor mounts are loose and something is vibrating a bit.

A whistling or warbling sound usually is coming from the evaporator fan motor. Replace as described in section 4-3.

A hissing or gurgling sound might happen for a few minutes after the compressor shuts off. This is the Freon flowing through the tubing in the system. When the pressure throughout the system equalizes, the noise will stop. If there is no evaporator fan running, you may hear the Freon gurgling through the evaporator at any time the fridge is running.


7-12 FIRE IN THE FRIDGE!!!

Okay, you're the tech. You get a frantic call from a customer saying there's a red glow in the bottom of the freezer in his side-by-side; he's afraid that something's burning. He doesn't hear it running, but he does hear popping and hissing noises. You rush over to his home, and when you get there, you don't see any red glow. You do notice that the light doesn't work in the freezer. He says that it went out months ago, and he hasn't gotten around to replacing it. He has had the fridge for ten years, and has never seen a red glow down there before. What do you do?

If you're me, you grab a screwdriver, reach down to the defrost timer and set it on "defrost" again. Then you reach into your tool kit for your trusty, dusty extendable inspection mirror.

You show the customer, via the mirror, the red-glowing defrost heater. You explain the defrost system and why he's never noticed a red glow before:

When the light bulb was working, the interior of the fridge was so bright that he just couldn't see that dim red glow. And the defrost heater is only on for about 10 or 15 minutes every 6 to 8 hours. What are the odds against his opening the fridge at just the right time and seeing the fridge in a defrost cycle?

Then you sell him a special appliance light bulb for three-fifty, plus a second one as a spare, and you charge him a 30-dollar service call fee besides.

As I said before, ignorance truly can cost you.