Anatomy of a Refrigerator
Philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon, said, “Knowledge is power”.
You may be wondering what this statement has to do with appliances. Since most people own several appliances, I thought it might be useful to provide you with some understanding of how the most common household appliance actually works.
Nearly every home has a refrigerator for safe storage of fresh food, and many have a freezer for longer-term frozen storage of food. At some point your refrigerator or freezer may show signs of wear or, even worse, suddenly stop working altogether. You may be faced with the dilemma of appliance repair or replacement. It is my hope that Refrigerator 101 will empower you to make better informed decisions in the future about whether to call a technician, replace your appliance, or attempt a repair yourself. (As an aside, Francis Bacon died of pneumonia while studying the preservation of meat by freezing it.)
Electric-operated refrigerators/freezers keep foods cold or frozen by “refrigeration” based on the thermodynamic principle of heat loss or gain through change of state (gas versus liquid) of a refrigerant. An example is the cool feel when liquid water on your skin evaporates to gas. HFC-134a or R-134a (1,1,2-Tetrafluoroethane) is the common refrigerant that is continuously recycled through the refrigeration system.
Five main components in your refrigerator/freezer are likely to be at the heart of your appliance repair decision. They are connected in a closed loop. As the refrigerant moves through the loop it changes between liquid and gas to move heat from the inside of the refrigerator/freezer to external air. Other parts may fail but they are likely less costly and easier to repair.
• Thermostat: connected to the evaporator coils, monitors inside temperature and stops or starts the compressor to keep temperatures at a set level.
• Compressor: sealed reciprocating pump, located on the back or bottom of unit, removes refrigerant gas from the evaporator coils inside the unit and compresses the low temperature/pressure gas to a hot high pressure gas. The compressor electric motor is the main energy user and the most costly component to replace.
• Condenser: copper coils located outside the unit and exposed to the air. Hot high pressure gas from the compressor flows through the condenser coils; gas converts to a liquid and heat dissipates to the air.
• Expansion Valve: located near the evaporator coils. Cooled liquid refrigerant from the condenser coils passes through the valve, the pressure drops at the outlet into the evaporator coils, and the liquid evaporates to cooler gas.
• Evaporator: refrigerant evaporates to gas in the aluminum evaporator coils inside the unit and absorbs heat. The refrigerant gas with absorbed heat then goes back to the compressor.
Your appliance repair or replacement decision should be based on a reliable repair estimate and the status of your appliance. Answers to the following questions about your refrigerator may help you in your repair-replace decision making.
• Is it under warranty? If so, then repair is the best choice. Built-ins should be repaired even if not under warranty.
• How old is it? Refrigerator/freezer life spans are 10 to 20 years. Repair cost risk is low under 8 years so repair may be best. Over 15 years when risk is high consider replacement. From 8 to 15 years risk is medium so carefully weigh repair costs. The low risk years for side-by-sides are under 5. Repair top and bottom-freezers less than 7 years and replace after that. Consider repairing high-end appliances at any age especially if they have been reliable but use qualified repair services.
• What is the cost of repairs? Repair costs should be less than half the replacement cost for low risk years and less than a third for medium risk years. Add in other costs for labor, parts delivery, disposal, and unexpected changes to power or plumbing.
• What are some other considerations? Past repairs increase risk despite age. Replace if you plan to remain in your current home. New Energy Star appliance operating costs may offset repair costs. Look for rebates.
Doing repairs yourself may be possible and feasible if you have access to the appliance manual. (These can sometimes be downloaded off the internet). Gord’s Appliance also has a Parts Division you can contact at 800-941-4755 to order the parts you need. If you are too far out of your element but still feel a repair is warranted, Contact Gord’s Appliance for repair and servicing of all your residential appliances.