Millennials may not have any context to understand what I am about the write about, but those of you over 60 will. I, or my family – mom and dad, has owned refrigerators that lasted over 30 years with absolutely no service work. Today, if you buy a new refrigerator, you are lucky if it lasts the 5 year warranty period before the compressor, solenoid, or some other costly part goes out. And after that 5 year period, you are faced with an onslaught of one part after another that cause the refrigerator to fail or worse, cause major damage to the surrounding floors, walls and cabinets.
If compressors from decades ago lasted 30+ years, why do they only last 5 years today? The simple reason is that today’s compressors are under-engineered purposely to last no longer than 5 to 7 years, so the manufacturer can sell you repairs or another refrigerator altogether. Those compressors from decades ago were over-engineered so the manufacturer could brag and advertise about how long their product did last.
What caused this change in philosophy and product life? Two different ownership models:
Yesteryears Model: Family or small privately own manufactures who grew their brand from scratch building a reputation and public trust.
Todays Model: large mega corporations who own many competing appliance brands, but are in fact, in collusion with a few other mega corporations with the same practices, maintaining a monopoly on that market. We have no competition in that marketplace.
Designed Obsolescence: Our entire society is at the mercy of large corporate and financial interests that control and dictate how long a product will last. They have bought out all the old appliance manufactures that once had great track records of lasting decades and supporting their product long after manufacture. Those large corporate concerns now spend millions on research to find out, on average, how long we live in our homes, how much we are willing to pay or tolerate to find the sweet spot, so the product will last just long enough to keep us relatively happy and pay the asking price. In this case about refrigerators those manufacturers have determined that sweet spot is about 7 years. Hence, your refrigerator is likely to last just long enough for the 5 year warranty to expire before it needs major repairs. Many times it lasts less, particularly in parts of the country as indicated in the next section. It is also very common for manufactures to not offer replacement parts for models longer than 5 years after the model was discontinued or replaced by a newer version. Making sure you need to buy a new model when repairs are needed. Industry Standards that minimize massive lawsuits against all manufacturers within an industry: All domestic refrigerators, to my knowledge, use the identical patented water delivery system, for their water and ice compartments. (They probably also use similar specs on their compressors.) This water delivery system is designed to fail, and, in my experience, is the single most likely component in your kitchen to cause catastrophic water damage to your home. The refrigerator water delivery system is many times more likely than a dishwasher, garbage disposal, or other plumbing problem at the sink.
This industry standard practice makes it extremely difficult to litigate one manufacturer for damages when that system fails and ruins, a full room of hardwood flooring, adjoining cabinets, walls, or creates mold. The manufacturer’s first defense is: it is an industry standard, so we are not the culprit and not liable.
Water Delivery system: without going into great detail with drawings, there are two weak points to the system.
The solenoid, a combination of an electronic switch and mechanical valve, that opens and closes the water supply to the fridge when you push the water button for a glass of water, or the ice maker demands water to fill the ice making mechanism.
If you live in a part of the country (like San Diego) where you have a very hard water supply (lots of hard minerals and particulate matter, calcium etc.) this solenoid will not last long, often less than the warrantee period. In other parts of the country it will last much longer. The failure of this solenoid to fully close due to old age or calcium build up is the initial factor that begins the catastrophic water failure and associated damage.
- The water line from the solenoid to the ice maker. In all manufacturers it is a plastic tube, with one or more connections, all of which is not designed to hold water under pressure. The fact that it is not designed to hold water under pressure is the final factor that ends with the catastrophic water damage. It is the final stage in a series of events that started in the solenoids failure to close completely.
Here is the series of events that lead to the catastrophic water damage:
- The solenoid’s valve fails to shut completely: Due to calcium buildup, rust, and other particulates, or simply a failure of the electronic or mechanical part of the solenoid.
- A very small, but consistent supply of water slowly and continually trickles into the ice box when it is not needed and not wanted: Caused by the solenoid valves failure to close completely.
- The trickle of water in this line now slowly freezes over: This continual flow allows water to always be in a part of this plastic water tube which is not supposed to have water in it. If the solenoid is working properly this gravity fed portion of the line would be dry after the solenoid closes completely.
- The freeze grows until the entire end of the tube is full of ice and no water can pass through to feed the ice maker: as the water continues to trickle over the freeze and grow
- Now, the plastic tubing that was not designed to hold water under pressure has water in it under pressure at 60 to 80 psi, the same as your water faucets: With the wire switch in the down position, the ice maker is telling the solenoid to send water, but the frozen ice blockage in water delivery line prevents the water from entering and keeps the solenoid completely open.
- By now the damage is done: Homeowners rarely see or hear that water as it sprays on the wall behind and the floor at the back of the refrigerator. They normally do not notice it until they realize their floor is buckling or hear water squishing under their feet. They see the water damage as it makes its way out from behind the fridge into the room where they can see its effects.
If you pay diligent attention to your ice maker you can see this condition coming. You will be out of ice for a few days, but little or no new ice replaces it, even though the wire ice switch is down. (check that switch before you call a tech, if the wire switch is up, that has turned off the water to the icemaker) If you catch it early, turn that wire switch up (turning off the water supply immediately before serious damage) you can avoid a lot of cost in replacing floors or drywall before the next step begins.
In my 40 year practice as a Kitchen specialist here in San Diego, this water damage from refrigerators water delivery system has accounted for over 5 times the water damage I have experienced from any other source, dishwasher, sinks, etc. There are some very simple solutions homeowners can take, but I feel the real responsibility is on the manufacturers, if we as a society can hold them accountable for their actions and omissions. What manufacturers should do to make a better product that does not cause this damage:
Design the water line behind the fridge that connects the icemaker to the solenoid, to hold water under pressure. This line leaking water under pressure is the final cause of all the damage. If that line held water under pressure for only a few weeks, the homeowner would have no ice and know there is something wrong. They could put the wire switch up and have plenty of time to get the solenoid replaced and the line deiced. (appliance tacticians deice the line with a simple hair dryer) And, no damage to any part of the home.
- Higher end refrigerators with smart functions could have sensors that knew if and when that water delivery line was under pressure, turn off the solenoid, and alert the owner of the problem and the need of a service call.
Here is the crazy part: a water delivery line that could hold house water line pressure would probably cost the manufacturer about 50 cents more to manufacture. Plastic water lines that are designed to hold water are not expensive.
Measures you can take to protect your home from this potential water damage:
Install a drip pan under your fridge. If there is a crawl space under your floor, not a concrete slab, a drip pan can catch this water as it trickles down the wall and allow it to run into the crawl space instead of out into the room. This will protect your finish floor, sub floor, underlayment, and framing from all the water damage. I do this regularly for clients that want real wood floors running into their kitchen, as wood floors of any kind, (laminates included) are destroyed by standing water.
For my clients on slabs, I try real hard to talk them out of real wood or laminate and encourage them to consider either ceramic tile that looks like wood, or LVT, that has many patterns that are very hard to tell are not real wood.
- Install a high quality home water softener and feed the fridge water first through a good water filter as well. We typically put that water filter under the kitchen sink, where there it also feeds a water filter devoted faucet on the sink for cooking or drinking water that is not refrigerated. The softener removes the hard minerals from the water and the filter removes particulate’s and other unwanted chemicals for the clients health.
This stuff I am talking about is not rocket science. It is simple common sense and my suggested solution would cost manufacturers pennies not dollars to fix. I cannot begin to convey my frustration with all big corporations, and the direction they are leading our society.