Understanding your refrigerator is important to keep it in the best working shape possible — but it's also important for safety reasons as well. Although ovens, stove tops and toasters are usually considered the more hazardous parts of a kitchen, the refrigerator also comes with considerations to ensure safety. An improperly working fridge doesn't just present the risk of spoiled food, there are also physical hazards that should be considered part of your basic kitchen understanding.
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Refrigerator Hazard Types
There are a number of unlikely but possible hazards related to your fridge:
- Tipping the fridge: Tipping the fridge too far can result in a crushing injury if the fridge lands on a body part. This can also cause severe damage to the internal workings of the fridge and can shatter glass shelving inside the fridge.
- Broken glass: Glass shelves or drawers can shatter, leading to the risk of cuts and lacerations on hands and feet.
- Moving shelves: Shelves and drawers that are too difficult to move can result in pinching or crushing injuries to the hands and fingers.
- Electrical overload: If the refrigerator is part of an electrical circuit that becomes overloaded, this can lead to power overloads that can trip circuit breakers or otherwise damage electrical parts. Electrical hazards also bring risks of electrocution and fire. Additional electrical hazards can occur if water pools up within the unit and seeps into the electrical system.
- Fire: Dust and particulates can build up under and behind the refrigerator. The buildup provides fuel for fires, which can start by electrical overheating as well as electrical sparks.
- Refrigeration system: The refrigerant fluid that controls the cooling function of the fridge is hazardous, flammable and can cause safety issues, from inhalation hazards to small explosion.
- Water leaking in fridge: Modern refrigerators that have ice or water dispensers are prone to leaks in their supply tubes. These can cause tremendous damage to your home if left unchecked. Investigate any water deposits you notice immediately.
While all of these hazards are important considerations, preventive methods exist for most. The fridge can be fastened to the wall behind it with an industry part, which can reduce the risk of tipping. Shatterproof glass or plastics can be used for shelving and drawers. Electrical hazards remain significant but can be prevented with proper installation by a licensed electrician and good housekeeping maintenance of the wires, cords and the area around them. Many people don't necessarily understand the refrigeration systems they use, which are worth breaking down.
Refrigerator Chemicals and Fluids
In order to produce the cooling effect inside a fridge and freezer, a refrigerant must be used; this is a chemical that transitions between a fluid and a gas inside the refrigeration system. The refrigerant starts under pressure and is compressed into a liquid, then flows into a chamber at a lower pressure where it vaporizes. As the liquid evaporates, it absorbs heat from the ambient space to evaporate; this causes the cooling effect within the space of the refrigerator.
While many fluids can be used as refrigerants, there is a special class of chemicals that were designed specifically to act as the most efficient fluids possible. Over time the chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners have changed, since the first set of refrigerants created were found to be harmful to the ozone layer. Freon, the initial refrigerant chemical, can still be found in older systems, but most modern refrigerators use tetrafluoroethane or similar chemicals (called hydrofluorocarbons), to avoid the damage to the environment.
Fridge Gas Leak Symptoms
If you happen to think, "my fridge smells of gas," it's likely that the refrigeration system is damaged and the fluid inside can leak out into the atmosphere of the kitchen. There aren't always good ways to tell whether or not a leak is occurring; although the fluid is liquid for part of the process, as soon as it hits atmospheric pressure it will evaporate into a gas, which is much harder to detect than a liquid spill of some sort.
Freon and other old chemicals may carry an unpleasant smell, somewhat like nail polish remover, that can be detected. Newer refrigerants may not have a significant scent, but beware of any smell of ammonia or other chemical odors around the fridge. These evaporating gases can replace oxygen in the air, which can lead to unconsciousness and suffocation in some cases. If there's an ammonia or chemical smell around your fridge, you'll want to immediately call an expert, who will be able to use an air sampler and other specialized gauges to determine whether or not there is a gas leak from the refrigeration system.
Burning Smells and Refrigerators
If the air around the fridge smells like something burning, there may be an electrical failure that is causing a wire to overheat and any dust or particulates around it to smolder. If this is the case, immediately do a survey for these sorts of hazards. If the smell persists or increases, it can be best to turn off the refrigerator entirely and wait for a service person to arrive.
If there is a gas leak, the likelihood of a safety hazard depends entirely on the magnitude, the type of gas and the cause. For example, people can accidentally puncture the refrigeration system, letting the gas escape into the atmosphere. Normally this won't be a health hazard, unless the person directly inhales the entire gas release, but it's important to make sure to avoid the area until fresh air has re-circulated. However, in this case, the refrigerator should not be turned back on. Without any fluid in the lines, the system can overheat and catch fire.
Refrigerator Explosion Symptoms
While refrigerator explosions are incredibly rare, they can also be incredibly dangerous — mainly because they occur with very little warning, unlike a fire, which can be seen forming and is also likely to set off smoke detectors. Refrigerator explosions, however, often result from issues with the compressor on the refrigerant system, which can't easily be seen on the fridge, meaning it's difficult for homeowners to know when they are at risk.
Explosions can happen when there's excess heat around the compressor that prevents the fluid gas from properly venting. The heat can cause the thin coils of the compressor to contract, which severely increases the pressure of the gas inside. This gas, with nowhere else to vent, can then cause the compressor to explode — and with heat already present, this can lead to an induced fire, which can interact with the leaking gas to further explode.
Gas Leaks and Explosions
An explosion can also be caused by a gas leak meeting a spark, such as an electronic wire that's worn down or otherwise damaged. Additional dust and debris can cause heat buildup and will present additional fuel in the case of fire or explosion.
While unlikely, refrigerator explosions can cause serious damage, often completely destroying the fridge. They have the definite potential to injure any person in the area of the explosion. To reduce the risk of explosion, practice good housekeeping in the kitchen: be sure to clean up dust and dirt in the area, and clean the coils of the compressor frequently. Defrosting the refrigerator once a year can also be a good practice as it gives the compressor a chance to come to rest and be examined.
In the case of refrigerator problems, it's always best to contact a qualified service or repair-person, to ensure the quality of the work — and to ensure your safety.