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Refrigerator Troubleshooting and Repair: Ice, Frost, and Condensation

Samurai Appliance Repair Man


A common problem with refrigerators is the appearance of various forms of water in places where it shouldn’t be. Examples are: water at the bottom of the freezer and dribbling out the door in a side by side refrigerator; fuzzy frost built up on the back wall inside the freezer compartment; moisture on beer bottles and the side walls inside the refrigerator compartment (also called the Beer Compartment); solid slab of ice on the bottom of the freezer compartment.

In each of these examples, we’re dealing with water that’s out of place. Water in a refrigerated space can take on three forms: ice, frost, and condensation. Which of these forms you see, along with where you see it, are important clues to help you zero in on the needed repair.

Condensation problems will appear as “sweating” on jars and bottles and sometimes even on the sidewall in the refrigerator compartment. Condensation is caused by water vapor condensing into a liquid as it hits the cold surfaces inside the refrigerator. When you see this, it means outside, humid air is getting inside the refrigerated compartments when and where it shouldn’t. So, you’re looking for bad gaskets, doors not closing properly, or doors being left open from carelessness.

Ice refers to liquid water that froze into a solid. This sounds obvious but it’s an important distinction from frost, also known as rime ice, that fuzzy looking stuff that is formed when water vapor condenses directly into a solid. The important point here is that ice and frost are the effects of two completely different underlying causes.

If you see smooth or solid ice in a freezer, then you know you’re really looking for liquid water in places where it shouldn’t be (that ended up freezing): clogged condensate drain in the drip trough below the evaporator coil; ice maker fill tube leaking or out of place; ice maker mold leaking.

If you see frost or rime ice in a freezer, then you know you’re really looking for water vapor that’s getting into the compartment. How does water vapor get into a refrigerator? It comes in with the outside air. In most cases when you see frost in a freezer, you’re looking for an air leak: bad door gaskets or doors not closing all the way. This video shows an extreme example of rime ice all over the contents inside a freezer:

Sometimes, you’ll see both ice and frost appearing together in a freezer which can make diagnosis tricky. In this video, I walk you through an example of such a case and I explain the failure sequence:

A special (but common) case for diagnosing frost in a freezer is when you see frost accumulated on the evaporator coil or back wall inside the freezer that covers the evaporator coil. This indicates a defrost system failure (defrost terminator stuck open, burned out defrost heater, bad defrost timer (on older units) or adaptive defrost control (ADC) board).

The reason rime ice forms on the evaporator coil in the first place is because the coil operates at a temperature of -20F. At that temperature, water vapor that contacts the coil will condense and freeze directly into a solid, forming rime ice. Every few hours the defrost system should kick in and melt that ice, because if it’s allowed to accumulate it will eventually act as an insulator, preventing the air from contacting the evaporator coils and getting cold. The resulting problem would first be seen as a warm refrigerator compartment and, if allowed to continue, eventually the freezer will also get warmer than normal (normal = 0F). Rime ice accumulated on the inside of the back wall in the freezer will often be seen at this point.

This melted rime ice has a special name: condensate. (Not to be confused with condensation, although the words are similar, they arise from two different causes.) Condensate refers to the water that gets melted off the evaporator coil in the freezer compartment during the defrost cycle. This condensate drips onto the condensate drip trough below the evaporator coil and drains out the condensate drain– a hole in the condensate drip trough– through a tube to the drain pan placed down by the compressor where it eventually evaporates due to the combined action of the compressor heat and condenser fan motor.

This video shows a freezer with extreme rime ice buildup on the back wall inside the freezer due to a defrost system failure:

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I have a simple way to handle the upper freezer basket on the Maytag you showcased in the newsletter. After removing the lower drawer, remove the two screws that hold the upper basket rails in place. Pull out the basket all the way to the stops. With a small-bladed standard screw driver, push in the notches on the rear wheel assemblies to release the lock. The lock mechanism slides upward, thus freeing the rear wheels. You can then remove the shelf, and side rails. When reassembling, just reverse procedure. Mount all the side rails on the freezer box, but don't add the upper rail screws just yet. Put the basket back in place and slide to the back. Install the front rail screws. Pull basket all the way back out and push down on the rear wheel locks to lock in place. The basket is automatically aligned properly. Install the ice maker and bottom drawer. Done!

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Samurai Appliance Repair Man


Good tip, reelynyce, but it seems like you'd want to re-install the ice maker before you install the upper basket because there's practically no head room to work in there with the basket installed.  


Also, I'm still not clear from your description on how you get both of those rear tabs on the upper basket rail to go back into the freezer liner?  

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 Great info O' Great One!  Hope you don't mind me adding my two cents.  With regards to frost or rime ice (thanks for giving me a new jargonistic term!) on fridges that have the option for an icemaker but icemaker is not installed, check to make sure  the hole for the icemaker water spout is covered if the spout is missing or that the spout is sealed or connected to a valve. This seems like a no brainer but I've done several repairs following up on other repair companies missing this issue. One time I was the 4th(!) company called to fix this "unfixable" problem.  I guess it's easy to forget. 

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Samurai Appliance Repair Man


A most worthy and excellent addition and one well worth noting.  Domo, Brother Durham!

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Samurai...To reinstall the upper rails just insert the rear tabs into the freezer liner first, then put them into place on the side walls. You'll have them at a 90 degree angle to the wall, then just align them into their respective channels on the side walls. I like your suggestion about installing the ice maker first...will try that next time. (I see 4 or 5 of these a month, so it shouldn't be too long...)

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