Monday, May 11, 2009

The Refrigerator Coil Lesson

You probably know that your refrigerator is the single largest electricity-consuming appliance in your household (unless you have a heat pump or a huge air conditioning load). So it makes sense to install a high-efficiency unit. A current "Energy Star" qualified fridge uses 40 percent less electricity than a model sold in 2001.

Refrigerators are a fairly low-maintenance appliance. The key to maintaining its performance is to clean the condenser coils. These are located on the rear or underneath the unit.

So like good little doobies, we sought out an Energy Star Sears Kenmore fridge when we remodelled the kitchen in 2003. Take a look at this picture, and you'll see where I'm going with this. You're looking at the underside of our refrigerator from the front. The grill has been removed, revealing the condenser coils that are arranged in several parallel banks:

All the literature, including the manual that came with this particular unit, tells you to periodically clean the coils. Air being drawn back to the fan passes through the coil fins, which have maybe a one-eighth inch space between them. But lo and behold: the coils are configured SIDEWAYS. You can clean the face of the first bank, but that first bank prevents you from reaching the inner banks. There is no grill for side access, and the coil banks don't pull out. A brush made especially for this purpose is of no use with this configuration.

I called Sears and went through the usual automated response system. I finally found a tech support guy who admitted that this particular model's coil configuration was a "design flaw." He had several suggestions:

(1) Use a high-powered shop vac. Sorry, but that's not strong enough to pull up layers of dust that have been cemented in place by five years worth of humidity.

(2) Call Sears Service, who will send out a guy in a cargo van sometime in the next week who will repeat my shop vac experience, but charge me a couple hundred dollars for it. I'll pass.

(3) Lay the fridge on its back, remove the bottom plate, and get access to the coils that way. This probably is the best "medicine," but I'm figuring that the cure is worse than the disease. By the way, placing a refrigerator on its back or side (even if you have the space and strength to do it) is usually traumatic for the refrigerant system.

Let our experience be your guide. It's fine and dandy to shop for an appliance that is the right size, color, and has the right features, etc. I was aware of coil maintenance five years ago when shopping for a fridge, but took for granted that there would be no issues with access.

Refrigerator coils maintenance makes sense as a do-it-yourself activity, assuming you have access to the coils. It's not worth paying someone to do. Consequently, I wonder how many households bother to do this? I'm thinking about my mother-in-law, who maintains TWO refrigerators-- one pre-dating 2001 and the other pre-dating 1994. I promise you the coils have NEVER been cleaned on either one.

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