Yesterday turned out to be an exciting day at my son's house in Orlando, Florida. When I walked into the kitchen, I found the refrigerator sitting in the middle of the floor . It was obvious something wasn't, but I'd missed the discussion the night before. After my son, his wife and daughter were out the door, I learned that the food in the freezer … wasn't frozen. Pulling the refrigerator out of the wall cabinet was step one in discovering how easily a refrigerator install can go wrong.
What surprised me the most was how easy the problem was to identify and resolve, taking my husband and I about an hour total. The difference is we had the time to focus on the problem where busy parents (my son and his wife) juggling work, kids and a house, often don't have this time. It also brought back memories of when my boys were little, and how I loved when my husband's parents came to visit because everything on our punch list got done in a few days.
3 Lessons Learned from a Refrigerator Install Gone Wrong
The three lessons aren't what you think, because they're not just about refrigerators. These lessons are more basic and apply to homeowners everywhere, whether you live in a new home, an older home or are renovating a fixer-upper.
- Read the manufacturer's instructions but don't assume they're correct or complete. The manufacturer wants to limit their liability so they only document their product, and in this case failed to communicate installation instructions for the refrigerator install inside a cabinet surround.
- Make sure you understand how features in your home work, not all at once but as you make changes even if they're small tweaks. This problem happened because the DIY installers didn't understand how the refrigerator interacted with the built-in cabinet. Like a puzzle, you want to understand how the pieces interact and fit together. For example, a refrigerator may only need 110 volts but most building codes require a dedicated circuit.
- Don't assume the product was designed correctly. I'll explain this below, when I walk through our refrigerator problem and solution. For me it's a fail, as the manufacturer made a design change for aesthetics, and missed the operating problem this caused.
What Went Wrong with the Refrigerator Install
Remember, the problem was the food in the freezer wasn't frozen. It wasn't because the freezer wasn't working to do it's job. It was because freezers and air conditioners, when they remove heat, have to exhaust the heat somewhere. The heat being pulled out of this freezer was stuck behind the refrigerator with no way to escape. My husband knew what the problem was as soon as he rolled the refrigerator out of the cabinet, as the back was very, very hot.
The refrigerator install followed the manufacturer's specifications but they weren't adequate. But first let me share with you how I found the information online.
- We found the manufacturer's model number on the label inside the refrigerator.
- Once I typed in the manufacturer and model number, Google made it easy offering me two choices for the model number — manual or parts, so I clicked on “manual”.
- The link took me to ManualsLib.com, where I could select either the manual (42 pages) or specifications (2 pages), so I clicked on “manual”.
- Then I clicked the thumbnail for clearances on page 8 … and that's where I got frustrated. The diagram promises information and fails to deliver what's needed. It only shows the one inch clearance between the wall and the back of the refrigerator, and states the clearances needed for the refrigerator doors to open properly.
- Further searching uncovered the three clearances needed on page two of the specifications (full specs) for this refrigerator … and our refrigerator met all three, so why were we having the problem?
- Sides – 1/8″
- Top – 1 inch
- Back – 1 inch
- Online research about refrigerator clearance questions/problems discussed ventilation through the opening under the refrigerator (we checked and no blockage) depending on where the fan is, so I'll be calling LG to find out if this applies to our model. Oops, when I uploaded the photo of the manufacturer label (step #1), I found the clearance information highlighted right there, which is the perfect location as you might need it after the initial refrigerator install.
Why Aren't the Specifications Working?
There are some interesting clues to why the heat isn't getting out of the space behind the refrigerator.
- Measuring the required one inch clearance could be done wrong. The exposed hinges on top of the black refrigerator above show the old style, while the stainless refrigerator on the left illustrates the new “hidden hinges”. Measuring from the top of the hinge, we don't meet the one inch requirement versus measuring from the back we do.
- The clearance specifications likely weren't reviewed/updated after the door and hidden hinge design was implemented. Climbing a ladder to see how big the opening was for heat to escape, showed us more ventialtion was needed.
An Old Fashion Solution to Fix the Problem
When we looked at the top of the refrigerator, we found a panel matching the cabinets covering the entire space so no heat could escape. The obvious solution was to provide an opening on top which we set off to do. The panel was lying on top, and when my husband removed it he discovered a plain white panel that had a three inch opening at the back.
Taking down the panel, we cut off three inches to match the white panel below, and placed it back on top for storage – problem solved with more ventilation up. That's because a flat surface makes it easier to slide stuff on top of the refrigerator, large, flat things you only use once or twice a year.
And of course my granddaughter had to get involved in the process, so here she is measuring things in the kitchen once I was finished with the tape measure.
Homeowners Have Final Responsibility
The key lesson here is homeowners need to spend more time understanding how their homes are built, because ultimately you're the one who wins or loses depending on the quality of the installation. When a refrigerator isn’t properly ventilated, it costs the homeowner extra energy as the compressor has to run longer than necessary to cool or freeze the food. Running for more hours can also damage the refrigerator motor or compressor, reducing the lifetime of the appliance.
- Refrigerator manufacturer documented clearance guidelines.
- Cabinet manufacturer left a three inch opening at the back of the cabinet.
- Installer covered the refrigerator top, a common practice, and there were no warnings to tell them otherwise as all documented clearances were met.