Low-Maintenance Appliances: Refrigerators and Freezers

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If furniture reveals some amusing contradictions about human nature, appliances would speak entire volumes on the subject if they could talk. For the most part, behaviorists have not studied this fertile field for signs of our communal sanity or insanity, but when they do, we shall all be greatly entertained, noting how the human spirit can rise and fall from the sublime to the ridiculous. Behold, for example, modern man, who insists on all the laborsaving devices he can’t afford, and then, lacking for some thing to do with his softening body, he buys yet one more “appliance”— an exercycle—and works and sweats over it harder than grandmother did doing the wash.

Refrigerators and Freezers

No appliance illustrates both the sublime and the ridiculous in human nature like the refrigerator. On the more or less sublime level, refrigeration has certainly meant progress in healthfulness and in preventing food from going to waste, not to mention convenience. And though refrigerators use more energy than any other home appliance except water heaters and furnaces, they are for the most part marvelously maintenance-free over a lifetime of 20 years. The one my family recently replaced worked 21 years for us. It cost about $250 new and perhaps another $100 in service bills over that period of time. We received $90 on a trade-in (after the dealer had knocked $100 off the list price of the new one). I figure it cost us about $15 a year plus electricity to run, certainly a great value in today’s world.

Unfortunately, over that same period of time, energy use in refrigeration rose to a ridiculous level, mostly due to fashion, style, and taste. For example, there are many refrigerators still running today that are 40 years old or more, but not in people’s houses. They have been relegated to garages or vacation cabins because they are “ugly.” The motor and compressor are mounted on top of the units in plain sight rather than being hidden integrally into the innards like modern refrigerators. Heat from these top-mounted compressors dissipates away into the air rather than seeping up through the unit, which is one reason they last so long. Amory Lovins, the environmentalist who has become the energy conscience of our society, says that in many if not most refrigerators made between about 1950 and 1980, nearly half the cooling energy was and is spent in getting rid of the heat of the motor.

In addition to having the compressor in the wrong place, the design of the modern upright refrigerator and upright freezer is all wrong. When you open the door, the cold air tumbles out. Chest freezers avoid this problem and should be the first freezer choice for low maintenance. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat unhandy to find what you want in a chest freezer. Because you open a refrigerator much more often than a freezer, lost cold air is much more of a problem with refrigerators. Some statistical gadfly has calculated that about 75 percent of the cold air is lost when the door is opened wide, and that in a typical household, the door is opened maybe 50 times a day. At that rate, there’s a waste of 2,000 Btu per day on a 16-cubic-foot unit. That’s about $20 of electricity a year, depending on your rate per year. While that won’t break anyone, it is only one of the costs you have to pay if you linger in front of an open refrigerator deciding what you want to eat or drink several times a day. And opening the door increases frost buildup within, requiring more frequent defrosting, which eats into the Btu in a most voracious manner. The electrical cost of operating the watt-guzzling refrigerators of the early ‘70s (when flagrant energy consumption was at its peak) was well over $100 a year. Contrast that with the experimental refrigerator Lovins uses, a $1,900 Sun Frost, which is said to use only 5 to 8 percent of the electricity conventional refrigerators use. One of its many cost-saving features is its ability to utilize cold outside air in winter, rather than the warmer indoor air. If all Americans had low-energy refrigerators like this one, says Lovins, the savings would eliminate the need for 20 large power plants. Equally efficient freezers could eliminate another 15.

Of course, not everyone can afford or would choose to spend $1,900 on a refrigerator, but the good news is that the refrigeration industry is improving efficiency in its standard refrigerators for little or no extra cost to you. Energy consumption of a typical refrigerator today is about half of what it was in 1975. The latest step in energy conservation is the electronic defrost control system. Instead of a defrost cycle every 12 or 24 hours whether needed or not, this electronic control system initiates a defrost cycle only when necessary—as seldom as every 60 hours. Whirl pool appears to be leading the way with its Systems Sentinel II; it’s already available on some Whirlpool and Kenmore models. But by the time you read this, more refrigerators will no doubt come equipped with similar devices.

Other manufacturers are currently using a less expensive way to cut down the defrost cycle time with more sensitive thermostatic controls that switch on the defrost cycle for the minimum length of time necessary to get rid of the frost. Older refrigerators without such sensitive controls have warm-up periods unnecessarily long that warm up the refrigerator unnecessarily high. On our ever-faithful 21-year-old Frigidaire, a thermometer laid on the freezer shelf could register as high as 50°F during defrosting.

I hesitate to mention any specific features and the brand name appliance on which they can be found, good or bad, because it suggests that some brands are better than others. In refrigerators, that makes no more sense than saying Chevys are better than Fords, unless you just want to start an argument. First of all, different brand names in refrigerators do not necessarily signify different companies. GE owns Hotpoint—our Hotpoint dealer says few people know that and he has customers who swear by Hotpoints but say they’d never have a GE in the house. White owns Westinghouse and Gibson and may own more (or less) by the time you read this. Whirlpool makes Kenmores for Sears. This is especially noteworthy for those of us in the habit of thinking that Sears and other mail-order companies deal only in mid-priced to cheaper appliances. Whirlpool makes excellent refrigerators by any standard, and so Kenmores don’t have to take a back seat to anyone. (The addresses of all these appliance companies can be found via Goolge search.)

It is also ridiculous to assert one brand is better than another today because the parts in various makes can come from the same independent manufacturers. The real guts of a refrigerator are its motor, compressor, capacitor, and freon-filled coils, and these parts can very well be the same in two different brands. When the capacitor needed replacing on our Frigidaire refrigerator, the repairman used one from a washing machine of a different make! Tecumseh makes compressor motors for many refrigerator manufacturers. At least one company, Franklin, makes whole refrigerators for the brand-name companies to put their names on. Franklin made a model for Hotpoint for three years because Franklin could manufacture it cheaper than Hotpoint could. Our Hotpoint dealer told me that both Hotpoint and GE used exactly the same compressor one year. The compressor worked fine for Hotpoint but caused problems for GE—a mystery that engineers solved only when they realized the Hotpoint factory was sealing in a different oil than GE. The latter’s type of oil wasn’t compatible with the compressor.

If all refrigerators today are more alike than different, why do people occasionally have trouble and others don’t? If you listen to complaints, you notice soon enough that no one brand gets singled out more than others. An independent repairman who works on all brands told me what I’ve concluded to be the judgment closest to the truth. “Actually,” he says, “It’s a matter of luck. Every so often, a lemon is going to come off the assembly line, I don’t care whose brand it is.” Most often problems with lemons can be fixed during the warranty period, but sometimes the difficulties don’t show up until about the tenth year when the refrigerator should be only at midlife. Then its owner will forever swear at the brand name. If he had gotten the very next refrigerator off the assembly line, he might have forever sworn by the brand name. This is of course true of almost all mass-produced items and a fact of life in modem times.

You never hear a refrigerator company brag about its compressor, which is what it should do if it wants to attract intelligent buyers. A refrigerator will last with minor service repairs until its compressor goes out. That’s a $200 to $300 replacement job, and so most people trade in refrigerators at that point. Nor do manufacturers talk about how well their units resist freon leakage. In most refrigerators, you’ll have to have the serviceman add a little freon to your unit some time after it is ten years old.

Instead, the manufacturers advertise the frills they put on their units, for in truth that’s what many American consumers care most about. Thus we now see a profusion of electronic readout panels that are mostly ridiculous. The only good thing I can say about them is that the microchips that power them use virtually no energy, so the gadget-lovers who want to waste their money this way can do so without wasting energy. I suppose it is nice (and a way to impress poorer friends) to touch a panel and learn that the inside refrigerator temperature is 37°F, but a cheap thermometer placed on a shelf is easy to read when you open the door to take out some food. I suppose it is nice when a red light flashes or an obnoxious beep erupts if the inside temperature rises to 40°F, indicating something is wrong. And what does your fancy electronic diagnostic digital readout tell you IF something is wrong? It will flash a Code B or E or whatever, and when you look that up in your operation manual, it turns out to mean that you should call your serviceman!

Interestingly, none of these ultrafrill models are on display in my hometown. Dealers say they can’t sell them, so they don’t stock them. “In the ‘70s, you could sell the more expensive accessories but not today,” one dealer said. “Money’s tighter now and people will pay only for honest value around here.”

Ice makers are very handy frills, but their value is debatable from a low-maintenance point of view. In their favor, they add surprisingly little to your energy bill. How long will they last? No one knows. The cost for a modest one is about $120, including the job of tapping into your water line. The manuals that come with refrigerators equipped with automatic ice makers say that it should be shut off along with the water supply to it when you go on vacation, which suggests possible problems could occur. One of the things that factored into our decision not to invest $120 was that only on rare occasions do we need a lot of ice cubes, and we can freeze them up and store them in the freezer ahead of time using the traditional trays. The clincher was a recollection of a family we know with four thirsty youngsters who complained that their ice maker could not keep up with demand. We observed that the children would cram a glass with ice cubes so that it held very little liquid. After a brief sipping, the cubes got dumped into the sink. In a short time, the kids were thirsty again since they had drunk very little the first time. Then the process was repeated.

Today a simple ice maker is almost passé. The big deal now is to be able to get ice cubes through an outlet without opening the door. Then there’s automatic crushed ice. And ice-cold water through a door dispenser. These are expensive gadgets, begging for maintenance problems. But fun if you have the money. (We know a young couple who are way ahead in this game. In their house stands an older refrigerator with a spigot in its side. Give it a twist and out pours beer. Inside the fridge there is a cold keg with a pipeline to the spigot. Great for parties and cheaper beer than the bottled kind in the long run. Maybe.)

But even more and better frills are being developed. Admiral already has models that will ejaculate 12 pounds of ice cubes a day, which ought to cover the needs of the most profligate family. Units with quicker and colder deep freeze compartments are great for automatic ice cream makers—you pour ingredients into a canister and a special stirrer blends them while they freeze. Projections call for automatic cream whippers and mousse jellers eventually. Eventually? At the rate things are going and as long as the flush money holds out, we may get miniature soda fountains self-contained in our refrigerators. You can already buy an ice cream maker from Sears ( Kenmore label but made by Osrow Products) that plays “Happy Days Are Here Again” when a batch is ready to eat. That costs $80. One that won’t sing anything costs $50. See what I mean? A fool and his money are soon parted.

New refrigerators (as well as some other major appliances) now by law must bear the black and yellow tags indicating their energy costs per year. These figures are about as valuable as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) miles-per-gallon rating on cars. They give you a basis for comparison, maybe, and that’s about all. Opponents of the energy tags say the government testing specifications are too arbitrary and lead to more confusion than clarity. Not to mention that it costs lots of taxpayers’ money for the program. The Department of Energy (DOE) dictates the testing procedure but the actual tests are carried out by independent labs or by the manufacturers’ own facilities. The DOE is supposed to keep testing under careful surveillance and there are various checks and balances, supposedly, to discourage a proliferation of little white lies. But the history of this kind of governmental regulation over the past 20 years leaves little room for credibility.

Textured surfaces obscure fingerprints, thus reducing daily maintenance. But the doors still get dirty whether you can see the fingerprints or not, and doors need to be wiped off regularly, so the advantage is not much.

On many models you can get designer door panels and trim to jazz up the external appearance or match it with your decor. Black glass is all the rage now, followed closely by custom-made wood panels. Designer panels are practical in that they take into account the quicksilver nature of fad and fashion. You can keep in the mainstream, or just ahead of it, by changing doors instead of whole refrigerators. My theory is that even if a refrigerator came encased in solid gold etched with the most artistic skill since Ghiberti did the church doors of San Giovanni, people would tire of it in ten years and replace it over with something else. Probably avocado, which by then would be fashionable again.

Tempered glass shelves cost a little more than the standard wire shelves (about $40 more) but are an aid to cleaning maintenance. If something drips, it doesn’t drip on down through the entire refrigerator and can be more easily cleaned off the shelf.

For Maintenance Sake

You have only one important chore to do regularly: Clean the con denser coils. They are located underneath the refrigerator, usually reached by lifting or removing a panel at the bottom front. Some have coils in back, in which case you have to pull the unit out from the wall to clean them. Obviously units with the coils underneath are handier so long as you can reach them from the front of the refrigerator. You must vacuum dust that gathers in these coils at least once a year (twice or thrice is better), or as your operating manual calls for. This little chore will add years to the unit’s life and subtract dollars from your energy bill.

The operating manual should tell you other practices that save you money, too:

• For one thing, plastic parts in most refrigerators should not be washed in automatic dishwashers. The heat of the water might soften and warp them a bit out of shape.

• Don’t stuff the refrigerator too full. Overloaded fridges have a much harder time keeping everything cool enough.

• Don’t put things in the refrigerator that don’t need cooling. This rule seems obvious but it’s often violated.

• Be sure doors align well with the body of the refrigerator when it is closed. Overloading deep door shelves may cause the door to cant a bit so the seals don’t fit flush. (Actually, this is most likely to be a problem with upright freezers, not with refrigerators.)

• Develop the habit of checking the refrigerator door to make sure it is closed. Children are inclined to leave it ajar and turn the fridge into a rather expensive room air conditioner. Here’s where some of that gadgety electronic monitoring can be useful; it issues a warning sound if the door is ajar. But then every time you opened it, you’d be beeped to death.

• Wipe off moisture on bottles and other containers before putting them back in the refrigerator.

• When you turn controls to the coldest positions for quick chilling, don’t forget to turn them back later.

• Locate the unit as far from the stove or heat vents as you conveniently can. It’s not good to place the refrigerator where the sun through a window will shine on it steadily, either.

• Finally, a caution that may not have much to do with maintenance:

If you decide to trash an old refrigerator, remove the door first. Every year, still, kids die in old or abandoned refrigerators. If you are going to store the unit rather than get rid of it, keep all the shelves in place to discourage a child from crawling inside. Then render the door inoperable in some way. You can do this by gluing wood blocks to the inside top of the door so the door can’t close. A better way is to wrap several rounds of that untearable tape from the hardware store around the whole refrigerator. If the door handles connect with the door at both ends, you can run a chain through the handles and around the body, top and bottom, and then padlock the chain. Magnetic doors alleviate the problem since they can be kicked open from inside. But why not be certain; take the door off or chain it closed.

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