How to Fix a Refrigerator Light That Won't Come On

Woman opening a refrigerator door in the kitchen

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The light in the refrigerator is vital to most of us, especially those of us who enjoy a quick midnight snack. But what do you do when the light doesn't turn on when the door opens?

How a Refrigerator Light Works

The light bulb that comes on when you open the door to your refrigerator compartment or its freezer chamber is an ordinary 120-volt lightbulb. Electricity to the socket is provided by the internal wiring in the refrigerator. It's similar to any other incandescent light bulb, though smaller in size and usually a smaller wattage. Often these are marketed as 25- or 40-watt "appliance lightbulbs" and can be used in any household appliance that requires a lightbulb.

The lightbulb is operated by a small lever switch or push-button switch mounted in the door of the refrigerator. When depressed by the door closing on it, the switch interrupts the circuit and shuts the lightbulb off; when the door opens, the switch completes the circuit and causes the light to illuminate.

When the light stops working, deducing the cause of the problem is a matter of starting with the easiest, most likely issues and moving to causes that are more complicated to fix. It can be as easy as replacing a lightbulb or may involve replacing the door switch itself, which is still an easy fix.

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • No-contact circuit tester
  • New lightbulb
  • New door switch (as needed)
  • Screwdriver or putty knife (as needed)

Instructions

Check the lightbulb. If your refrigerator light is not coming on, it may be that the bulb has reached the end of its lifespan and has burned out. Check the bulb to see if it has a dark area in the bulb or broken and loose filament. When you shake the bulb, you may hear a rattling noise if filaments inside are damaged. You can purchase special bulbs for appliances, usually 25 or 40 watts, at your local hardware or merchandise store. Unplug your refrigerator, change the bulb, and it's likely that this will solve this problem.

When you remove the light bulb, do take a quick look at the empty socket. If the socket is broken or dirty, you may have found the problem. Often a quick cleaning with a warm, damp cloth can clean the contacts and allow the light to turn on. However, make sure you unplug the refrigerator before touching the lightbulb socket.

Check for power. Surprisingly often, it is a simple power interruption that is causing the light to stop working. Problems that can cause this include:

  • The power cord is unplugged: Start by making sure the power cord for the refrigerator is fully plugged into its outlet receptacle. There's always a possibility that you may have accidentally knocked the plug out of alignment.
  • The circuit breaker has tripped: An overload or short-circuit can cause the circuit breaker controlling the refrigerator to trip, shutting off the circuit. Check in the main circuit breaker panel and reset the breaker if it has tripped. Also, make sure that you have not added too many electrical devices to a single circuit, or the breaker will trip again. A breaker that trips again immediately may also be signaling a short-circuit, a more serious problem that may require an electrician.
  • A power outage to the house: A complete power outage to the house will cause the lightbulb in the refrigerator to fail—along with every other light fixture and appliance in your home. If this happens, keep the refrigerator closed, if possible, to protect the food inside until the power comes back on.
  • A damaged power cord on the refrigerator: Although it's not common, a power cord on a refrigerator can become frayed or damaged, interrupting the flow of electricity. If that's the problem, you may need to hire an electrician to replace the cord.
  • A failed electrical outlet: Sometimes, an electrical outlet receptacle can fail, causing the refrigerator, including its lights, to stop working. If this happens, the refrigerator will stop running entirely. You can check the outlet using a non-contact circuit tester, which will tell you if there is power flowing to the outlet. A bad outlet will need to be replaced.

Check the switch. If you have not yet found the cause of the problem, it is likely that a stuck or faulty door switch is causing the lightbulb to fail. With the door open, locate the plunger-type switch lever in the door frame. Depress it and release it several times to see if this frees up the action. Over time, these buttons can become stuck from a build-up of dust or dirt, which may require simple cleaning with a cloth and warm sudsy water to loosen it.

Less frequently, the door switch may wear out entirely. If you find no other reason for the light failure, the final fix is to replace the door switch. Often, this switch can be easily pried out of its mounting with putty knife or screwdriver. It is usually connected with a pair of wire leads that can easily be unplugged. Buy a replacement switch as specified by the manufacturer, reconnect the wires, and insert the switch back into its socket.

Your refrigerator light should now operate correctly. And you'll know exactly what to do the next time there's a problem!