Written by the Square One team

Reviewed by Jason Plante

Updated June 12, 2024 | Published April 2, 2014

There’s nothing better than a nice cold drink on a hot day. But without a properly operating refrigerator, you could end up with an unappealing, lukewarm beverage; not exactly what you had in mind.

A refrigerator

What is a refrigerator?

A refrigerator is one of our most valuable household appliances. It keeps food and drinks cool, by pushing a liquid refrigerant through a sealed system, which causes it to vaporize, and draw heat out of the fridge. The vaporized refrigerant then is passed through coils outside the fridge (at the back or the bottom). This warms up the vapour, and changes it back into a liquid.

Talk about a life-changing invention. Refrigerators allow us to easily preserve food, as opposed to the old days, when this was a major chore. Now food that might spoil in a couple hours on the counter, will last a couple weeks in the fridge. This not only makes our lives more convenient, but also helps us stay healthy by reducing the risk of food borne diseases. Lowering the temperature slows down the growth of bacteria significantly. When something is frozen, bacteria growth stops entirely.

How do refrigerators work?

Thinking about sweat when talking about refrigerators is a bit gross, but let’s do it just for a second. When you’re hot, you sweat. This liquid (sweat) then evaporates causing your body temperature to drop. This is basically the same thing that happens with a refrigerator, except that when the liquid evaporates, that vapor is trapped, and the cycle of vaporizing and returning to liquid continues.

If you look underneath or at the back of a refrigerator, there is a thin pipe running back and forth. At one time, the pipe was filled with Freon gas. This isn’t exactly environmentally friendly in the case of a leak, so a different type of gas or refrigerant is used today.

The refrigerant begins as a liquid, and is pumped, by means of a motorized compressor, through tubes inside the fridge. This compresses the refrigerant and turns it into a vapor, pulling the warm air out of the fridge, leaving cold air in its wake. The vapor then passes through the thinner pipes outside the fridge, warming up, and turning to a liquid again. Warm air is released into the room, so you’ll often feel heat coming from behind or beneath the fridge. The whole cycle is then continuously repeated.

When the fridge reaches the desired cold temperature, the compressor shuts off. When the fridge warms up again, because it’s not completely air tight, or because you’ve been standing with the door open staring at the stuff in the fridge, deciding what to eat, you’ll hear the compressor come back on. We’re all familiar with the sound of the fridge “kicking in”.

Different refrigerator types

There are many different types of refrigerator:

  • Top freezer
  • Bottom freezer
  • Freezerless
  • Side by side
  • French door
  • Counter depth
  • Compact
  • Wine fridge

And there are many different sizes to choose from. Compact fridges can be very small, like 1.7 cubic feet or 40 litres, while side by side or French door fridges can be huge, for instance 30 cubic feet or 849 litres. The size of fridge you buy could be limited by the space in your kitchen, but most experts say you probably should have 4 to 6 cubic feet per adult in your home.

Common refrigerator features

There are all kinds of features available on today’s refrigerators:

  • Water and ice dispenser
  • Climate controls for different compartments
  • Blast chillers
  • Soda stream dispenser
  • Hot water dispenser
  • Systems to make the fridge quieter
  • LED lighting
  • Coatings to prevent bacteria growth
  • Shelving with rims to contain spills

There are even “smart” fridges available. These are, naturally, very expensive, but can do some pretty cool things. They can monitor the energy used by the fridge, and can forward the information to your smartphone. You can adjust the temperature from your phone as well. Smart fridges have screens where you can access your calendar, photos, get recipes or weather reports from the internet, and much more. Pretty cool, but maybe not really something most of us need.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

Your fridge not working? If you find a serious problem with your refrigerator, like leaking water, it might be a good idea to call a specialist rather than trying to complete the repair yourself. The most common problems with fridges include:

Excess frost in the freezer

It could just be that the freezer door was left open, allowing warm air and moisture to get into the freezer. Or it could be that the seals around the freezer door are worn and need replacing. If warm, humid air enters the freezer over a period of time, it will cause the freezer to frost up. You may need to remove the food, and unplug and defrost the freezer. Then, you could try lifting the front of the refrigerator a bit, by turning the front levelling legs. This will help the door swing shut using gravity, so it won’t get left open again.

Noise behind the refrigerator

As fridges get older, they gradually get a bit noisier. But if you’re suddenly hearing a new and strange noise, it could be the fan at the back of the fridge. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can unplug the fridge, remove the back panel, and take a look at the fan. It may be that something is blocking it, such as insulation, wires, or (gasp) a mouse. Be very careful, and make sure there are no wires that have been cut (or chewed).

Water under the crisper drawers

This could be the result of a blocked defrost drain. It may be blocked by excess ice, which can be fixed simply by defrosting the fridge. To find out, unplug the fridge, and remove the back wall of the freezer compartment. Look for anything that might be plugging the hole at the bottom of the evaporator coils, such as ice, bits of food, or pieces of plastic.

Freezer and fridge compartments are no longer getting cold enough

Check the back wall of the freezer compartment. If there is a buildup of frost, then you probably just need to defrost the fridge. If there’s no buildup of frost, and things are not staying cold, it might be time to shop for a new fridge.

Bad smell in the fridge

Unplug the fridge, empty everything out, and discard any expired food. Clean the entire fridge with a baking soda and water solution. Some things that will absorb bad smells in the fridge: baking soda, white vinegar, bowl of oats, charcoal, fresh dry coffee grounds, unscented kitty litter. These tips come from Wiki How. Check their site to see more details.

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What can you do to maintain your refrigerator?

Here are some tips to properly maintain your fridge:

Clean the door seals

It’s easy for jelly, and other sticky stuff to get on the seals around your fridge door. If the door sticks shut, and you pull it open, the seals can actually tear. Wipe down the seals every few months with a solution of warm water and baking soda, on a sponge or a toothbrush. This is a simple fix for a common problem.

Clean the condenser coils

Dusty condenser coils can wreak havoc with the efficiency of your fridge. Depending on the type of fridge you have, the coils will either be at the back of the fridge, in which case you’ll need to pull your fridge away from the wall, or at the bottom front of the fridge behind a snap off cover. An easy way to clean these is to use the brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner.

Check the temperature

Most experts recommend the fridge should be set between 3 and 5 Celsius, and the freezer at about -18. You can buy a fridge thermometer if you want to check the temperature. If you make any adjustments to the thermostat, give it about 24 hours to adjust. To check the temperature in the fridge, stand the thermometer in a glass of water at night before bed. This way you can be sure (unless you’re a midnight snacker) that the fridge door will be closed for 8 hours. In the freezer, just stand the thermometer up between some frozen items, and leave it for 8 hours as well.

Clean the freezer vents

There are little vents at the top and bottom of the freezer section of your fridge, which can easily get plugged by bits of food, plastic, or twist ties. Keep these clean, so air can circulate properly.

Fill up your fridge

Your fridge should be about three quarters full to operate properly. When you open the door, the cold foods inside will help absorb some of the warm air you’re letting in. If you just can’t seem to keep it full, you can always put a few bottles of water in the fridge.

What is the life expectancy?

As with just about everything, proper maintenance will extend the life expectancy. Most experts agree that the average life expectancy of a refrigerator ranges from 14 to 17 years, with compact fridges being significantly less, around 5 years.

6 tips to increase the life of your fridge

1. Coddle the coils

Care for the condenser coils – the parts responsible for removing heat from your appliance – by cleaning them twice a year. When dirt and dust build up on these radiator-like parts — found behind or beneath your unit – your refrigerator/freezer finds it harder to remove heat and uses more energy to do so.

Over the long term, dirty coils can do damage to the unit, so break out your vacuum cleaner and a long-handled bristle brush for cleaning, unplug your refrigerator and clean according to the instructions in your owner’s manual.

2. Create clearance

When placing the refrigerator/freezer in your kitchen, make sure there is enough space for air to circulate around the coils. If they are located at the back of the unit, leave 2.5 centimeters of space between coils and wall. If they are beneath the unit, space is not an issue.

3. Get those gaskets

The gaskets are the rubber seals that circle your refrigerator/freezer doors. Their job is to keep warm air from entering your unit. Clean them periodically with an all-purpose cleaner. They do weaken over time and don’t seal properly, but are generally easy and inexpensive to replace, so keep an eye on them.

If they aren’t sealing well, your unit will consume more energy and your bills will increase.

4. Do defrost

If your freezer isn’t a self-defrosting unit, you’ll need to get rid of the frost buildup yourself or the freezer won’t cool your food as efficiently and will require more energy as it makes the attempt. When a half-centimetre of frost builds up on the interior, unplug the unit or turn off the thermostat, remove the food and allow the frost to melt.

Wipe away the puddles, restart the unit and wait until it returns to its usual temperature before replacing the food.

If you have a self-defrosting unit, its cooling coils heat up every six to eight hours to melt frost accumulating on the coils. Although the water evaporates, you’ll still need to clean the pan beneath the refrigerator with a bit of detergent to prevent odors and bacteria from accumulating.

On many models, you can remove the lower grill and slide the pan out; check your manual.

5. Load, but don’t overload

Freezers work best when they’re full, but not so full that air can’t circulate. Frozen items keep each other cold and help maintain a cool freezer temperature. If your freezer has free space, don’t run out and purchase food that you don’t need.

Simply fill some empty milk containers, pop bottles or other storage containers – but not to the brim, since freezing water expands – and use them to take up space.

Overloading the refrigerator, however, isn’t cool (pun intended). If you load the refrigerator to capacity, you may block the freezer vents and require the motor and condenser to work harder than they should; damage may result – the strain can cause the motor to burn out.

Extra strain can also lead to higher energy bills since the unit will be working harder to cool its contents. In addition, if there is inadequate space for air to circulate, the items in your refrigerator won’t cool properly. This could damage the food you have stored, making it unsafe to eat.

6. Walk, don’t run

Just as running too frequently may hurt your knees, running constantly is a sign that your refrigerator may not be working properly. Check all of the obvious potential problems before calling a repair shop: space for proper airflow between coils and the wall and a proper gasket seal. Don’t ignore it – you’ll use more electricity than you should.

What will your home insurance provider want to know?

When you’re insuring your home, the fridge will be considered part of your “personal property“. When calculating the replacement cost of all of your belongings, be sure you include the cost of your refrigerator. The replacement cost can be very high, especially if you own one of the new “Smart” fridges. If you’ve purchased a new condo, appliances may have been included. However, in the event of a loss, these appliances are generally not covered by the condominium association’s policy, but instead, need to be insured by your own condo policy.

Your home insurance provider needs an accurate figure of the value of your possessions in order to make sure you’ve got the coverage you need. So if you’ve got an expensive fridge, let your insurer know.

Want to learn more? Visit our Getting to Know Your Home resource centre for the complete rundown on all your home's systems and features. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.

About the expert: Jason Plante

Jason Plante is the Operations Manager for Priority Appliance Service Ltd. Jason manages a team of dedicated staff and technicians. Prior to joining Priority, Jason Plante spent many years in logistics, process improvement, and data analytics, and helped build a successful financial technology company from 18 to over 200 employees, before being acquired by PayPal.


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