Refrigerator Diagnosis and Repair: Ice, Frost, and Condensation

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: icefrost, 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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