How to troubleshoot a refrigerator compressor

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It happens all the time: A frustrated homeowner panics and calls a refrigerator repair man to fix a problem on his fridge compressor, incurring a hefty bill on an issue they could quickly have fixed themselves!

Now here’s a cool idea: what if we show you how to troubleshoot a refrigerator compressor and save your food (and the money)?

Put on your DIY gear and let’s do this:

How to troubleshoot a refrigerator compressor

Try the following DIY refrigerator compressor troubleshooting tips the next time you’re having trouble:

Refrigerator compressor trouble shooting: The usual suspects

1.     Fridge compressor running but not cooling

If your fridge compressor runs but will not cool your food, the culprit often turns out to be the fans- either in the evaporator or the condenser- or the evaporator coils.

How to troubleshoot a refrigerator compressor a compressor that runs but won’t cool

Part’s locationRecommended action
Check the evaporator fanIt’s at the back of the freezer’s wall.Remove the fan motor and replace it if it looks like its not working.
Inspect the condenser fanBottom of cabinet (inside the compressor’s compartment)Again remove and install a new condenser fan motor.
Look at the condenser coils (the issue is usually dirt)Across the bottom or at the back of your fridgeBrush and vacuum the coils until you get rid of the mess

Tip: You may need to clean the coils more frequently if you’ve pets in the house or if the refrigerator is located in a particularly dusty area, for example, a garage.

2.     Fridge compressor not starting          

Sometimes the compressor won’t start no matter what you try.

A great place to start troubleshooting is asking these questions:

  • Are the fans running?
  • Can you hear a click sound in there?

If you answered yes, then you could need to focus on the refrigerator’s overload/relay-start capacitor– it may have malfunctioned so it’s not sending the right compressor voltage.

Note: This part plugs directly onto the compressor’s side in the modern models.

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Troubleshooting steps:

Unplug the component and check the voltage reading with a multimeter (simply place the two probes onto the corresponding terminals on the overload capacitor/relay-start capacitor or both as appropriate).

Here is the thing: You have a bad or burned capacitor if the result doesn’t match from the manufacturer’s recommendation as per your owners manual  and the good thing is that you can get a replacement swiftly.

Sadly, you may have to replace the entire compressor if the change doesn’t help.

3.     Fridge compressor starts then stops 

This No. 1 problem affects many models and—we’re happy to report—it’s the easiest to fix.

We introduce the potential offenders first then suggest a workaround:

·         Wrong thermostat settings

This is one of the most common causes of this behavior.

What to do: Just go to the thermostat and specify a lower setting.

·         Dirt/debris

We spoke about dirty coils earlier but we didn’t tell you that excessive dust may make the fridge not to stay on.

What to do: Back to the matter of cleaning and you’ll need to vacuum the coils thoroughly to restore proper functioning.

Tip: While at it, be sure to clean the overflow tray and the motor where applicable. This guarantees maximum efficiency.

·         A bad cable

A bad power cord could cause plenty of issues including triggering an electrical short (if broken) making the fridge compressor to stop soon after starting.

Even worse, it might trigger a fire accident!

What to do: Replace the cable if you doubt its quality or it’s clearly worn.

·         Relays and Capacitors

As hinted above, the relays and capacitors control power distribution and will bring electrical problems that could make a fridge compressor to stop prematurely if they have issues.

What to do: Check if one or more of the relays or capacitor in there has stopped working and replace with the right model.

·         Ice Buildup

This mostly affects older models and it’s another possible explanation for the strange start-stop behavior.

What to do: Clear any ice buildup within the freezer compartment and on the coils (first unplug it from the wall).

The compressor should stay on by the time you’re in this step unless it’s experiencing a more serious problem.

4.     Refrigerator compressor overheating problem

Compressor overheating is mainly sparked by inadequate lubrication in the unit and degraded refrigerant.

A couple of other things could be wrong if your refrigerator compressor is overheating including an abnormally low thermostat setting (because it will be overworking).

In addition, the unit may not be dissipating heat generated by the fridge properly if you’ve placed it too close to a wall.

Lastly, the issue of debris, dust, and dirt on the condenser coils could also be contributing to the overheating.

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How to troubleshoot a refrigerator compressor that is overheating

  • Adjust the thermostat settings to the optimal temperature.
  • Clean the condenser coils.
  • Push the appliance further from the wall.
  • Check whether the fridge’s cooling fan is spinning freely- it may overheat if the fan is not cooling things enough.
  • Check the current Freon level (if you can) and recharge appropriately.

5.     Fridge compressor locked up        

You could be unlucky and your fridge compressor is all locked up.

Of course, nobody wants their compressor to suffer this fate because it’s going to be more expensive- the only way out is to replace the compressor.

So, how can you be sure that the fridge compressor is locked up?

Here are the telltale signs:

  • The unit cannot produce cool air anymore.
  • A humming noise is coming from the back (of your refrigerator).
  • The compressor is too hot to touch.

Troubleshooting tips:

As said, you’ll need a replacement if you’ve confirmed that your compressor is kaput.

But you must do your math – unless the repair is still covered by the warranty-as the component may cost as much as half the price of a new refrigerator.

Wrapping it up

If there is one takeaway from our discussion on refrigerator compressor troubleshooting, it should be that proper maintenance is key to avoiding problems in the component and the appliance as a whole.

In fact, you can stop most of the highlighted problems before they start by observing the routine maintenance plan suggested in your owners manual.

Remember its best to contact a professional if you’ve tried the above troubleshooting tips but are still having nagging refrigerator compressor problems.

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