Women looking in a refrigerator

CR members expect refrigerators they buy to last 10 years, on average, according to our 2018 survey, and that lines up with what most manufacturers tell us: Their fridges are built to last 10 years.

But that doesn't mean that the decade will be problem-free. Based on our survey data, we estimate that 40 percent of refrigerators purchased between 2008 and 2018 will develop problems or break within the first five years.

One way to improve your odds is to do some routine maintenance on your refrigerator throughout the year. Here are tips to help you keep your fridge humming happily along.

1. Vacuum the condenser coils. Condenser coils collect dust, dirt, hair, grime, and other debris, which can restrict their ability to dissipate heat, limiting efficiency and potentially causing a breakdown. Every six months, gently vacuum the coils using a soft-brush attachment to keep them working at their best. They’re on the underside or rear of the refrigerator (on top for built-ins), so you’ll have to pop off the grille or pull the fridge out from the cabinets to get to them.

Which brand tops our reliability chart? Check out the winners and losers in CR's latest Appliance Brand Reliability Rankings.

2. Keep the door gaskets clean. The gaskets around refrigerator doors keep cold air from escaping, but spills and food bits can build up and prevent them from forming a good seal. “That forces the compressor to work harder than it should,” says Joseph Pacella, who runs CR’s refrigerator test lab. Clean the gaskets with a damp sponge or cloth, and be sure to dry off excess water so it won’t have a chance to evaporate in the folds of the gaskets with the door closed. If you notice any mold, you’ll need something to kill it, such as a disinfecting cleanser. But check your fridge manual first to see whether certain products should be avoided.

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3. Change the water filter. If your fridge has a water filter, replace it every six months. Be wary of aftermarket filters because it’s tricky to verify whether they remove contaminants and bacteria from your drinking water.

On the other hand, if you’re confident that your water supply is safe and you don’t want to spend an extra $100 or so per year on filters, you can probably just go without one. With certain refrigerators you’ll need to insert a cartridge plug to keep water flowing. (It should have come with the fridge.)

4. Keep the top of the fridge clear. Resist the urge to use the top of your fridge for storage, because anything left up there can interfere with its ability to dissipate heat. For kitchens with cabinets over the refrigerator, make sure you leave a gap between the cabinets and the top of the fridge to help with airflow. Some models have specific spacing recommendations in their owner’s manuals, but Pacella says a 1-inch gap is a good rule of thumb.

5. Clean the water/ice dispenser. A white film can build up on your dispenser and its tray over time. It won’t have an impact on the life span of your refrigerator, but it's gross. You can sponge off the film with a mixture of equal parts water and white vinegar. If it won’t come off, you may have to soak the tray in the mixture.

Editor's Note: A version of this article also appeared in the August 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.