A little anecdote to close the year

The story you are about to read is true. The names are not changed, since nobody here is guilty. This is a story about resourcefulness, panic and the little things the web really is good for–and that mean “death of the web” (as in “no searching, just destinations”) predictions are stupid.

The setup

As I’ve noted previously, when we bought our new/old house back in May 2009, we agreed to take the Samsung refrigerator that was already there and leave our not-very-old refrigerator in our old house, because the Samsung looked like it would meet our needs better and all three parties in the two transactions would win from this agreement.

The previous owners passed on most installation and user handbooks on most of the add-ons in the new house. The refrigerator was an exception: no manual.

The refrigerator–a bottom-freezer non-French-door unit–is reasonably basic: No water dispenser in the door, and if there is/was an icemaker, it’s not plumbed and doesn’t operate. That’s what we wanted. One high-tech feature: A panel on the freezer door that shows the temperature in the freezer and refrigerator and has some controls. We didn’t necessarily want that, but it couldn’t hurt. We left the settings at 2F freezer, 38F refrigerator.

One feature we didn’t realize at the time: The refrigerator was shallow by today’s standards, only about 27″ deep.

The panic

A couple of weeks ago, my wife heard a beeping from the refrigerator (two beeps, repeated every couple of minutes). I heard it too. She thought the refrigerator door might have been slightly ajar; we made sure it was fully closed.

The beeps continued. And there was no light when we opened the door.

Then we noticed that the refrigerator temperature was creeping up, to 39, then to 40, then to 41…

Arggh. We’d just bought $20 worth of organic chicken breasts, there was $35 worth of salmon in the freezer, plus all the usual refrigerated and frozen foods…

We called the local appliance store that we’ve already learned to trust. They said “Samsung? We don’t repair Samsung: It’s impossible to get parts.” They also gave us the 1-800 number for a national agency that does repair Samsung refrigerators. Called that number; they said it would be $75 to come out and provide an estimate, plus the actual cost of repair, and the earliest they could send somebody out was the following afternoon. We didn’t schedule an appointment…

Called my brother (who’s lived in our new hometown for 50+ years) to see whether he might have a dorm refrigerator he could lend us, which would let us keep the most vital stuff chilled while we worked out a replacement. Otherwise, we thought, we might have to go buy one… We thought the old one was about 8 years old, in which case a newer one might use less power…although the old one did have an EnergyStar mark, those standards change over time.

Turned out he actually had a brand-new 10cf. refrigerator/freezer, purchased for the expansion to his house that’s going on (which includes a kitchenette). He was able to bring it over (with help from a friend); we found a place for it and plugged it in to start chilling. By now, the refrigerator was up to 45 or higher (but the freezer was still at 2F, which told us *something*–namely, that the compressor was working, but the fan to distribute cold air to the refrigerator wasn’t).

We moved food into the smaller unit (after it was cold enough to do so) and went over to the appliance store to see what a new refrigerator/freezer would cost and how soon we could get one delivered. (We’d also seen the mfr. plate on the Samsung and realized it was six years old, not eight years–so it should have another 8-10 years ahead of it.) After some discussion (with great people at the store, who don’t work on commission), we found:

  • We’d have trouble buying a new unit that would fit: The unit’s in an open area that’s about 30″ deep–and with any of the regular new units, that would result in the door handle being at least 5″-8″ out from the framed area, so far out that it would impede traffic into the kitchen and look really terrible. We could go for a “cabinet unit,” but those cost a fortune ($2,500 and up), you’re pretty much obliged to get a side-by-side with the door icemaker/water dispenser we really don’t want, and the vegetable bins are relatively small–significant because my wife gets a large quantity of vegetables once a week at the farmer’s market.
  • The salesperson suggested unplugging the unit, letting it sit for 15-20 minutes, and plugging it back in, on the possibility that something in the electronics might be off and would reset itself.

The process

We went home and tried that. It didn’t work.

But my wife, the expert reference librarian (and former library director–unlike me, she does have an MLS), did some careful searching online, while I did some clumsy searching. I managed to find the manual for the Samsung (online), and found that the only alarm was an open-door alarm. Aha! Apparently the refrigerator was convinced that the refrigerator door was open–and possibly had stopped supplying cold air because, you know, what’s the point?

My wife found a chat room where, it turned out, a number of other people had had a similar problem–and one of them had found a possible solution. Namely, that the problem was the door sensor, one of two plunger switches on a little panel next to the hinges (one plunger for the refrigerator door, one for the freezer). This person also said how you could remove the panel–and that, with the switches unplugged, the Samsung would default to “doors are closed” instead of the “door is open” it was reading.

What could it hurt?

Before we called the national agency back, we tried it. A flathead screwdriver did pop off the little panel, and–with some strain–we could remove the little harness that plugged into the back of the panel. We did so, closed the doors again, plugged in the refrigerator, and…

It worked. Oh, no lights, to be sure, since those are turned on and off by the same door sensor, but the refrigerator started cooling back down.

The follow-up

OK, so we had it working, sort of…but it made sense to replace the door sensors, sooner or later. Would we have to pay $75+ to do that?

More searching…

Samsung doesn’t offer parts on its website, at least not the public-facing part. But there was another site, Samsungparts.com….

The part was $11.95. Including shipping and handling, it was about $21 total (the company has a physical presence in California, so 9.75% sales tax was part of the deal).

I ordered the part.

About a week later, I realized that I didn’t really know much about Samsungparts.com. Oh, sure, the ordering process was over an https:// secure link, and they had credit-card authorization, but how much does that really tell you? We’d had one credit card replaced last year due to fraud (caught by the credit-card company), and changing the numbers on autopay setups is always a hassle…

I checked the credit card account online: Not only wasn’t there some big unexpected charge, the $21 or so hadn’t even been charged yet.

Perhaps another week later, I got email: The part had been backordered, but had now shipped. The email included a tracking number (USPS Priority Mail). The source address also included a parent company I thought I’d heard of (but I was probably wrong: it’s a very small company). The credit card charge showed up the next day: the company didn’t charge until the part was shipped. Score one.

Three-four days later, the box arrived. We rolled out the refrigerator, unplugged it, fished out the wiring harness, plugged it in to the new switch/sensor panel (which could only be done one way, fortunately), pushed the new panel into place, closed the door, waited 15 minutes, plugged it in…

And we once again have lights when the doors are open, along with proper refrigeration. For a total repair cost of $21, not, say, $95 or so…

The morals

  1. The web is a great place to find missing owner’s manuals. We already knew that.
  2. With a lot of luck and some skillful searching, the web can be a good place to diagnose and repair odd problems–although it can also be a dangerous place to do so. (In this case, there were enough people who’d had the same problem and found the same solution, or took the advice, that we were reasonably confident.)
  3. The web allows small companies to have big presences, and for third parties to step in when a manufacturer’s not willing to deal directly with consumers. (Samsung doesn’t appear to sell parts to individuals. The third-party company appears to be a tiny three-person operation, a true small business–but they’re a national supplier with a solid web presence.)
  4. On the other hand: If the refrigerator wasn’t too smart for its own good, we would have had a soft failure: Failure of a door sensor wouldn’t cause the refrigerator to stop operating. Funny thing: If your car’s “check for malfunction” light comes on, the engine doesn’t stop operating.
  5. On the other hand: There is no way in hell that a refrigerator door sensor should fail after six years. It’s a push-down switch, a trivially simple part, and given that the design makes it critical to the operation of the refrigerator…

Objectively, you could look at this and say “Why didn’t you find out about the problem before you went to all the trouble of finding a temporary refrigerator, two people having to bring it over, two people having to take it back…?”

Because the thought of spoiling food (did I mention that this happened within two hours after grocery shopping?) tends to push one towards immediate action, not screwing around on the web for a couple of hours.

Happy New Year’s, and may your refrigerator door sensors all work well.

4 Responses to “A little anecdote to close the year”

  1. Christina Pikas Says:

    “The salesperson suggested unplugging the unit, letting it sit for 15-20 minutes, and plugging it back in, on the possibility that something in the electronics might be off and would reset itself.”
    sounds a lot like “have you tried turning it off and on?” lol
    I love my new samsung fridge – hadn’t heard of this problem, but now i’ll know if we do have it

  2. walt Says:

    Christina: It’s precisely like that–but it’s also advice based on their own service experience: The more sophisticated an electronic device is, the better the chance that a reboot will cure what’s ailing it. Works for computers; certainly works for modems & routers (some day our DSL modem will go more than two weeks without needing an off/on cycle, but I’m not holding my breath). In fact, “have you tried turning it off and on?” is now the first advice I’d give anybody who’s having trouble with anything containing contemporary circuitry.

    Chances are, newer Samsung fridges have better switches. We like the fridge otherwise, and hope to keep it for many years to come.

  3. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    I can just see this going into a “Web 2.0″ guru’s portfolio of “anecdata” about how big companies can replace their service departments with CROWDSOURCING! And small start-ups! (even though of course you don’t mean that).

  4. walt Says:

    I think you may be right, Seth–and now remember that I left out #6: On the other hand, Samsung should be offering parts directly to customers, and should probably host their own fora for this sort of thing.

    Crowdsourcing may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. (Which could, I suppose, be a new motto for Wikipedia, now that “Give us enough money and we’ll take this mugshot off the banner” is gone.)


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