The $20 Refrigerator

The other day Janice and I were walking down beside the River Race canal here in Goshen and we found a twenty dollar bill laying on the ground. Well, I should say that Janice found it. I had my head in the clouds and actually ran over it with the stroller. It fluttered out from under the wheel and Janice pounced on it like a cheetah tackling a gazelle.


“Wow!” We both looked at the crumpled up piece of paper like we just saw tap dancing unicorn. “What should we do with it?” We aren’t used to $20 just floating around since we’ve been learning to budget for the last few months.

Learning to budget means that you’re constantly reminded how poor you are. Instead of looking at a large stack of money, you divide that stack into a million categories of expenses until all that’s left is dust bunnies and pocket lint. Then, whenever you go to buy something you want, you find out that there is no money in the category that is earmarked for that purchase. So you start prowling through the other categories trying to find a couple dollars that straggle behind the herd and are weak and easy to pick off without much of a fight. You discover that all the other categories are lean and mean and are well exercised. So you satisfy yourself by playing with dust bunnies and pocket lint and fool yourself into thinking that the next paycheck will yield some bloat you can shave off without collapsing into financial ruin.

“Maybe God is telling us we should buy ice cream,” I joked to Janice. I was hoping she would think I was serious so that I could use her enthusiasm as leverage in my mind to justify my wasteful spending.

“Maybe God wants me to buy another skirt.”

“Now let’s not get carried away.” I crumbled the bill into my pocket and we continued walking.

Later in the week Janice pointed out to me that the when you opened the fridge, warm fronts of stale, landfill scented air would waft from the interior.

“It smells like you got homemade cottage cheese from your mom again,” I suggested.

“Nope!” Janice declared, “I don’t think the fridge is working.”

I sighed. “Well, the obvious solution is to never buy anything that needs refrigeration ever again.”

My wife seemed to think that was a ridiculous idea and that I should, maybe, fix the fridge instead.

Fixing the fridge was a good idea in theory but it was kind of like pointing to a mountain range and saying, “Hey, instead of walking the whole way, just spread your wings and fly over.” My point being that an option isn’t an option if you can’t do it.

I decided that in order to impress upon my wife that I’m trying to fix it I should pull the fridge out, walk around it, and kick the side a couple times and then go buy a good used fridge. The broken fridge came with the rental house and it was a basic model when it was new. Now, fifteen or so years later, it didn’t impress me as worth a whole lot of time or effort. I did the symbolic walk around inspection, kicked the side a bit, and then declared we should just get a new fridge.

I looked up new fridges on WOW! Who knew something invented in 1913 could still cost so much. The prices took me by surprise because I never bought a fridge before, except a mini fridge I kept in the shop when I was single (this was so I could hide all my high dollar groceries from the other bachelors I lived with).

Surely I could find some cheap junker on Craigslist that worked, right? No. No I could not. All the stuff that was affordable looked like it would probably quit working the instant we plopped it down into our kitchen. Then what? I’d have to do it all over again. Then I’d have to rid of all the old fridges littering our living room. I felt a sudden inspiration to learn more about refrigerators.

“Hey honey,” I yelled from my desk in the living room, “I think I’ll try to fix the dumb thing.”

“I thought you did try to fix it.”

“Oh sure, of course I did. But maybe I can again.” Come on Josh, I thought to myself, You want to learn to fix missionary planes in the bush with nothing but bubble gum, old Coke bottles, Yak spit, and a Crescent wrench but you’re scared of a fridge?

Maybe I could anoint it with oil. Maybe I could cast a demon out of it. That way the repair costs would fit into our budget, unless of course the anointing oil was more than $2. Come on God, I complained. We can’t afford a new fridge right now, or even a piece of junk off of Craigslist. The idea with budgeting is that you set aside a few bucks every paycheck and eventually you can buy a new appliance. We didn’t get that far yet. I remembered the $20 that we found on the canal trail and smirked a little. God, twenty bucks is great but it won’t buy us a new fridge.

I sulked a little longer then took out my odd assortment of mismatched wrenches. Most of them are from Harbor Freight, one is a Crescent, a couple are from Craftsmen (they are probably my dad’s that somehow found their way out here when I moved) and some were so cheap that the manufacturers were too ashamed to even stamp their name on them. They still work for taking fridges apart. I began taking screws, bolts, and covers off of the fridge. Sometimes the best way to learn is to just try and fail, then try again. Turns out the critical components that I needed to work on were in the back of the freezer compartment and were accessible only by taking off a panel inside the freezer. This meant I had to load my wife’s huge supply of frozen fruits and veggies into a cooler and then battle my way through the cobwebs into the dark, creepy corner of the basement where our chest freezer is located.

Fridge Blog 2
Daddy’s little helper insists on sitting in the vegetable crisper which doesn’t actually help Daddy that much.

I soon moved several fields of frozen produce and found the problem. The vent that shuttled cold air from the freezer into the refrigerator had frozen shut with frost. Frost kept building up on the coils until it blocked all the vents and all air movement was stopped completely. This meant only our freezer was working since all the cold air was stuck there while our fridge quickly became a tropical haven for bacteria seeking asylum from the outside world.

I took out my wife’s hairdryer, turned that sucker on full blast, and wiped the frost out of the freezer in short order. The freezer has a drain for melted frost. That drain empties into a pan under the fridge where the water can evaporate away. I filled up the pan pretty quickly because I was melting a large glacier in a short period of time. The only problem was that I couldn’t get the pan out of the opening in the bottom of the fridge. Who designed this thing!? Using intelligence guided by experience, I had another idea. I whipped out my Shop-Vac (which was actually made by Craftsman) and sucked all the water out of the pan. I mentally patted myself on the back for finding an efficient and non-messy way of cleaning the pan, then turned around to find dirty water dripping off of the kitchen cabinets! Little did I know that the Shop-Vac was sucking the water up, infusing it with dirt from inside the vacuum, and then blasting it right out the back vent and splattering it all over the kitchen! I spent the next hour mopping the floor, cleaning the oven, and wiping down the cabinets. But the fridge worked again!

Fridge Blog 1

A week later, old Benedict Arnold (the freezer, and also a famous traitor in the War of Independence) froze solid again. Clearly I had fixed the symptom and not the problem.

After I spent an hour on YouTube after reading several posts on a DIY refridgerator website I found out that in, in principle, fridges aren’t very complicated. Once you take all the fancy covers off, there’s like six or so main components to our Econo-Fridge. There’s the compressor, the condenser coils, the condenser coil fan (which pulls air over the condenser coils making the air cold), the thermostat (which tells the whole system whether it should run or stay dormant), the defrost timer (which turns on the defrost heater unit thing every six hours so condenser coils defrost), the defrost heater unit itself, and the fan at the bottom of the fridge that pulls air over another set of coils for some reason. There are other knick knacks of varying importance as well but basically I think I have the gist of it (correct me if I’m wrong).

The defrost timer went wonky on our fridge and started grinding it’s own teeth in a fit of nervous anxiety, I presume. This means it no longer turned on the defroster every six hours to melt the ice off of the coils. I bought another defrost timer on Amazon for $18.46, replaced it in five minutes and now our fridge gets cold again.

Turns out God knows how much it costs to get a fridge working again. We even had a little over a $1 left to spend on a McDonald’s ice cream cone.



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