Nick Acocella of Hoboken, N.J., still fumes about the $95 minimum service call fee he had to pay when his air conditioner wouldn’t work. “The guy came over, hit the reset button and handed me the bill. I didn't even know there was a reset button.” The same goes for Sharon Waldrop of Crawford, Ga. “I once had to pay $60 for a service call when my clothes dryer wouldn’t turn on,” she says. “The technician came over and found it wasn’t plugged in.”
Well, guess what? Appliance repair service operators don’t like making customers pay for fixes they can do themselves, either. While repair services set minimum fees to cover technicians’ hourly wages and other overhead expenses, they know that they’re not building goodwill or loyalty when customers think that they’ve had to pay an unnecessary service fee.
So the next time one of your home appliances goes on the fritz, consider the following tips on things to check and fixes you can make yourself before picking up the phone.
Appliance-Specific Troubleshooting and Repair
If your refrigerator cycles on and off frequently:
If your refrigerator is a newer model that runs about 90 percent of the time, you might think it’s costing more to operate than the older unit it replaced. It isn’t. New models use modulating compressors, which cycle on and off more often than older designs. Even though the motor stays on more, it runs at a much lower power level than at start-up. The compressor operation is regulated according to the internal temperature, which is based on the number of times the door is opened, room temperature, amount of food stored inside and other factors. So, again, new refrigerators cycle more frequently, but their operating costs are roughly 25 percent of similar sized models built more than 20 years ago.
If your refrigerator isn't cold enough:
If you don’t hear the motor go on periodically, turn the thermostat up to the next higher setting. If the motor comes on, let it run for 24 hours before checking the temperature again.
Make sure nothing is blocking the airflow outside the refrigerator (at the top, underneath, behind, beside, at the front). Allow 3 inches of clearance all the way around.
If the condenser coils are mounted at the rear of the box, make sure that the back of the refrigerator stands several inches from the wall and that nothing at the top or rear is blocking the heat from radiating off the coils.
If the coils are underneath the refrigerator, carefully clean them with a vacuum cleaner (or commercially available brushes made especially for the purpose). Clean coils thoroughly at least twice a year.
If your refrigerator door isn’t sealing properly:
Wipe off the face of the rubber door gasket with a clean, wet rag.
Make sure the interior shelves, drawers and food are not preventing the door from closing tightly.
Operating Tip — If you notice a stale or foul odor in your refrigerator, thoroughly clean out the inside of both the refrigerator and freezer sections, and stick wadded up newspapers inside the empty but running refrigerator for a 24-hour period. Or place an open container of baking soda in both the refrigerator and freezer, with no food in either compartment. To keep odors from forming when a fridge is stocked, keep an open container of baking soda in both sections at all times.
If your dishes aren’t getting clean:
- Make sure the water is hot enough before you call for service. It should be at least 140 degrees F (you can check this with your oven thermometer). If the water isn’t getting hot enough, turn the hot water heater thermostat up to a higher setting.
- Make sure the lower spray arm is unobstructed and turning freely.
- Make sure you’re following the manufacturer-specified loading procedures. Use the correct amount of detergent, and make sure it is fresh (check expiration or "best if used by" date).
If the unit is leaking:
- Make sure you are following the proper loading procedures. Run the machine through a cycle empty. If it doesn't leak when empty, any leaks are probably being caused by improper loading.
- Make sure you're using the right type and amount of detergent.
Operating Tip — If your dishwasher develops a film or brownish stains on the inside, put six to seven drops (no more) of good-quality, name-brand liquid detergent (the type used for hand washing dishes in a sink) in the bottom. Run the empty machine through a regular cycle. This will wash away soap scum, mineral deposits and grit. It will also allow the machine to work better.
If your clothes don’t dry thoroughly:
- Be sure to clean the lint filter screen after every load.
- Make sure the dryer hasn’t been pushed back against the rear exhaust duct, which can restrict airflow.
- If airflow isn’t restricted but clothes come out of your dryer too damp, check the washer; it might not be spinning the clothes damp-dry. If clothes are soaking wet when they come from the washer, no dryer will be able to dry them in the normal amount of time — so have the washer checked.
- Make sure that a dryer venting to the outside complies with the owner’s manual requirements. If the dryer vent is clogged with lint or otherwise faulty, have it cleaned or replaced as soon as possible to avoid a potential fire hazard from lint buildup. Check the dryer’s use-and-care manual for pictures of acceptable and unacceptable types of venting.
Operating Tip — If you are painting or refinishing wood products in your house or apartment, don't be surprised if the clothes that come out of your dryer smell of paint and solvent. Often, odors in the air are imparted to clothes in the dryer. Open windows to air out the house. Give it a little time and then launder the clothes again. The problem should go away within several days.
Air Conditioners and Dehumidifiers
If your central air conditioners or window unit won’t turn on:
- Most are equipped with internal circuit breakers. If your unit has one, your owner’s manual will tell you where it’s located and how to reset it.
- If pressing Reset and hitting the Power On switch doesn't start the unit, check the circuit breaker or fuse panel and reset or replace as necessary.
If your central air conditioner continues to cycle on and off after the outdoor air has cooled at the end of a hot day:
- If it bothers you to have an A/C unit running after the outside air has cooled, turn the air conditioner off, and open the windows and doors. But don’t be surprised if the temperature in your home gets warmer than the outside air.Heat stored in your home’s walls, roof and furnishings can continue to radiate for many hours, elevating indoor air temperature.
- Wait until the outdoor temperature rises. Central air conditioners will not function properly if the outside temperature is lower than 65 degrees F.
If the dehumifier ices up:
- Check that the ambient indoor air temperature is above 65 degrees F. If not, turn the dehumidifier off until it rises.
- Icing is common in early spring when basements are damp but still too cool to permit normal operation. Don't use the unit under these conditions..
If you hear no sound when you activate the disposer On switch:
- Most undersink disposers have an internal circuit breaker that trips when a jam or some other operating condition causes the motor to overheat. Refer to the owner’s manual for the location of the Reset button; most are located on the canister bottom. To restore power, reset the unit after removing the item causing the jam.
If you hear humming but no grinding noise when you activate the On switch:
- The disposer is probably jammed with a piece of tableware or another hard object that the machine can't process. Turn off the switch immediately.
- Before reaching into a disposer to clear a jam, turn off the power at the breaker or fuse box. If you have trouble dislodging an object that’s causing a jam, look for a hexagonal recess at the bottom of the disposer beneath the sink. Try to get an Allen wrench of the correct size (also called “disposer wrenches"); they're easily found at most hardware stores. Insert the wrench in the opening and turn it counterclockwise to dislodge the object, then reach in through the top of the drain and try to get the object out.
William J. Lynott is co-author of the award-winning book, Money: How to Make the Most of What You’ve Got. Dean Landers is past president of United Servicers Association, an appliance industry trade group, and the owner of Landers Appliance in Baltimore.