How I Fixed the Fridge

It was a warm summer day.  I was at work.  My phone rang.  It was my wife.  She told me that she had noticed that the temperature display in the refrigerator was showing unusually high temperatures.  Normally it would show something in the upper 30°s in the refrigerator and a little above 10° in the freezer.  But that day the readings were more than 10 degrees higher.  Yikes!  But, she told me, she had looked for some advice from the internet.  She found that many websites recommend putting a fan of some sort (a box fan or a desk fan) on the floor at the back of the fridge and getting as much airflow as possible around the refrigerator’s warm parts.  She had done this and was monitoring the fridge temperature, and it had started going down.

refrigeratorThe fan-on-the-floor advice works well — if what’s causing the problem is a failure of the refrigerator’s condenser fan.  In our case, that is what had happened.  I’m no expert, but basically a refrigerator works like this: the motor runs, the inside of the fridge gets cold, which makes the outside of the fridge get hot (in the motor area), and the fan blows that heat away so more cold (and more heat) can be made.  (Btw, there’s another fan inside the fridge that spreads the cold around, but that’s not the one that stopped working.)  Once the fan had stopped, there was too much heat accumulating in the motor area and it was preventing the fridge from making more cold.

After a few hours of running a box fan next to the fridge, the fridge was working as well as it always had.  But we didn’t want to keep a fan on the floor forever, so a more permanent solution was needed.  I looked for more internet advice about our fridge, a GE Profile.  I found a consensus that the fan itself could be bad.  Or it could be the computer motherboard gone bad.  Or it could be both.  And, putting in a new fan without changing the motherboard might cause the ruin of a new fan.  But, it could be that a bad fan had somehow damaged the motherboard.  In that case, replacing the motherboard without changing the fan could cause the new motherboard to be ruined.  I can’t vouch for the truth in all that, I’m just passing along what I read on the internet.  Apparently, if one doesn’t have the ability to test both the fan and the motherboard, the best approach is to replace them both.  Naturally, they were unbelievably expensive.  The cost for the two of them, just the parts alone, was a considerable fraction of the cost of a new refrigerator.

It seemed to me that moving air from one place to another should be a fairly simple thing to accomplish in our modern age.  And the equipment required to move this air shouldn’t cost more than $100.  After some web searching, it seemed that the answer to my problem was a rack fan.  Rack fans circulate air around racks of high-tech equipment like computers, servers, and similar things that don’t respond well to excessive heat.  Best of all: unlike parts from a refrigerator manufacturer, there is a competitive market in rack fans.

I found one that not only moves air, but also has a built in thermostat, so it turns itself on when it’s hot and off when it’s not.  It cost less than $25.

Installing it took some, shall we say, customization.  I didn’t want to actually replace the original fan that came with the fridge, nor use its power source.  The new fan would have its own plug going into the wall outlet separate from the refrigerator’s. The old fan would stay in place, not doing anything, forever.  After I took off the motor compartment’s cover (which was after I unplugged the fridge, of course), I noticed what seemed to me an odd arrangement.  The original fan was in one corner of the refrigerator’s motor compartment, positioned to blow air across the condenser coils, basically moving air from the right side of the compartment to the left side.  It clearly wasn’t positioned to either take air from inside the motor compartment and move it outside or take air from outside the compartment and move it inside, though there were several vents that did allow heat from inside the compartment to escape.

It seemed to me that it would be better if the fan were installed in such a way as to move air from outside the fridge into the motor area.  Maybe put the fan into the motor compartment cover itself, so that it would blow air from outside the fridge directly over the condenser coils.  The cover had several vents.  I enlarged one of the vents to allow the rack fan to be mounted in it.  To reduce vibration, I wrapped the new fan hole with duct tape.  A few screws that came with the fan held it in place.  I replaced the cover, plugged in the new fan, and awaited the judgment of the fridge’s temperature display.

The results were impressive.  The next morning the fridge was not only operating normally, it was colder than it had ever been.  The refrigerator compartment was down to the low 3o°s, just above freezing, and the freezer was all the way down to a couple degrees below 0°.

Since then, the new fan has operated perfectly.  I notice it comes on more often in the summer (when we have the air conditioning a bit above 70°), but will often stay off for days at a time during the winter (when we heat the house only enough to get barely above 60°).  The only downside is that the new fan makes a bit more noise that the refrigerator’s original built-in fan.  But overall I am pleased with the rack-fan repair.  It cost only about $25 and a few hours of my time instead of buying parts from the manufacturer and paying a repair technician to install them.  Hundreds of $$$ saved.

A few more words about this GE Profile refrigerator.  Of all my household appliances, this is the one I am least happy with.  My reasons:

  1. As detailed above, the fan needed to be replaced.
  2. Having the original fan move air around inside the motor compartment (instead of circulating air between the compartment and the area outside the fridge) is a bad design, the proof being that my hack installation of a new fan resulted in the refrigerator cooling to temperatures lower than before I added the new fan.
  3. The ice maker and the area around it have some sort of design oddity that allows ice cubes, as they are ejected from the ice maker into the tray, to miss the tray and fall to the bottom of the freezer, where they collect in large quantities such that the freezer door (which is attached to a basket) collides with the ice and won’t stay shut.  This ice has to be regularly removed from bottom of the freezer and thrown away.
  4. I have replaced the original ice maker, which never made enough ice consistently.  It would give us plenty of ice for a couple days, then go off and do nothing for a day or two or three.  Nothing helped.  The new ice maker seems to do better than the original.
    (Confound it!  We’re well into the 21st century and we can’t design an ice maker that can consistently make ice?  My family had the use of a friend’s vacation home a few years ago.  The home had belonged to our friend’s parents and most everything in it was 1970s vintage or earlier.  In the kitchen was a stand-alone ice maker, which we were instructed to turn on when we arrived (as the owner didn’t want it running when no one was in the house).  We turned it on, heard it start up, and … wouldn’t you know it: the thing was continuously full of ice the entire week we were there.  This machine was well over 40 years old.  My friend’s parents lived in this house after they retired, so I assume it was used often.  And there it was, cranking out more ice than we could use, as reliably as the sun coming up in the morning.  How is it that we were able to make a machine like that 40+ years ago, but today’s ice makers crap out after less than 10 years of service?)

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