How to Diagnose a Broken Refrigerator

All Posts

Out of all the appliances in your home, the refrigerator is the one you rely on the most to keep things cold and keep your food safe for consumption. So, it’s not surprising that when the refrigerator starts to run warm, stops cooling properly, leaks water or suddenly turns from a quiet machine into a noisy one, you understandably get nervous that your hard-working appliance is about to call it quits. But before you reach for the phone to dial a service person to come over and evaluate it, you can take a few simple steps to diagnose your broken refrigerator yourself - here’s how.

Fix my fridge

First, Check for the Obvious

fridge in kitchen

Before you start tearing your appliance apart, take a minute to make sure it isn’t something obvious like the power or the thermostat. Pull your fridge back slightly and make sure it’s still plugged into the wall. Then, check your fridge’s thermostat to ensure that it hasn’t accidentally been turned up. Finally, look to see if any food items or boxes are blocking the vents, which could prevent cold air from being circulated throughout the fridge.

Required Tools

If your basic evaluation doesn’t yield any solutions, you’ll need to move onto the diagnosis stage and you’ll need some specific tools to help you determine what’s broken on your refrigerator:

  • Multimeter
  • Screwdriver with slotted and Phillips-style bits
  • Putty knife
  • ¼” nut driver set
  • Work gloves
  • Thick towels
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Combination wrench set
  • Shop vac with nozzle attachments

Listen to the Compressor

fridge inspectionThe compressor is the main component that operates your refrigerator. It pushes vapor into the coils, which are outside of the fridge, to cool the contents. The best way to tell if something has gone wrong with the compressor is to pull the fridge slightly out from the wall and listen closely.

Quick Troubleshooting

    • When your fridge is operating properly, you’ll notice the compressor kicking on and off regularly. It will sound like faint humming.
    • If you don’t hear it turn on, listen for about a half an hour. If you don’t hear it during that time, you may have a compressor issue.
    • If the compressor turns on and off but the refrigerator isn’t cold, you still may have a problem.
    • If your compressor constantly runs without shutting off, you need to investigate further.

Caution:

The refrigerator compressor can cost more to repair than replacing the entire appliance. Before you run out to buy a new fridge, you should confirm that the compressor is definitely the problem by following these steps:

  1. Slide the refrigerator away from the wall and unplug it.
  2. Remove the panel on the side of the compressor by taking out the screws holding it on.
  3. Look for the starter relay switch. It looks like an ink cartridge from your home printer. Unplug it from the compressor.
  4. Shake it and listen for a rattle. If you hear a noise, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of money—the relay is bad and you’ll need to order a new one.
  5. If there’s no rattle sound, you likely have a compressor problem and will need to call in a professional.

Test the Evaporator Fan

Evaporator fan After you’ve ruled out anything obvious that could be causing your fridge to be warm or not run properly, you’ll need to move onto the heavy-duty problems. One part that you should look at when you have a broken refrigerator is the evaporator fan.

The evaporator fan, which is located behind the freezer wall, circulates cold air throughout the refrigerator and when it stops working, the temperature will start to rise throughout the appliance. To test to see if it’s still working, you’ll need to put your refrigerator in diagnostic mode.

Quick Troubleshooting

  • Pull out your appliance manual and look up “diagnostic mode.” It will likely require a set of repetitive actions like flipping a switch several times.
  • While in diagnostic mode, run the evaporator fan test (check your manual on how to do this.)
  • If the fan runs during the test, it is operating properly and indicates a bad control board.
  • If the fan doesn’t run during the test, the evaporator fan will need to be replaced by a professional appliance service.
  • If your refrigerator doesn’t have a diagnostic mode, you can still check its operation. It should be located in the freezer section.
  • If the fan blade doesn’t spin freely by hand, it should be replaced.
  • A very noisy evaporator fan motor also indicates a problem and should be replaced.
  • If your motor isn’t working at all, use your multimeter to check for continuity. If it shows no continuity, replace it.

Caution:

Safety first when working on your refrigerator as there is a risk of shock or electrocution. Make sure there’s no water on the floor, unplug the fridge (especially if you are working inside the machine,) and always work within your own expertise. Any time you feel you’re working beyond your skill level, contact a qualified repair service.

Take a Look at the Condenser Coils

Condensor coilsThe condenser coils are the hardest working part on the fridge, and are part of the process that takes hot gas and turns it into cool liquid that makes the refrigerator cold. If the condenser coils aren’t working properly, they could make it very difficult for the refrigerator to be cool.

One of the most common problems with condenser coils is that they are clogged with dust, dirt, or other debris so should be cleaned regularly.

Quick Troubleshooting

    • Empty the refrigerator of its contents.
    • Pull the fridge away from the wall and unplug it.
    • Some refrigerators locate the coils on the back. If your condenser coils are underneath the fridge, you can access them through the back of the unit and the front kick panel. In either case, you may need to remove screws to take off the back panel. 
    • Use a shop vac with a nozzle tool to carefully vacuum dust and debris from the coils and surrounding area.
    • Replace the back panel and plug the appliance back in.

Caution:

Always exercise safety methods when cleaning the coils to prevent shock or electrocution. Be careful when vacuuming the coil area not to break wires or bend tubes.

Check Your Thermostat Function

The thermostat is a vital part of your appliance. If it isn’t operating properly, it will not send the proper signal to the compressor, evaporator fan motor, or condenser fan motor. This can result in the system running too long or too short—making the fridge too cold or too warm.

Quick Troubleshooting

    • Open the refrigerator door and slowly turn the thermostat from the lowest setting to the highest setting.
    • You should hear a clicking sound if it’s working properly.
    • If you don’t hear a click, use your multimeter to test for continuity at each setting. If there is no continuity, you’ll need to contact an appliance repair service to replace it.

Caution:

Always take proper precautions to avoid shock or electrocution. Before using the multimeter to check for continuity, unplug the fridge. 

11 Common Broken Refrigerator Symptoms

Leaking

There are several possible causes for your refrigerator to leak. Common problems are:

  • Clogged or frozen defrost drain—water will overflow the drain and leak onto the floor. Flush with hot water and clear of debris.
  • Water inlet valve—if cracked or loose from the water supply line, water will leak. Inspect and replace if damaged.
  • Drain pan—a cracked pan will leak during the defrost cycle. Replace if cracked.
  • Water filter head—can be cracked or the seal may be torn. This will cause a leak and will need replacement.
  • Water filter housing—replace if cracked to correct leaks.

Food Spoiling

A telltale sign your refrigerator is broken is when your appliance isn’t cooling and your food is spoiling. Here are some common issues that may be at fault:

  • Frosted evaporator coils—this is a direct result of a defective defrost heater assembly. The coils will get plugged with frost or lead to insufficient cooling. A professional will need to repair this.
  • Thermistor—this reads the air temperature for the control board and adjusts power to cool the fridge. If it doesn’t have continuity, replace the board.
  • Temperature control board—this controls the voltage requirements for the compressor and fan motor. A faulty board will require replacement.
  • Damper control assembly—if this is broken or stuck closed, it won’t let enough cold air into the appliance. 

Faulty Lights

Interior lights in your refrigerator help you see what’s inside. If your lights are no longer working when you open the door, you can check these common problems:

  • Power issue—either the fridge is unplugged or the power cord is damaged. The cord should be replaced if so.
  • Broken light switch—this would be located in the door and can be tested with a multimeter for continuity.
  • Bulb socket problem—check for voltage with a multimeter. Some sockets have a safety cut-out feature. Unplug your fridge for 30 minutes. It may reset once you plug it back in.
  • Burned out bulb—if you have an incandescent bulb, check the filament to see if it’s broken. LED bulbs can be tested with a multimeter in voltmeter mode. Replace burned out bulbs.
  • Faulty circuit board—your fridge may have a reed switch that can prevent the light from working. A professional appliance repair service to replace.

Unusual Noise

While many noises are normal and require no action, there are some that can signal significant problems.

  • Grinding, scraping or knocking—there could be an obstruction to either the condenser or evaporator fans. This can lead to blade damage that will need to be replaced.
  • Clicking, buzzing or vibration in the icemaker—if your icemaker isn’t connected to a water supply, make sure it’s turned off. It can be damaged if left on without water.
  • Rattling—this can be caused by items touching the back or sides of your fridge. It might also indicate that the fridge is not level. Adjust the legs accordingly.

No Noise at All

When operating properly, your refrigerator should make a gentle humming noise. If you don’t hear the compressor cycling on and off, it may mean there is a problem that will affect its cooling. Make sure the refrigerator is plugged in and that your circuit breaker hasn’t been tripped. If it still isn’t working right, call for service.

Weak Airflow

Your refrigerator needs to have a certain amount of space around it to vent properly and cause it to use more energy. A ¼” gap should be left around both sides of the appliance and 1” on the top and back.

Keep vents in the back of your fridge and freezer compartments cleared from food, beverages, ice or debris. If you put your hand in the back of the unit, you should feel cool air blowing. Blocked vents can cause moisture and temperature issues.

Emitting a Lot of Heat

Surprisingly, refrigerators do emit heat during normal operation. There are some things you can do to reduce excess heat as well as watch to prevent problems.

    • Clean condenser coils regularly to keep the machine working effectively and reducing heat.
    • Clean the filter with a hose or sink sprayer to keep open air flow and reduce excess heat. Replace damaged or screens.
    • Make sure your fans are working properly. The circulation fan controls airflow over the coils and eventually the condenser. Clean the exhaust and inspect the fan to reduce overheating.
    • If the fridge seems to be extremely hot, contact a repair service.

Surge in Electricity Bills

Refrigerators in general use more than their share of electricity, and aging units are less efficient and run longer. You can replace door seals to help keep the cool air inside.

Keeping the refrigerator temperature between 37 and 40 degrees F and the freezer between 3 and 5 degrees F will keep your appliance working at its optimum efficiency and lower your electric costs.  

Don’t overfill the fridge or freezer, keep liquids and foods covered to reduce excess moisture, keep vents clear and coils cleaned to reduce electric bills.

Ice Building Up in the Freezer

Ice build-up in your freezer can affect the taste of the food and shorten the life of your appliance. Here are some of the potential causes:

  • Too little or too much food—blocked vents and improper airflow in the freezer will lead to ice build-up.
  • Poor door seal—the seal can become brittle with age and prevent it from sealing properly. This allows warm air into the freezer and adds a continuous build-up of frost.
  • Open icemaker door—if it’s built into the door, warm air cont seep into the freezer. Make sure ice doesn’t become lodged in the chute and prevent the door from closing tight.
  • Faulty defrost sensor—most newer refrigerators have an automatic defrost feature. The coils heat up temporarily during the defrost cycle to melt away frost and ice. If the sensor has stopped working properly, you may need to replace it.

Excess Condensation on the Outside

Scientifically, when cold air meets warm air, droplets of moisture form as condensation. It can build up on the outside of your refrigerator when you open the door too often, if the temperature is set too low, and if door seals are damaged. In summer months when the weather is hot and humid, you’ll notice some condensation forming.

Refrigerator Older Than 10 Years

Well-maintained refrigerators can actually last between 10 and 20 years. Most models have been made with EnergyStar standards and features that make them cost-effective and convenient. If you have a broken refrigerator, you may feel it would be better to replace it instead of repair it, but that may not be the case. New model refrigerators have a variety of configurations, finishes and features. Average prices are between $1,000 and $2,000. Even if your 10-year old fridge is experiencing some occasional wear or breakdown issues, it still may be more cost-effective to repair your current unit rather than purchase new. Consider these costs to replace/repair the most expensive components:

Repair Vs Replace

 

 

Average Cost to Replace

Average Cost to Repair

Compressor

$500 to $1,000

$200 to $450

Evaporator Fan

$120 to $150

$120 to $200

Condenser Coils

$200 to $300

$60 to $100

 

FAQ

When should I call for service?

While you may be able to diagnose your broken refrigerator problem yourself, there are some things that will require a professional service call. An overheating fan that’s extremely hot to touch, fridge is warm but freezer is cold, and the compressor isn’t running are just a few instances where you’ll need to call in the pros.

Can I repair my refrigerator compressor without breaking the bank?

Yes, reconditioned compressors are available at an extremely reduced cost—as low as $35 plus installation. While this will only be a temporary fix, it might keep your appliance running long enough to save for a new part.

Can I charge the refrigerant myself?

No, although cans of air conditioning refrigerant can be added to your car, you can’t apply the same methods to repair your refrigerator. New models require a skilled technician to safely and accurately add toxic Freon and install a bullet piercing valve to avoid damaging the unit permanently.

Can’t Figure It Out? Have Puls Come Take a Look

man fixing fridgeIf you’re absolutely stumped over what could be wrong with your fridge—or you know the problem and just need some assistance fixing it—then you may need to call the Puls team of professional technicians to help you troubleshoot the problem.

We know how quickly things can turn chaotic in a household with a broken fridge, which is why we make it easy to book an appointment online in seconds to get the repair process started.

We offer convenient appointments where a specialist will come directly to your house—even as soon as the same day you book—and you can have our appliance repair experts determine what the problem is with your fridge in a flash. Plus, should you choose to have your technician fix the problem, any fees will be waived entirely. Learn how to unlock exclusive benefits with our membership programs too, including Home Appliance Protection Plans.

We also offer a 90-day guarantee on all parts and labor, so you can rest assured that you’ll be taken care of the first time around, and you’ll be covered even long after the technician leaves. Book a refrigerator repair service now to get started, and you can even get 5% off all home services including appliance repair with us by using Code ptake5 - you’ll be glad you did.

Book a fridge repair

Jamie B.
Jamie Birdwell-Branson is a professional writer whose work has appeared on nationally-recognized sites, including Elle Decor, Zillow, BobVila.com, InStyle and others. She has been a Puls staff writer since 2018. When she's not writing for Puls she is either setting up Google alerts for flights to Europe, antiquing, or attempting to fix things in her 1940s Colonial-style house.
Related Posts

Moving is both exciting and time-consuming. Whether you’re moving from an apartment into your first home, relocating to a place with more room, or downsizing to a residence with less maintenance, there’s a lot to do. 

With new energy-efficiency regulations going into effect throughout the U.S. and the cost of just about everything going up, now is the perfect time to start making some green home improvements. Not only can you make your home more comfortable and sustainable, but you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars each year.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes. We’ve watched the home and garden shows on TV and seen the housing market provide record-breaking returns to homeowners that have done a few improvements and updates.