How to Keep Your Refrigerator Working Like New

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Maintaining your refrigerator keeps it humming along without burning up your energy budget or ruining your food.

Woman stands looking in open doors of maintained refrigerator filled with healthy foods

Refrigerators are one of those things we take for granted until the day it stops working right. And, of course, it seems like they always quit working right before a weekend or at the start of the holidays. Then you’re stuck hoping to find a repair company that will answer the phone, and good luck finding one that won’t charge an emergency fee, too.

9 Things That Keep Your Fridge Running Well

Not interested in risking such a pricey service call? Then here’s some good news: If you’ve owned your fridge for a while or just bought a new one, there are easy things you can do to keep it working properly. As with most appliance maintenance tasks, the more steps you do and the more consistently you do them, the better.

1. Don’t Leave the Door Open

It may seem obvious, but leaving your refrigerator door open makes the motor work harder to cool everything once you’ve shut the doors again. Putting groceries away? Unpack your bags and put the items that go into the fridge or freezer together on the counter so that you can tuck them away quickly. Keeping your fridge properly organized cuts down how much time to put foods away or find the ones you’re looking for.

2. Check the Seal Often

The rubber strip running around the inside of your refrigerator door is also called the gasket. It may be a spongy cord, or it may be a strip with several folds. Either way, it is designed to expand as needed to seal the door and help keep cold air inside. Over time, though, the gasket wears out. Grime, dust, and food particles can also keep it from sealing properly.

To check if yours is working well, hold a dollar bill or small piece of paper at the top of your fridge and close the door on it. A good seal will keep you from sliding the paper side to side, and you’ll feel a little tension when you try to pull it out. Repeat all the way around the door to check the entire seal.

If you find problems, clean the seal and door with soap and water, gently opening the seal’s folds to remove crumbs and debris. When that’s not enough to fix it, or if the seal is cracked or missing pieces, you’ll need to replace it entirely. This is a simple DIY task once you order the part from the manufacturer’s website and follow the package instructions.

3. Change Filters

If your refrigerator has a built-in icemaker or water dispenser, it has a water filter, too. Many people neglect to change these since it’s a hassle and the filters aren’t cheap. But an old filter collects so much inside that the water you get from it may be even gunkier than the water it’s filtering. That residue can back up into the line, too, and then both your water dispenser and ice maker will stop working. If your fridge doesn’t have a light that nags you about changing your filter, schedule it for every six months.

4. Deep Clean it On Schedule

In addition to changing your filters on schedule, you should plan to deep clean your fridge regularly, too. If you live alone, once a year may be often enough if you’re good about wiping up spills and tossing expired foods the rest of the time. In busier households, a thorough Spring Cleaning and another right before the holidays should keep your fridge running at peak performance.

5. Choose the Right Temperature Setting

The proper temperature for a refrigerator is between 37°and 40°F (2° and 4°C). Your freezer should be at 0°F (-18°C). This range keeps foods safe and helps them last longer, too. When it was new, your refrigerator’s default setting probably had no problem keeping foods at those temperatures, but over time that may change. So, it’s a good idea to keep a refrigerator thermometer in both the fridge and freezer to tell at a glance if you need to adjust the setting. (I use this LCD clip-on 2-pack from Amazon.*)

6. Level It

When your fridge isn’t level, the pump can’t circulate coolant and lubricants properly, so it wears it out faster, and foods may not stay at ideal temperatures. Leveling also helps water drain properly through the system rather than overflowing in puddles on your floor. An unlevel fridge also means your food may slide to one side or even fall out. Check that your fridge is level in all directions when you deep clean it or any time you move it. Adjust the foot screws or add shims as needed until it’s level.

7. Don’t Store Things on Top

The flat top of your refrigerator seems like a great place to stash boxes of cereal or other things you want to keep out of the kids’ reach. But your fridge is designed to release heat from the top, which means those things may get ruined. Since it can’t release heat, your refrigerator’s pump may wind up working harder to keep the contents cool. Plus, things stored on top of your fridge may fall behind it where the coils also get hot, and that’s a fire hazard. Leave it bare.

8. Check the Surrounding Airflow

The temperature inside your fridge changes with every food you add and every time you open its door. As the pump works to maintain a proper temperature, it produces heat. As mentioned, some of the heat escapes from the top of your fridge, but some goes out the back and sides, too. To keep your refrigerator working well and maximize its efficiency, leave a gap of at least 2 inches behind the fridge and an inch to either side to provide adequate airflow and allow heat to escape.

9. Fill it Properly

Forget the appliance ads — you should never store uncovered food or open beverages inside your fridge. Placing open containers or pitchers inside your refrigerator adds moisture, which means the pump has to work harder to stabilize the humidity and temperatures. That extra work can wear out your fridge and will run up your energy bill. So, use containers with lids or cover things with a layer of cling film or foil before storage.

Signs Your Refrigerator Has Problems

Maybe your fridge has a bad component or got damaged in a move. Or maybe you didn’t know how to maintain it until now and aren’t sure if it’s still worth the effort. One thing you are certain about: you don’t want to pay a lot of money to a repair company to fix a fridge that it’s time to replace. Some signs that it’s time for a new one:

  • It has started to make an unusual sound. Clicking, squealing, and chirping are all signs the compressor or other mechanical parts are failing.
  • It feels hot. A small amount of heat release is normal but it should never feel hot to touch.
  • There’s water on the floor due to condensation or leaks. If you’ve leveled the fridge and checked the gasket but it’s still leaking, it’s a danger.
  • Food is too cold or not cold enough. It has one job, and should do it properly.

If you see one of these signs, deep-clean your refrigerator, then recheck it the next day. If the problem continues, contact a repair technician or start scoping out appliance sales if you’d rather. Don’t ignore refrigerator problems, though, or you may wind up with both higher energy bills and a high medical bill from food-borne problems.

When to Replace Your Refrigerator

If you think appliances don’t last as long as they used to, you aren’t imagining things. According to Consumer Affairs, older appliances were built to last, but modern ones emphasize energy efficiency. Sure, your grandparents may have a working fridge they bought before you were born. But it’ll use an astonishing amount of energy compared to the one in your kitchen that was built to last for around 13 years.

What to Do with Your Old Fridge

When replacing your refrigerator, you may wonder what to do with the old one. Before purchasing a new one, find out if the retailer is part of the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program. Most RAD partners will pick up your old appliance and may even offer you a discount or rebate in exchange. They recycle or responsibly dispose of the various components of your old unit to reduce waste, too.

If a RAD partner isn’t available in your area, your state or municipal energy office may have appliance disposal programs that offer energy credits when you upgrade. Scrap metal recyclers may pay a small amount for your old fridge too. If you absolutely must leave it on the curb, remove the door entirely from its hinges so neither children nor stray animals can get stuck inside.

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2 Comments

  1. I had no idea that heat is released from the top! Thanks for that bit of info!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yep, so don’t try hiding candy from the kids up there. Voice of experience. LOL