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How do refrigerators work: a step-by-step guide

We rely on refrigerators to chill beverages and keep food fresh for meal prep, snack time and everything in between. See the guide below to discover the nuts and bolts of how your refrigerator keeps compartments cold, and learn more about how various refrigerator parts—such as the ice maker and the water dispenser—keep up. Remember, various makes and models of refrigerators can work differently.

What does a refrigerator do?

Refrigerators are designed to keep food at peak freshness as they maintain temperatures between 33–40°F. A refrigerator cycles refrigerant vapor through its compressor, condenser coils and evaporator coils. This process allows the refrigerant to absorb heat from inside of the refrigerator compartment, chilling its contents and helping to keep foods fresh.

How does the water dispenser in the fridge work?

For many fridge models, when you trigger the lever or button on your water dispenser, a series of switches are activated to open the valve system that transfers water into the refrigerator’s water inlet valve, then through the water filter, into the refrigerator’s water tank and out into your glass.

Water that passes through a functioning filter is typically cleaned in a three-part filtration process. Larger particles like sand are filtered out first through particle filtration. Next, medium-sized contaminants like sugars are filtered out through micro-filtration. Finally, a carbon filter helps absorb microscopic contaminants like pesticides in the absorption-filtration phase. Clean water is then stored in a reservoir inside the refrigerator to cool until it’s dispensed.

Close-up of a refrigerator control panel Close-up of a refrigerator control panel

How do the different parts of a refrigerator work?

Refrigerator components work in tandem to help keep cold air circulating between the refrigerator and freezer compartments. Read below to learn how a refrigerator’s compressor, thermostat and freezer compartment function to help keep your fresh and frozen favorites at your fingertips.

How does a refrigerator compressor work?

In many cases, a refrigerator’s compressor is located at the back or bottom of the fridge and acts as the core of the cooling process. The compressor draws in refrigerant vapor to kick off the cooling cycle, then compresses it to increase the pressure and temperature of the vapor.

The compressor releases vapor into the refrigerator’s condenser coils where it transitions from a gas to a liquid, cooling down as it moves its way through the evaporator coils located in the refrigerator. The cooled refrigerant absorbs the heat inside of the refrigerator, evaporates to a gas and makes its way back to the compressor to start the process over.

How does a fridge thermostat work?

Many modern refrigerators use electronic controls and temperature sensors, rather than a thermostat. This system works together with the compressor to start and stop cooling, helping to keep your refrigerator at a consistent temperature. When the sensors detect high temperatures, the compressor is cued to release refrigerant to cool the refrigerator.

Once the refrigerator reaches the temperature you’ve set, the sensor signals the compressor to pause operations until the temperature begins to rise, then activates the same process all over again.  

How does a fridge freezer work?

Freezers keep foods ice cold using the same closed system of refrigerant circulation that cools the refrigerator compartment. The refrigerator’s compressor increases the temperature and pressure of the refrigerant, then circulates it through condenser and evaporator coils as it transitions from a gas to a liquid, then back to a gas. Refrigerant absorbs heat as it undergoes chemical changes, cooling the freezer compartment as it circulates. 

Explore Whirlpool® Refrigerators

Whirlpool® Refrigerators make it easy to fit and find the items your family uses most. Select models feature flexible storage options like the Flexi-Slide™ Bin that easily moves side to side for convenient storage options or the Infinity Slide Shelf that slides back to give you the room you need. With French-door, side-by-side, bottom freezer, top freezer and 4-door configurations to choose from, you’re sure to find a style suited to your kitchen.

Learn more about refrigerator possibilities with Whirlpool brand

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