Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Refrigerator Repair In The Modern Age

Like so much of our technology today, appliances fail not when the motor or other major parts go bad, but when fussy electronic controls break.

15 years ago - which is the design life of most appliances - we bought a KitchenAid "counter depth" three-door "bottom-mount" refrigerator, Model No. KBFA20ERWH01.  I put the model number here so this post can be found by anyone with the same or similar model (the last four characters describe the color, with WH01 being white.  Guess what color SS01 is?).  We had to buy it, as the previous owner didn't install a refrigerator when they remodeled the kitchen.  And the kitchen was remodeled to fit a specific size of refrigerator (counter depth).

Speaking of which, we have seen situations where people go to Lowes or Home Depot and buy a "36-inch fridge!" because that is how wide their old one was.  They get it home and realize that their old refrigerator was "counter depth" (28") and the new fridge sicks out by nearly a foot - blocking access to other appliances or cabinets.   I bought a duplex once where the previous owner remodeled the kitchen and put in a monster refrigerator - in a "Pullman" style tiny kitchen.  The oven door hit the refrigerator door.  I sold it on the PennySaver (the Craigslist of 1995) for $250 and bought a simple "box" fridge, apartment size, for $200.  The kitchen seemed huge after that.  But I digress.

Anyway, it has been a good refrigerator and not too fancy.  It has a cheese drawer that slides out and a friend of ours had the exact same model and the drawer broke (which can happen if you slam the door with the drawer out).  The appliance repair place wanted hundreds of dollars for the new drawer (retail price, plus labor) so they just bought a new refrigerator (!!).  Here's a hint: The Kitchenaidparts.com website lists all the parts for these refrigerators (and other appliances) and the suggested retail price.  You can get the part number and google it on Amazon, or eBay or wherever and find it for far, far less than retail.  I could have fixed their fridge for under $200.

The fridge has worked well for us, and for the first five years we owned it, it was used only half the year.  Even now, we leave for weeks at a time and generally shut it off.  But it started doing weird things.  I would open the door (the display panel is located inside) and the freezer would be set at -6 degrees, while the refrigerator was at 40.  The standard settings are 0 and 38.  When I tried to adjust the temperature, using the membrane switches, nothing happened.  Either the motherboard lost its mind, a connection was loose (I need to check that, come to think of it) or the membrane switches themselves went bad (shocker!).  Those little buttons have two contacts, usually made of aluminium film, which connect when you depress the membrane.  Aluminum corrodes easily and forms aluminum oxide (usually a black layer) which is a perfect insulator.  And of course a refrigerator never is humid, right?

I find the service manual online in pdf format - from several sources - and download it and print it out. It describes how to remove and replace the front switch panel as well as the circuit board behind it.  I look for the parts online and find the circuit board - retail price about $530! - with this interesting notation:

Circuit board, display. NOTE: This part is often misdiagnosed. Please enter your refrigerator model# into our Repair Help section for additional repair help.

OEM Part - Manufacturer #WPW10207861

Clearly, people have replaced this part unnecessarily.  However, I cannot find their "Repair Help" section anywhere - it has been removed from the site (hey, they were selling a lot of $530 circuit boards, right?).  But with the part number in hand, I can find the board at numerous sites, including eBay, where it sells for about $200.  But the control seems to work OK - it is just the buttons that don't work right.

I have a hard time finding the switch panel, though, because they call it "overlay" on some parts sites and "touchpad" on others.  It is about $150 but is NO LONGER AVAILABLE.  OK, fine, I'll just use the part number and find it on eBay or Amazon or wherever.  No joy.  Apparently, this one part cannot be found anywhere.  I keep looking around and find another part that looks almost identical, but has square rather than round buttons.  Maybe that would fit?  Maybe.  It lists for $150 and is "in stock."

I notice this part attaches to the display board via a ribbon cable.  I have had experience with these cables over the years, and they also have aluminum contacts that often corrode.  In some instances, the ribbon pulls loose from the connector.  That might be something to look at.  But the way the buttons work sometimes and not others tells me it is the buttons - when I mash them several times, it is clearing away corrosion perhaps.  No way to really tell, though.

I search online and see a lot of people have the same problem.   One universal "fix" is to unplug the refrigerator for ten minutes to "reset" the controller to factory settings (0/38 degrees) and I have tried that in the past - and it works.

But here's the deal.  Like so much technology today, it isn't the underlying mechanical parts that send things to the junkyard, but the fussy electronics.  The compressor and evaporator and condenser and all that plumbing are pretty bulletproof - sealed for life. So long as you don't move them, refrigerators seem to last a darn long time.  But the electronics, when they break, may make the whole thing inoperable, and if the parts are NLA or way too expensive, then it is cheaper to junk a "perfectly good" refrigerator and start over.

Cars suffer from this, particularly high-end ones. You can have a BMW that looks brand new and whose engine and transmission work perfectly - or they would if some computer somewhere didn't go kaput.  With the cost of labor and the staggering cost of factory parts, it can be cheaper to junk a car than to repair it.  With our X5, for example, the display screen for the Nav and Entertainment center started losing pixels.  It was outdated, too, as it relied on CDs for the Nav system (all 12 of them!).  I was able to remove all the parts (there were five separate modules - the headend unit with display (and cassette deck, no less!), the radio (located in the spare tire compartment!) the 5-disc CD changer, and the CD-ROM "player" for the Nav system - and the 12 Nav discs of course.  I sold all that - some of it clearly broken - for $500 on eBay and bought a used Pioneer AVIC system which had a hard drive and DVD player, for $400.  It took a week of wiring, but I got it all to work - even the steering wheel controls!   But I'm an Electrical Engineer with a lot of time on my hands.  Most people lack the know-how, skills, tools, and time.  And I am losing each of those with every passing day.

The new pickup truck (2016) gave me a heart attack in Malone, NY when I started it up and the screen went black.   Unlike the X5, you need the screen in the Ford for the HVAC controls, the radio, and the nav, as well as a host of user settings, including the heated steering wheel (which has no manual switch).  The A/C still "worked" of course, you just couldn't see what it was set at.  I pulled the fuses for the display module and waited a few minutes and plugged them back in.  It worked.  Ol' Sanjay from Bangalore is on to something - "Did you try unplugging it and plugging it back in?"  I am told an easier way that pulling fuses is to just disconnect the battery.

So far, it hasn't done it again.  Well, maybe a couple of times, but turning the truck off and restarting a few times seemed to clear it.  Another time, it went black for like a minute or two before it rebooted and the FORD logo came up.   I am sure that some failure mode is in my future.  My neighbor has had .five screens installed in their Cadillac - under extended warranty.  My opinion about extended warranties may change over time - so long as they are "factory" and not third party, and you talk them down in price - and you plan on keeping the car, maybe they are not a totally bad idea in this modern age.

With regard to the refrigerator, well, it is 15 years old and in the next five years, we will have to replace it.   Even with delicate care, it has some nicks and scratches on it.  Eventually, it will start to look ratty and then it will be time for a new one, whether or not the compressor is shot.  It is like the dishwasher.  I am babying it along, but the plastic parts are all turning yellow, the corners are starting to rust, and it is doing some odd things.  I recently replaced the silverware basket (again, googling the model number, finding the parts diagram, then googling the part number and finding a new basket for $20 on eBay.  Here's a hint: Don't drop knives point-down into the basket, they will cut through it over time.  In fact, these baskets are now designed to hold knives point-up, in a manner that prevents your child (or you) from impaling themselves on them.  It has happened - more than once.  What a gruesome way to die. Maybe point-down is safer!  Some washers put the rack in the door as a result.

So my plan for the time being is to keep an eye on Mr. Fridge and "reset" him if he goes bonkers again.  When the freezer goes to -6 the refrigerator tends to get colder and freezes the eggs (even if the fridge set point is 38 degrees).  Obviously, we can't live with frozen eggs, unless we want to start a fertility clinic.

We bought this refrigerator back in 2007 and I think we paid $900 for it.  Of course, refrigerators have gone up in price since then.  According to the Kitchenaid site, a similar refrigerator today would cost more than $2000 retail, although most places discount these heavily - or did before "supply chain."   So it isn't really worth throwing hundreds of dollars at a 15-year-old refrigerator, but better to put that money aside for the new one.

There are two things to take away from this.  First, it pays to have less technology.  It was bad enough we had these digital readouts and membrane switches.  The "box" refrigerator in our garage has a simple mechanical rotary knob to adjust temperature. At 20+ years old, it shows no signs of wearing out.  Unless you buy a thermometer (and digital ones with remote displays are like $10 online) you have to guess at the temperature - the way we lived for decades before today.   But beyond that, buying a refrigerator with built-in television screens, cameras, bluetooth and WiFi capabilities is just asking for trouble.  That stuff becomes obsolete in two years, and when the screen breaks, you might as well junk the darn thing - after spending thousands to buy it.  It is like my neighbor with the Subzero built-in refrigerator - they spend thousands on it, and thousands more on repairs.  Meanwhile next door, our old GE side-by-side cost like $500 and lasted well over a decade before we moved.

Second, it pays to be handy, but it also pays to know when to walk away.  In a typical scenario, a homeowner who doesn't know much about technology calls "the repair guy" to come and fix his appliance.  The repair guy charges $100 just to come out, diagnoses the problem - hopefully correctly - and then orders the (hopefully) correct parts.  A week later, he comes out again, charged another $200 in labor, and installs $300 in parts - or more.  The overall cost was nearly what the homeowner paid for the appliance.  And odds are, the repair man might have replaced the wrong part (see the note above) or did the repair incorrectly.   You read about this all the time online - a "poor" middle-class homeowner, throwing $250 at an aging washing machine, instead of just buying a used one for $200 or putting that $250 toward the price of a new one.  Too late, they throw in the towel and buy a new machine.  Cut to the chase!  And yes, people do this with end-of-life cars, too.  They throw thousands of dollars at "repairs" on a 15-year-old car with 150,000 miles on it, only to junk it shortly thereafter when something else breaks.  It helps to know when to quitThe Weibull curve can be a bitch.

Of course, used appliances can be a deal, if they are nearly new.  I recounted before we bought a year-old Frigidaire dishwasher for $75 because the homeowner decided they "had to have" all-stainless appliances, and this old dishwasher sat in their garage for a month or more.  So I'll keep an eye out for more clueless yuppies who "have to have" and throw away perfectly good things. On the flip side, though, used appliances from those ghetto dealers are usually never a good bargain.  Like with used tires, they charge exorbitant prices and the darn things are pretty much wrung out.  The poor are offered the worst bargains.  One way to stop being poor is to stop accepting them.

God willing, we'll get another five years out of this refrigerator and maybe by then "supply chain" issues will be a thing of the past and refrigerators will go on sale again.  Compounding the problem is that we have a fairly small kitchen and this is a "counter-depth" refrigerator (28" deep) and the french doors are needed to be able to open into the space.  We have the same problem with our stove - it is a "slide-in" model with controls at the front, and these are often special order and more expensive than the traditional model with controls at the rear.  Life's a bitch.  Unfortunately, these choices were made by the previous owner, and they are hard to reverse, without spending thousands more on a entire kitchen remodel.  And I am in no mood to throw money at houses anymore.

Another note: The reason why we bought a Kitchenaid was not because we thought the brand was better than others. It is part of the Whirlpool Corporation and they are indistinguishable from other appliances in the Whirlpool family - think  Chevy versus Pontiac.  But all the other appliances in our kitchen were Kitchenaid and it helps to have one brand of appliance, all the same color, in your kitchen.  When you see a house with mongrel appliances, you know the owner cut corners.  It is like buying a car where no two tires are the same brand - buyer beware.  That being said, since all of these appliances may start to go at the same time, we might use this as an opportunity to "jump ship" to another brand or color.

We see houses here on the island where the owners get old and just don't give a shit anymore. They plan on dying in the home and often do (there is a stain on the hardwood floor, don't ask). In the kitchen, there are two brown wall ovens, a refrigerator in "harvest gold", a cooktop in "avocado green" and a dishwasher in white.  Only two burners on the cooktop actually work.  I guess that is one way to do it - just wear the stuff out as you wear out, but I think that gets depressing after a while.  Getting new stuff - when the time is right, of course - is one way of renewing yourself as well.   Speaking of which, I have to get rid of these moth-eaten old clothes of mine and buy something newer.

It never ends, except in the grave!