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Refrigerator with water dispenserRefrigerator floods are no laughing matter! Last month, my sister in-law’s fridge leaked causing the hardwood floors to pucker and swell, pushing cabinets and even lifting countertops! They’ve had to move out while their kitchen undergoes a massive overhaul. When my refrigerator line broke back in 2012, it was a similar story. The damage was extensive, and repairs were time consuming and expensive! So what can cause leaks and flooding and how can homeowners prevent it?

Causes for Refrigerator Floods and Leaks

Does your refrigerator have an automatic icemaker or a cold-water dispenser? If so, that plumbing is all capable of breaking. What if you don’t have a water line to your fridge? You can still have a leak. Humidity from the air and produce becomes ice or water when cooled. Modern refrigerators have been designed to automatically defrost: ice is melted, flows down a drain, and collects in a drip pan where it is heated (usually via waste heat from the refrigeration system) to evaporate the moisture. If the condensate is not taken care of properly it can become water damage!

Looking a little more closely, here are a few common causes:

  • Water supply line and inlet valve – could be damaged (holes, pinching, pulled loose, cracked, etc.), improperly installed (which may lead to damage and water pressure trouble), blocked (frozen)
  • Defrost drain and drain line – clogged (food particles, debris, and ice buildup)
  • Water shut off valve (behind unit) – loose, clogged, damaged
  • Drip / condensation pan – overflow from another issue (such as the defrost drain), or improperly installed (water and heat are not caught by the pan but go directly to the floor)
  • Out of level – during the regular defrost cycle, if the appliance is sitting at an angle water may not flow into the drain and condensation pan but towards the door and onto the floor or pool inside the fridge.

The Best Solution: Prevention

Treat your appliance with care. Don’t push the fridge too close to the wall or pull it too far away from the wall. These actions could stress, damage, or break the plumbed lines and connectors. Leave some slack on the tube when pulling the fridge out to clean or inspect, and give the supply line room to breathe when it’s installed so the pipes do not compress, kink, or rub.

If you have the fridge out, check that the connections are still tight before sliding it back into position. Keep the interior clean and free of debris including condensation and ice. And if something is starting to look tired, consider replacing the part before it breaks. It’s easy to swap high-stress parts like the water line, and standard size replacements can be found at most hardware stores.

Kitchen refrigerator flood Dec 17, 2012

Drying out the refrigerator compartment, Dec 2012

Plastic parts are more likely to deteriorate from wear and tear and develop loose connections. Metal piping may be more resistant to degradation, although they may still be damaged. Copper lines are a popular choice, although the soft metal is still susceptible to pinching, and chloramines from some water supplies can (rarely and usually over decades) react with the copper creating hard-to-detect pinhole sprays. Braided stainless steel tubing is another option and is considered by some to be the most durable option and does not pinch easily, although it is less customizable than the other options and will likely come with the highest price tag.

While some of these problems can be easy to diagnose and repair by the homeowner (I’m looking at you, loose connector and pinched tubing), there are plenty of reasons you might want to seek the help of a licensed plumber. In my case, the flood was likely caused by galvanic corrosion where a neutral buffer was not installed between original galvanized steel piping and newer copper lines causing corrosion (the current created when two dissimilar metals in contact with an electrolyte – the water – causes corrosion). Older homes may not have been built with plumbing to the fridge, and when ours was modified they missed a crucial step!

When we had the area re-plumbed, we also added another feature: a shutoff valve. All kitchens should have a water shutoff valve, usually under the sink, which can be used to stop the water flow into a room or feature in case of failure or during maintenance and repairs. Many new kitchens and remodels opt to install additional shutoff valves behind the refrigerator and dishwasher. Isolating each appliance’s water supply makes it easier to continue using the kitchen in the case of plumbing or appliance failure.

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