How to Triple the Lifespan of a Refrigerator

Perform these quick, once-a-year home-maintenance tasks to add life to your cooling kitchen appliance.

| March/April 1986

Perform these quick, once-a-year home-maintenance tasks, and you can actually triple the lifespan of a refrigerator. 

According to Leroy Richter, former director of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS Eco-Village and refrigeration and heating instructor at a local technical school, proper maintenance of a modern refrigerator can extend the lifespan of a refrigerator from barely longer than the 5year warranty period to 15 or even 20 years. But wait. You say you have an old one out in the garage that's gone 30 years without a bit of attention? Why shouldn't your new fridge — the convenient side-by-side with ice maker — last at least that long?

How to Triple the Lifespan of a Refrigerator

Since AC power became widely available in the '30s, the vapor-compression refrigerator has changed quite a bit. Much of this evolution has been aimed at making the appliance more convenient and attractive — not more efficient or reliable — by relocating the condenser coil. Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from the inside of a box and expelling it through condenser tubes into the surrounding air. Until shortly after World War II, most refrigerators had their condensers on top — the beehive design — and were equipped with fans. Because hot air rises, this was a pretty logical place to put the condenser. Then, from around 1945 to 1965, condensers were usually mounted on the back of the box. As long as the condenser wasn't backed directly against a wall, airflow was adequate to sweep the heat away.

You may have noticed, though, that the condensers of most new refrigerators are no longer on top or in back. They're now underneath, a very convenient but inefficient and problematic location. Not only does hot air tend to rise and flow around the refrigerator's cabinet, heating the contents, but the horizontal condenser is almost completely dependent on the fan for heat exchange and also is quite likely to accumulate dust.

The most expensive component of a refrigerator is the compressor. And, according to Leroy, the most common reason for premature compressor failure is overheating resulting from inadequate airflow around the condenser. There is little doubt in his mind that many people are paying a high price for the "modern" appearance of a bottom-mounted condenser.

Without any maintenance at all, a new bottom-mount-condenser refrigerator will run with no problems through the five-year warranty period and then will be likely to conk out in the sixth or seventh year. "However, if just once a year, you'll take the time to clean the accumulated dust off the coil, you can prevent compressor failure and extend the life of your refrigerator to 10 to 15 — maybe even 20 — years," Richter explains.

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