How To Tell If the Refrigerator Start Relay Is Bad

Ryan Womeldorf
by Ryan Womeldorf
Each component of a refrigerator affects its operation and function, and that includes the start relay. Your fridge won’t work properly if the start relay is bad, and you tell something is off if the fridge won’t cool. Whether it be clicking sounds or failure to cool, let’s take a look at the symptoms of a bad start relay.

There are many different components to your fridge. When one of them goes bad, there is a chance that your fridge may not work efficiently and could stop working altogether. Identifying the various components can be difficult, particularly if you don’t know what to look for.

You can tell that the start relay is bad if the fridge won’t cool or the relay makes a clicking noise. Shake your fridge and listen for a rattling sound that indicates that your start relay is bad. Refrigerator start relays fail due to spikes in voltage and if the UTTs are faulty.

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What is the Refrigerator Start Relay?

The refrigerator start relay is the device that jump-starts your fridge’s compressor. The compressor is one of the most crucial components for keeping your refrigerator working effectively and can go bad for many reasons. The compressor compresses the refrigerant, which turns into a liquid, running through the condenser coils.

When the start relay gets burned out, the compressor may not work properly. And when the compressor doesn’t work properly, the interior of the fridge won’t get cold and the freezer will not freeze properly.

How to Tell if the Refrigerator Start Relay is Bad

While it may not be readily apparent that the start relay is bad, there are a number of troubleshooting methods that you can implement to determine what component is at fault. Without the relay, the compressor won’t be able to start effectively and the cooling cycle may not be able to begin.

There are quite a few signs that the start relay may be bad. Implement these steps to perform troubleshooting to ultimately come to the determination on whether or not your start relay is bad.

Step 1: The Fridge Won’t Cool

The first and most obvious sign that something is wrong is that the fridge isn’t cooling properly. If the compressor starts up and the fridge still doesn’t get to the optimal temperature, that should be the first indication that another component is at fault.

You may notice intermittent humming coming from the compressor during the day when the compressor is at fault. You may notice that there is no humming sound yet the temperatures inside of the freezer and the fresh food compartment are on the rise. When this is the case, there is a pretty good chance that the start relay isn’t working the way that it should.

Step 2: The Shake and Rattle Test

Perhaps the most effective way to test the start relay is by performing a physical test. To find the start relay, locate it by looking in the same compartment where the compressor is located (this is usually plugged somewhere in the back of the main compartment of the fridge).

Disconnect the fridge from the power source before opening up that main compartment. You can then unplug the start relay from the compressor itself and then give it a hearty shake. If you hear rattling coming from the inside of the start relay, you can safely assume that the part is bad and you will need to replace it.

If there is no rattling and no obvious damage to the start relay, that is indicative that there is an issue with the compressor itself. This is not optimal since compressor repairs will cost way more in the long run.

Step 3: Listen for a Clicking Relay

When the start relay turns the compressor on, you will notice an audible click each time. Whether the compressor comes on or not is irrelevant; that click will happen no matter what the compressor does. If the compressor doesn’t come on when the start relay attempts its start, the start relay will eventually try it again a short time later. This is typically 2-5 minutes after the first attempt.

When you hear repeated clicking, it could be an indication that the start relay is bad and isn’t kicking the compressor on. If you hear that clicking constantly yet the fridge compressor isn’t starting, there’s a good chance that you’ll have to replace the start relay.

Step 4: Replacing Your Start Relay

When you’ve performed the necessary tests to determine whether or not the start relay is bad, you may come to the conclusion that you need a new one entirely. If you aren’t comfortable or confident doing the job yourself, don’t hesitate to call in a professional.

When doing the job yourself, always start by unplugging the fridge’s power cord from the electrical outlet before you do anything. Whenever an electrical current is involved, it only ramps up the potential for danger. Do yourself a favor and unplug it first.

Pull the fridge away from the wall before you start working to give yourself ample space. When in doubt about what to do, refer to the user manual to find the start relay wiring diagram as well as its location in your model of fridge.

Replacing the unit is pretty simple. Just unplug the bad component and swap in the new one. You just remove the cover on the back of the fridge, pull the relay out of its socket, and then plug in the new start relay in its place. There are a ton of resources online that should tell you precisely what model of start relay that your fridge will need.

Refrigerator Start Relay Test

The best way to test a refrigerator start relay is with a multimeter. Multimeters give accurate readings and can let you know whether or not it’s time to replace the part. Luckily, it only takes a few simple steps to test a start relay with a multimeter.

1. Shut Off the Fridge

Unplug the fridge to shut off the power. This will make it safe to work with and allow you to get accurate readings with your multimeter.

2. Remove Relay

Remove the cover for your start relay. Carefully use pliers to remove the connector and wire from the relay. This will free the relay and allow you to remove it. Inspect for signs of damage and corrosion, and put it back if you find none.

3. Use Multimeter

Connect your multimeter to the terminals on the start relay, set it to the correct voltage, and perform the test. If the multimeter has a low reading, that means that your start relay is bad and needs to be replaced.

Can You Bypass a Refrigerator Start Relay?

Now that you know how to spot a bad refrigerator start relay, there is another option to take into consideration. When the start relay isn’t working, that means the fridge isn’t cooling properly. And when the fridge doesn’t cool properly, the food inside can go bad pretty quickly.

So, you may find yourself in need of bypassing the start relay to get the compressor running. This will keep the fridge running at a cool temperature until you can buy a new start relay and replace the old one.

How To Bypass a Refrigerator Start Relay

Make sure that you take the proper safety precautions first. Unplug the fridge and move it away from the wall. Locate the cover plate (this is at the bottom rear of your fridge and should just unscrew using a screwdriver). Set the plate and the screws off to the side.

Flex or push the metal box that is on the lower right rear of the fridge; this will disengage it. When it has been removed, you will be able to see the relay system. Using a flathead screwdriver, press down between the casing and the relay itself. Then, press on the start relay and pull it out to completely remove it.

Slide the relay’s wire a bit so you can gain easier access to it. Remove the metal connector that attaches it to the relay system and use pliers to strip some of the wire away, but make sure that you go no more than ¼ inch either way. Use some electrical tape to connect both ends of your back wire to the relay housing; this should bypass the missing relay entirely and close the circuit.

Put the box cover back and the cover plate back on. Restore the power to that breaker and then plug the fridge back in. Make sure that you keep an eye on it for a few hours to ensure that the compressor is working correctly. If it is, you can then safely go pick up a new start relay and replace it later on.

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What Causes a Start Relay to Fail?

One of the most common causes of start relay failures is due to voltage spikes. The bad thing is that voltage spikes can be imperceptible. These voltage spikes, which can be caused by hot-switching inductive loads, often accelerate the aging process for the start relay.

This can happen even in the low-level signal applications. Faulty UTTs and even accidents can also cause failure of the relay. If you want to test the competence of your current start relay, having Automatic Test Equipment (ATE) available is a great tool to have. This oftentimes finds whether or not the start relay is working in short order so that you can replace it instead of trying to figure out if something is wrong with it.

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Ryan Womeldorf
Ryan Womeldorf

Ryan Womeldorf has more than a decade of experience writing. He loves to blog about construction, plumbing, and other home topics. Ryan also loves hockey and a lifelong Buffalo sports fan.

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