Solved! What to Do When Your Refrigerator Stops Cooling
No need to toss—or eat—all of the chilled food before it goes bad. Any of these easy solutions can get your hardworking kitchen appliance running again.
Q: A can of soda that I just pulled out of my fridge is barely cool. I’ve also recently noticed that my milk isn’t as cold as it used to be. Why is my refrigerator not cooling these drinks properly? Do I have to call a repairman, or is there something I can do?
A: While some refrigerator cooling problems do require professional assistance, don’t call the repairman just yet. You might be able to fix the situation yourself. It’s certainly worth a shot, since the average professional service call can run $150 or more. Depending on what’s causing your fridge not to keep perishable foods cold enough, the following procedures might help.
Make sure your fridge is getting power. This might sound too simple to be the answer, but a power cord that has worked loose in its outlet or a flipped breaker will shut the entire fridge down. Open the door. If the light comes on, the fridge still has power and you can move on to the next possible problem-solution set. If the light doesn’t come on, make sure the power cord is plugged in firmly and check again. Still no light? Check your main electrical panel for a flipped breaker and switch it back on if necessary.
Check the refrigerator’s thermostat. New refrigerators usually come preset at a mid-range temperature, between 35 and 37 degrees Fahrenheit because that’s the optimal temperature range for a fridge in order to keep perishable foods safe. Thermostat dials inside the fridge can get bumped by cartons of milk or other items, though, which can change the set temperature. Even exterior digital thermostats can also be inadvertently changed by little fingers or if someone leans against the control panel, unknowingly changing the temperature. Many digital panels come with the ability to lock the settings for just that reason. Reset the temperature to the safe zone if necessary.
Test the seals on your fridge doors. Even if the rest of your refrigerator is working fine, if the magnetic seals on the doors—also called “door gaskets”—are defective, cool air from inside the fridge could be escaping. Door gaskets can get brittle over time, which reduces their ability to form a tight seal. Test the seal by putting a dollar bill halfway in the door and then close the door. If you feel resistance when you pull it out, the seal is still working, but if the bill slips out easily, you’ll need to replace the door gaskets. Replacing the gaskets is an easy enough project for eager do-it-yourselfers. Door gaskets range in price from around $45 dollars to $75, or more, depending on the brand and model of fridge. Check your owner’s manual to determine the correct replacement gaskets. Detailed DIY replacement instructions can be found in your owner’s manual or in the replacement gasket package.
Determine whether the refrigerator is level. A relatively new fridge on which the door seals are still supple can still leak air and fail the dollar bill test above when it’s out of level. If a refrigerator is lower on one side than the other, its heavy doors don’t always seal tightly. Set a carpenter’s level on top of the fridge and, if the bubble is not in the center of the glass tube, adjust the front legs of the fridge until it is. Most refrigerator legs can be adjusted with either a hex wrench or adjustable pliers—consult your owner’s manual for detailed instructions on how to level.
Clean the condenser coils. Your fridge comes with condenser coils that are filled with refrigerant. Over time, the coils—which are not in a sealed unit—can become caked with dust, hair, or pet fur, which reduces their ability to keep the air in the fridge cold. Fortunately, cleaning refrigerator coils is a relatively simple process, requiring only a coil condenser brush (about $10 at hardware stores) and a vacuum to suck up the loosened dust. If you find a lot of dust buildup on the coils, plan to clean them once or twice a year to keep your fridge cooling properly.
Check to make sure nothing’s blocking the air vents. Cold air circulates back and forth through vents that run between the refrigerator’s freezer compartment and the refrigerator compartment. If something blocks the airflow, it can result in inconsistent temperatures in the refrigerated compartment. Depending on the brand and model of your fridge, the vents could be located along the inside back wall or along a side wall. Check your owner’s manual if you have trouble locating them.
• Items crammed tightly against a vent can block airflow. A good rule of thumb is to keep plenty of food products in your fridge, which will help it maintain a cool temperature, but don’t pack it so tightly that air cannot circulate easily from shelf to shelf.
• Frost buildup in the freezer can also block a vent, reducing or preventing cold air from reaching the refrigerator compartment. If the freezer compartment is heavily frosted, unplug the fridge and open the freezer door to allow the frost to melt. Once it melts, plug the fridge back in and it should cool better. It can take an entire day for a heavily frosted freezer to defrost, so plan to store your perishable food items in a neighbor’s fridge, if possible.
If all else fails, call a repairman. At this point, the cause of the problem may be a defective mechanical component. While replacing some components on a refrigerator are not too difficult, pinpointing the exact cause of the problem can be tricky and requires the use of electrical testing equipment. The compressor, the compressor fan, or the defrost thermostat may have to be replaced, which should be undertaken by a licensed professional. If your fridge is still under warranty, attempting to replace components yourself may void its warranty.