Guide to Troubleshooting Your Appliances

Before shelling out money for a major repair (or―gulp!―a new machine), read this.

Photo by Charles Masters

Few household aggravations rank higher than dealing with ailing (leaking, thumping, malfunctioning) appliances. Sometimes the machine will be beyond hope―destined for the recycling pile. Other times an inexpensive repair is all that’s needed. The first question is, How do you diagnose the problem? The next is, How do you figure out whether it’s a job for a licensed technician or one you can handle yourself? Here, learn the most common symptoms of appliance trouble, what causes them, and whether you or a pro should fix the unit or if the time has come to ditch it. (R.I.P.)


Problem: It’s not cooling or freezing well.

It could be:
The condenser coils. Found behind the kick plate at the front or the back of the unit, they can easily become caked with dust.
Verdict: Fix it yourself. Unplug the refrigerator, loosen dirt with a soft-bristle brush, then vacuum.

It could be: The gaskets (the rubber strips that seal the doors shut). “Close the doors on a dollar bill at several spots,” says Chris Hall, a cofounder of the appliance-parts vendor “If the bill slips, you need a new gasket.”
Verdict: Fix it yourself. To install a gasket ($40 to $60; see Where to Find Parts and Service, at the end of this article), take out the old one and screw the new one in, making sure the door is properly aligned.

It could be: Frost buildup in a self-defrosting freezer. A bad thermostat or compressor could be at fault. Either way, you’ll need to call a repairman.
Verdict: If it’s the thermostat, a pro can fix that. Parts and labor will cost $100 to $175, says repairman Eric Kleinert, who writes the appliance-repair blog If the compressor is shot, you should ditch the machine (see How to Dispose of Appliances, at the end of this article). “A new compressor is $500 to $700,” says Kleinert. “It’s not worth the cost if the refrigerator was less than $1,000 or is more than five years old.”

Problem: It’s making strange noises.

It could be:
Paper or some other debris caught in the condenser fan. Listen for a sound like a playing card rattling in the spokes of a wheel.
Verdict: Fix it yourself. Unplug the unit, then unscrew the back panel to get to the fan, on the bottom right. Remove any foreign objects.

It could be: The freezer fan motor, which squeals.
Verdict: Have a pro fix it for $150 to $250.

It could be: The compressor. When that part stops working, it makes a thumping sound.
Verdict: Ditch the refrigerator. (Sorry.)

Problem: The ice maker has stopped working.

It could be:
The bale lever (which looks like a hanger). It may be flipped to the off position.
Verdict: Fix it yourself. Just switch the lever on; it should be pointing down.

It could be: A clog in the water valve. Here’s how to test it: Place a finger in the mold above the ice bucket. No cubes means there’s a potential clog.
Verdict: Have a pro fix it for $185 to $275.