Smart Home

Fix a leaking fridge and other common refrigerator problems. Here’s how

Your refrigerator is the heart of the kitchen, and your home. It’s a real drag when it’s not running well.


Mari Benitez/CNET

Is your fridge leaking water all over the floor, or running all the time while making lots of noise? Maybe frost has started to build up on its freezer walls. Perhaps the ice maker isn’t working. Regardless of your particular issue, don’t freak out. 

These are common fridge problems that can often be fixed without calling a repairman, even if you don’t know how a refrigerator works. And chances are you won’t even have to break out any fancy tools either. Here’s what you need to know to try and remedy the situation yourself. This article is updated periodically.

Read more: LG’s killer fridge feature: Clear ice for cocktails

1. Problem: It’s always running

An efficient refrigerator shouldn’t run all the time. A fridge that does is not only noisy, it can also take a big bite out of your wallet. Refrigerators are already one of the most power-intensive home appliances. Allowing your fridge to run nonstop can send your energy bill through the roof.

Cause 1: One of the most common causes of a refrigerator running too often (or worse, constantly) is a buildup of debris and dust around the condenser coils. It’s especially common if you live in a dusty environment or have several pets.

Fix: First, unplug the refrigerator from AC power. For most refrigerators, the condenser coils are located on the very bottom and they’re typically accessed in the front or back. (Some newer models, however, have internal coils.) To access the coils, look for the grille and remove it by popping out the snaps that hold it in place, or unscrewing it if it’s screwed in. Use a vacuum cleaner to remove the majority of the buildup. If there’s a lot of leftover debris, use a brush or a wipe cloth to gently remove the remaining debris. Replace the grille and restore power to the refrigerator.

Cause 2: Setting the refrigerator temperature too low will cause your refrigerator to work overtime, and can also freeze and spoil some of your foods.

Fix: You typically want your refrigerator set to between 37 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 and 4.4 degrees Celsius). Place a thermometer inside a glass of water, place the glass on the middle shelf of the refrigerator and let it sit for at least 8 hours. Periodically adjust the temperature setting on your refrigerator to slowly bring it to the desired temperature. If this doesn’t solve the issue, consult with a professional, as you may have a defective part, such as a condenser, thermostat sensor or fan motor.

2. Problem: It’s leaking water

Water puddling up under your refrigerator is never a good sign, but it is also a fairly common occurrence and can usually be resolved relatively easily. Water leakage typically comes from one of two problems.

Cause 1: A blocked defrost drain is one of the most common causes. This happens when food particles or other debris clog up the drain hose, which can lead to ice buildup and, eventually, water leaking out of the freezer and refrigerator.

Fix: First, try flushing the drain from inside the freezer with warm water, using a turkey baster or a small funnel. You can also try using a pipe cleaner or a straightened coat hanger to forcibly remove the clog. If this doesn’t fix the problem you may need to manually remove the debris that’s clogging the check valve at the end of the drain hose.

Pull your refrigerator out from the wall and locate the defrost drain hose in the bottom back service panel. This hose should have a rubber check valve, which helps regulate humidity and is known for catching debris and clogging. Clean the valve out with hot water and soap, and reinstall the valve.

Cause 2: From time to time, a clogged or frozen water supply line will cause water to puddle beneath the refrigerator. It will also affect ice production from the ice maker and slow or stop water flow from the dispenser.

Fix: First, unplug the refrigerator and locate the shut-off valve, typically underneath the sink, behind the refrigerator or below the refrigerator in the basement. Make sure this valve is closed, and look for any leaks, kinks or clogs in the plastic supply line.

If there’s a break or tear in the line, replace the water supply line. Typically this line is a nylon tube with threaded compression fittings at both ends. You can find DIY water line kits for sale at your local hardware store ($13). They’re easy to hook up, though you might need to have a wrench on hand. You shouldn’t overtighten their fittings, so you won’t need that much strength. 

If the water line is intact, but you see a translucent blockage, then ice is the culprit. Simply leave the refrigerator unplugged for approximately 2 hours to remove the clog. If the clog is anything but clear, consult with a professional before trying to remove it. Once the line has defrosted, plug the refrigerator back in and push it back to the wall.


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3. Problem: Lots of freezer ice buildup

If the inside of your freezer looks like the arctic tundra, something is seriously wrong. There are a few possible causes of frost growth inside your freezer, and some quick fixes.

Cause 1: Leaving the freezer door open too long can raise the humidity level inside the freezer, resulting in frost and ice buildup.

Fix: Obviously, try not to leave the freezer door open longer than necessary. Try opening the freezer or fridge door and see if it closes on its own; if not, this could be the cause of the frost. To resolve this, pull the refrigerator out from the wall and have someone lean the refrigerator back far enough for you to reach the two front pedestal feet. (Don’t try this alone!)

Screw both feet out a few turns. This will ensure that the doors close on their own and that water is properly draining from the freezer and refrigerator. If this doesn’t solve the issue, you may have a malfunctioning defrost timer, for which you’ll want a professional. But first, check for the following two other things.

Cause 2:  A faulty seal can also result in unwanted frost.

Fix: First, try cleaning the seal around the inside of the freezer door using warm water, soap and a washcloth. Use a towel to dry the seal and the surrounding areas, and close the freezer. If this doesn’t work, try installing a new gasket. Major appliance makers, like GE and Whirlpool, for example, sell replacement parts directly, including fridge gaskets. Just remember to have your model number handy. That’ll help you track down the specific gasket for your particular refrigerator. 

To swap in a new gasket, begin by unplugging the refrigerator. Then remove all frozen perishables, and place them in a cooler. Lift the edge of the old gasket and use a screwdriver to remove all the screws. With the old gasket removed, align the new gasket and screw it into place. Return all food to the freezer and plug the fridge back in.

Cause 3: Too many items resting against the rear freezer wall can block airflow, resulting in frost buildup.

Fix: Clear away food packages that are too close to the rear freezer wall, or that are blocking any freezer vents.

Refrigerator ice makers are useful but can experience problems.


Colin West McDonald/CNET

4. Problem: The ice maker isn’t working

So you’ve been waiting and waiting, but your refrigerator’s ice maker isn’t delivering the goods. It could be that you’re not seeing any ice cubes at all, or the ice is too small or maybe it’s even hollow. No matter the scenario, here are a few solutions to try. 

Cause 1: A clog in the waterline is restricting water flow. A blockage is likely caused by ice in the water connection. A kinked waterline can also cause the same problem.

Fix: For a frozen waterline rather than a physical kink, first turn off the water supply with the shut-off valve. It’s usually located behind the fridge or under the kitchen sink. One way to remove the blockage is by thawing out the waterline manually. Do that by unplugging the fridge’s power supply. After a few hours the ice causing the clog should melt away. A faster method is to use heat from a blow-dryer, or squirt it with a turkey baster filled with hot water.

Cause 2: A shut-off arm is in the wrong position. Many fridge ice makers have a shut-off arm that’s designed to stop ice production when the storage bin is full. Sometimes they get stuck in the off position. 

Fix: Make sure the shut-off arm isn’t engaged. If the arm is frozen in place, first remove the ice storage bin. Next melt any ice buildup with a little hot water. Quickly wipe away excess moisture with a clean kitchen towel.  

Cause 3: Some fridges also have sensors that detect the presence of the ice bin. Over time, ice buildup between the bin and the freezer wall can push the bin out of alignment, tripping this sensor. When that happens, the fridge thinks you’ve removed the bucket and will stop making ice.

Fix: Remove the storage bin, and let it defrost for a few hours. In the meantime, melt away any ice around the bin sensor with a small amount of hot water. Use a clean towel to remove any remaining water. Return the bin to its place and you should be good to go.

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Don’t cart your fridge away just yet. You might be able to get it to run right again.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Cool down, your fridge might be OK

Hopefully these simple steps have fixed your refrigerator woes and you’ve solved your appliance problems without fancy tools or much hassle. You also didn’t have to shell out big bucks for a brand-new icebox — score! But if you’re still experiencing hiccups, it could be time to call in the repair pros. Ultimately you might even consider buying a new fridge.

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