Welcome to the Take Charge of Your Home series from Direct Energy! Hiring a professional to perform household maintenance may offer convenience and peace of mind, but you can do many of these jobs yourself with no experience or special tools. And in the process, you’ll save money, learn about how your home works and gain a sense of accomplishment from a DIY task done well!

A refrigerator breakdown isn’t the kind of repair you can put off until next week. You’ll need to call for emergency service if you have any hopes of salvaging all those groceries getting warmer by the minute. But if you take good care of your refrigerator with a little simple, routine maintenance, you may be able to get 20 or more years of reliable service out of your appliance, all while keeping it clean and energy efficient.

Make Your Refrigerator Coils Live Long and Prosper

Maybe you can live with your refrigerator being a little messy on the inside, but it’s the hidden mess on the outside that could shorten its lifespan.

Your refrigerator keeps food cold with the help of a pair of coils -- an evaporator coil that absorbs heat inside the fridge, and a condenser coil that expels that heat outside the fridge. When these coils get covered with dust, dirt and pet hair, the refrigerator’s compressor has to work harder and harder to keep the cooling process going. That extra strain can take a toll, causing premature compressor failure that is often expensive to repair.

The good news is that you can thoroughly clean your refrigerator’s coils in less than ten minutes.

Easy Steps to Clean Refrigerator Coils:

  1. First, pull the refrigerator away from the wall and unplug it. It’s important to always unplug the refrigerator before performing any mechanical maintenance or even cleaning the exterior parts.
  2. Next, look for coils -- thin metal tubes that wind back and forth -- on the back of the fridge. If you don’t see any, that means the coils are on the bottom, usually concealed behind a removable front or rear grate.
  3. Check if the coils are coated in dust and hair, and if they are, you know your compressor is working too hard, which means higher energy bills and premature compressor failure.
  4. Use a vacuum cleaner hose attachment to remove all the dust you can reach. If some of the dust is hard to reach, pick up a flexible coil brush at your local hardware store. You can slide this tool into tight cracks to make your coils look like new. Refrigerators with coils on the bottom may have a small condenser fan which should also be thoroughly cleaned.
  5. Before you slide the fridge back into place, perform a final cleaning of the floor underneath and any exterior vents or grills on the appliance. If your fridge has its coils on the back, leave at least an inch of clearance between the coils and the wall.

Keep Your Drip Pan & Door Seals Fresh and Clean

Before you return to the inside of the fridge, there are a few other components that periodically need cleaning or maintenance, starting with the drip pan.

Modern refrigerators don’t need to be defrosted, but that doesn’t mean they don’t produce frost. Today’s frost-free models have small heaters that run on timers to periodically melt this buildup. The melted frost runs into a drainage system that leads to a shallow pan at the bottom of the refrigerator, where it can evaporate.

Check your refrigerator’s manual for the location of the drip pan and instructions on how to remove it. At least twice a year, remove and thoroughly clean the drip pan to take care of any odors or potential bacteria growth. While you’re at it, check the drain hole to be sure that it’s clear. Pet hair is notorious for clogging this outlet.

You should also refer to your manual if your refrigerator has a connected ice maker or water dispenser, because it probably also has a water filtration system. With most refrigerators, you’ll need to order replacement filters from the manufacturer and replace them after a certain number of months.

Finally, check and clean your refrigerator’s door seals a few times a year. The folds can collect crumbs, and significant buildup can affect the seal enough that cold air will leak out. Use a toothbrush and warm, soapy water to clean all around the seals on both the refrigerator and freezer doors.

Door seals can also become brittle, cracked or warped in ways that prevent a tight seal. If you suspect this problem, test your seal by placing a dollar bill in the affected area, closing the door on it and trying to slide the bill out. If it slides out easily, you know you have a seal problem. Refer to the manual for more information on replacing the seal on your specific model.

Best Practices

If you periodically take care of the maintenance tasks listed above, you can expect years of faithful service from your refrigerator. But there's even more you can do to make sure it remains efficient and fresh smelling.

Keep your refrigerator and freezer as full as possible without cramming items in. This helps your energy efficiency because solids and liquids hold cold temperatures better than air, so refrigerators don’t have to work as hard to keep full spaces cold. Just make sure there’s plenty of room for air circulation around the items on the shelves, and avoid blocking any cooling vents. If you’re low on groceries, fill up a few containers of water to store inside.

In the freezer, make a point of dumping out your ice bin every couple of months and giving it a thorough cleaning. Old ice can collect odors and flavors, so you probably won’t want to risk ruining a drink with it, but it doesn’t have to go to waste. If you have a garbage disposal, send those old cubes into the grinder with cold running water. The ice cubes will scour the blades and insides of the disposal, scraping away bacteria and removing odors.

In both the fridge and the freezer, use open boxes of baking soda to absorb odors hanging in the air.

It might seem like a lot of work, but it only adds up to a couple hours of cleaning per year, and it may help you delay the inevitable refrigerator replacement for years to come. And when that day arrives, there’s a silver lining -- energy efficiency standards for refrigerators are always improving, so when you do pick out a replacement, you can usually look forward to an instant drop in your monthly energy bills.

Looking for even more ways to conserve energy and get more out of your appliances? Get in touch with an experienced electrician who can identify other problems that are running up your bills and opportunities for cost-effective improvements.