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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Repairing a GE refrigerator compressor fan and bracket


About 10 years ago we bought  a  fridge-freezer as part of a new kitchen.We got a  De Dietrich brand refrigerator, which was on offer from the people who installed the kitchen (a long story).

I'd never heard of De Dietrich,  they are in fact French, despite a reassuringly German sounding name.  Our model is a  UW1597E1 but this is a re-badged  GE (General Electric) Model, so this is an American made American-style fridge, rather than European or Korean made. I'm not sure precisely which model from GE it is, probably one of the following which share common parts :


We had a number of other De Dietrich appliances including an electric oven and a steam oven. These have slowly all failed and been replaced and now only the Fridge remains.

Its a monster-size refrigerator and  unlike any other  I've owned or used. I live in the UK, where this type of two door refrigerator is called American-style here, I assume in America they are just called called refrigerators.

It features a cold water and ice dispenser and has to have a water supply plumbed in. Subsequently it has a very heavy power consumption. I have used an IAM ( CurrentCost Individual Appliance Monitor - see other post) to measure its power consumption , which averages  a hefty 3KwH per day ! Spiking every 30 minutes at 200 watts as the compressor kicks in then every other day rising to 800 watts for 30 minutes and a solid 200 for a couple of hours as a consequence of the defrost mode.

Most modern American-style fridges sold in the UK use from 1-2 units of electricity per day rather than 3 in the case of this machine. We were assured from the supplier that it was A rated when we got it , but the only indication on it is that its 'Performance Class N'. I cannot find what this means. It doesn't have European-style energy efficiency ratings.

The hefty power consumption is due to its features i.e making cold water, ice etc. and because it runs a defrost programme every now and then which melts ice in  the vanes within the freezer. It actually uses a heating element to do this,  and the water drips through a pipe into a plastic tray underneath (more of this later) . The fridge has not one, but two fans; one in the freezer compartment to circulate cold air and one in the base to provide airflow over the heat exchanger coils and drip tray.

The heat exchanger coils are positioned underneath  the machine, rather than behind which is more common in previous freezers I have owned.  This requires a fan to cool the condenser and the heat exchanger by drawing air in through a slatted kick plate at the front beneath the door. I'm not sure why they don't fit the heat exchanger up the back and allow passive convection to do its work ? Maybe these fridges are often pushed hard against a wall , but if so the fan has to work even harder. Anyway, this style of refrigerator always seem to have have the heat exchanger and compressor underneath, so need a fan to cool them, and  fans consume negligible power anyway.

The fridge has 3 * 40 watt E27 light bulbs in it ,to illuminate the contents, so that's 120 watts with the doors open, but of course that is normally only for a few minutes. I note more modern units have gone over to LED lighting.

The Fridge also routes some of the heat exchanger coils piping through the front of the partition (mullion) which separates the fridge and freezer compartments. These are actually designed to get warm and prevent frosting of the doors. While this model uses routed pipes from the exchanger, earlier models  achieved this with additional heaters in the front strip of the mullion.

So .... its the fridge equivalent of a lots-of-features-but-heavy-fuel-consumption car, but I should say that American requirements and climate are very different to the UK.  When it finally dies I'll get something that is more energy efficient, probably a Samsung or a Bosch, but in the meantime I'd like to keep it going, it's not cheap to replace !

The problems and the fixes

Problem 1. Fan bracket rusted through

After initial teething problems of leaking water  on the floor , it settled down to working fine for a few years. However this fridge has always been very noisy. A consequence of the large compressor and multiple fans, it creates more noise than it should. I have got used to it over time, but every 30 minutes the compressor and fans kick in and causing rattling and buzzing throughout the chassis and contents.

A complete new bracket
After a couple of years it got very, very  noisy, seemingly from the fan in the base. Turning off the fridge at the mains then Removing the cardboard (yes !) rear cover , and lots of rather dusty glass fibre insulation (!) (I'm not sure of the purpose of the insulation as it was around the compressor, not between the compressor and the fridge. It seemed to be causing the compressor to get even hotter. maybe it was acoustical purposes i.e to sound proof the noisy compressor)

This revealed that the frame supporting the fan had corroded and was no longer providing enough rigid support. The fan supporting frame bracket was painted  pressed steel and sat in the plastic tray which collected the water from the defrost programme. Not surprisingly this bracket corroded and was starting to fail.

I tried both De Dietrich and other spare parts suppliers, but apparently this simple part was not available, which was frustrating. It looked like the whole fridge had failed because of this simple part and a poor design. Had the bracket been made of plastic or galvanised steel it would have survived a life of continuously getting wet from the defrost then dried by the fan action.

The fix (NOTE: new motor , see later)
After pondering if I could fabricate the whole bracket , I decided to retain the three support arms from the original by drilling out the rivets. I would then make the quadrilateral piece with the circular hole in it . I used a white nylon kitchen chopping board of 9mm thickness for this piece, I used the original frame as a pattern to get the irregular shape right .

I traced the outline and centre hole with a felt pen and cut the outside lines with a saw. The inner hole I used a drill to make a circle of holes , getting closer and closer to the next. Eventually I could use a Stanley knife to cut between these to get my hole. I trimmed the roughness with the knife

 I drilled small holes through the nylon for the arm brackets , and bolted the original 3 sections to the new nylon board and reattached the motor to the arms. Once all back together it was pretty rigid. Nylon is  easy to shape with modest household tools (a hack saw and a drill). It also has the advantage that its impervious to water , so superior to using wood here,  and acoustically inert, so I was hoping the fan noise might be attenuated. The chopping board was the right thickness to sit in the dedicated slot in the drip tray.

This fix was carried out  6 years ago and has worked since.

problem 2. fan failed

Recently I noticed that the front of the mullion (the partition between the fridge and freezer) was getting very warm. Googling this suggested that this was a possible indication that the fan had failed, which on inspection proved to be the case.

I switched the fridge  off at the mains and unplugged it.  I took the back off and decided once and for all to discard the tatty cardboard panel and the fibre glass insulation. Seems to me that the more air flow around the compressor and heat exchanger the better. If this insulation was insulating the cold space, great, but it didn't seem to be placed for this.

With no rear panel, I carefully turned the fridge on, but the fan was dead, either when the compressor was running or off. I turned the mains back off, disconnected the plug  and removed the motor.

The wiring from the motor uses a plastic two-part connector, rather like found in a automotive electrics . I was able to disconnect the motor from the electricity and also to remove an earth wire from the motor chasis to the metalwork of the fridge. I removed the whole thing and my home mode  nylon bracket.

the original GE motor with wire and half of the connector
Now I turned the fridge on and ran it without the fan or framework in place. While the wiring was safe as the power leads from the fridge wiring loom terminated with the female enclosed half of the connector, I cannot unreservedly suggest this as there is an element of risk.  The fridge ran, as before, except the mullion was running hot. I'm guessing that without airflow from the fan a couple of things happen :

1) The heat exchange coils work less effectively
2) The compressor gets too hot
3) Without the fan, water  in the defrost drip tray doesn't evaporate (The fan also enables the accumulated water to evaporate )

With the motor removed, I tried to find a replacement using the reference number on the side. The only companies supplying parts were either US based (not surprisingly) or in France. The cost of that part was in the order of £100 plus shipping.

I decided it was time to investigate other fridges and looked at some of the Samsung models. Trouble is this is an expensive item, and I cannot really afford to buy another one with a heft price tag.

WARNING : Only attempt the following if you have experience of SAFELY repairing major electrical items. if in doubt get a qualified electrician to carry out this repair.

I looked on ebay and found a company (cateringparts) selling mains powered multi-purpose ELCO refrigeration fan motors for a more reasonable £20. I needed a low 5 watt power device from the range they sold. I wasn't sure of the fitting but the motors had 3 comon alternative sets of mounting points including a set of three bolt holes arranged around the spindle in a triangle 62mm apart. This appeared to be precisely the right distance for my GE motor and the seller confirmed this is a standard size for this type of application.

I removed the fan blades from the old motor and ordered one of these multi-purpose units.

I figured I had little to loose.

The part came the next day, was simplicity itself to fit and I refitted it into the frame and mounted the fan to it. the fan blade alignment 4 holes didn't quite mesh but I fixed it by eye and tightened the screw in the end. Its important to make sure the fan is the correct way round i.e it sucks air from the front and blows out the back. There was a marking on the blade indicating which side was facing the securing nut at the front.

I turned off the mains electricity and removed the plug.

I couldn't reuse the two-part cable connector used for the motor supply, so used a standard UK nylon mains block to join the new motor to the fridge supply. 

I reattached the green & yellow earth wire to the outside of the motor. On the original motor it had been connected to a screw fixing on the outside of the  metal case.

I made sure that the wiring was tied back with the rest of the loom and couldn't become ensnared in the fan or fall into the water drip tray (VERY dangerous)

Testing by plugging the fridge back into the mains and turning on immediately caused the fan to draw air correctly i.e the draught blows out the back of the fridge , not toward the front. The motor was regulated with the compressor i.e didn't remain on indefinitely.

It appears to be fixed.

Its early days and sometimes the fan is noisy. I think there is some movement in the fabricated bracket in the slot. Vibration from the new motor sometimes starts a resonance in the body of the fridge. I think reseating the bracket might help or securing it differently. Further experimentation needed here ......

As I have stressed, take great care with any repair. Also just because a repair appears to work doesn't mean its safe. It would be easy to make the chassis live or get a fire due to poor wiring. There are pools of water close to where the fan operates, so great care is needed to ensure it is a safe repair.

I hope this will buy me  few years before the fridge needs replacing

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