What Happens if You Don't Change the Refrigerator Filter?

Most homeowners seek out refrigerators with water filtering features to improve general taste and aroma. For various reasons, the water supply to a home may include chlorine, lead and an abundance of other elements and minerals that can make a regular glass of ice water not so refreshing. It's obvious that changing the filter affects water quality, but there are two other functional performance aspects of the refrigerator that are affected too. Additionally, many refrigerators have systems in place that give you a confirmation that the filter needs changing.

Water and ice dispensers on refrigerator
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The water dispenser and ice dispenser have the same water supply.

Water Dispenser

Side-by-side refrigerators often feature water dispensers on the outside of the door. During installation a technician connects the refrigerator to a tap water source that is built into the back wall of the kitchen. Water pressure in the supply line is partly responsible for pushing water out through the dispenser. However, before water is released from the dispenser, it passes through the filter. If the filter is old and clogged, the flow of water will slow down and eventually stop. Some refrigerator models feature a filter bypass mode that dispenses untreated tap water, but this should only be used on a temporary basis.

Ice Dispenser

The ice maker in a refrigerator is also dependent on a steady flow of water. Most refrigerators automatically pull in a fresh supply of tap water that refills the ice maker when cubes are running low. Before the water reaches the maker for freezing, it passes through the filter. A clogged filter can result in smaller than normal ice cubes or no ice production at all. Another consideration is if your ice maker produces both crushed and cubed ice. Crushed ice is smaller than cubed ice. Make sure the ice dispenser setting is not on crushed ice, so you don't mistake smaller ice cube production with a filter that isn't clogged.

Overall Water Quality

An old filter eventually becomes ineffective in improving the quality of the water coming from the refrigerator. People should drink plenty of water throughout the day for optimal health; some experts suggest eight glasses a day. However, if the water is distasteful or has a bad odor, you may drink less than you should. Public drinking water is processed at treatment plants before being piped to homes. These facilities make the water safe to drink by killing and removing bacteria, germs and viruses from the water supply. Refrigerator filters improve the quality of the water but don't kill germs.

Replacement Considerations and Indicators

Households should replace filters after about a year to prevent reduced water flow from clogging. To maintain the best water quality, some refrigerator manufacturers recommend replacing the filter every six months. Because it can be difficult to keep track of a filter's expiration date, many manufacturers include filter indicator lights that alert owners when it is time to replace the filter cartridge. Refer to your refrigerator manual for filter replacement instructions; some manufacturers recommend only using specific brands.

Water Flow Test

You can also perform a basic, yet insightful water flow test if the refrigerator does not include filter indicator functions. For example, if you own a GE refrigerator the company recommends that you dispense water into a large measuring cup or container for 20 seconds. Afterwards, determine the volume of water based on the measurement markings on the side of the container. If it is less than 13.5 ounces then the filter is probably clogged, causing poor water flow. Refer to your owner's manual for brand-specific instructions.