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Facts:

  • 9 year old Whirlpool refrigerator has been operating quietly for 9 years. Refrigerator has two doors and is top-freezer/bottom-refrigerator configuration.
  • About 3 months ago, it would intermittently - like a few times a day - start making a loud click. That was new.
  • Then about 2 months ago, the compressor, a Panasonic DG51C69RAU6, started vibrating violently for about 15 seconds at a time, intermittently (a few times a day). It's very loud, like someone striking a cymbal.
  • This violent banging lasts for 15 seconds, and almost always ends with that new loud click, and the compressor falls silent. I'd say maybe 20 percent of the time, the banging episode ends on its own, without a click. But then a click typically sounds 30-90 seconds after the episode.
  • The click also happens when the fridge is quiet (as I noted in the 2nd bullet), but it almost always happens when the compressor starts banging violently, and ends that episode.
  • I have freezer and refrigerator thermometers which show the temperatures are in the correct range.

Any ideas what would cause this?

  • Could be a failing compressor or a coolant level issue. Only way to know is to test the compressor or check the pressure of the coolant. Might need a repair tech to do those tests. – Jeff Cates Jan 28 at 4:11
  • If the unit is cooling normally as op stated I would look at starting cap and possible relay. – Ed Beal Jan 28 at 21:23
  • Interesting: what's inside a refrigerator compressor: youtube.com/watch?v=3Uwx-_VecHo - kind of get an idea what might be happening during the heavy vibration phase of this phenomenon. – kermit Jan 31 at 3:59
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That loud click is probably an overloaded compressor relay. When compressor components start going bad it can cause all kinds of issues. You can do some reasonably priced troubleshooting by installing a Hard-Start Kit. Here is a link to a video that shows in more detail how to install it.

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When compressor motor capacitors start going bad the motor can have a really tough time starting, the longer time to start drawing more current can then wipe out the start relay. I have been able to fix this problem for several units by replacing the starting cap and sometimes the relay if bad. Check to make sure if you have a fan and coil under the fridge that the fan is working and the coils are clean. I have found on newer fridges with r134a once they overheat they no longer cool correctly since your's is cooling I would get the capacitor replaced asap or this might burn out the motor. Capacitors are usually 20-35$ and a cheap way to go for a first step troubleshooting, (this is often the problem). Give that a try and let us know.

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    Refrigerant coil (more of a metal grid) is on the back of the fridge, totally clean, vacuumed it. Once I get this issue resolved, will definitely post the answer here. – kermit Jan 30 at 0:38
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So this issue is solved. It was a two part problem.

About 3 months ago (on top of the banging issue), the refrigerator started only intermittently cooling. It was still banging and clicking as it was before. I suspect the cooling issue was masked when the weather was cold and the kitchen was relatively cool. But once the weather became warm, this generally coincided with an obvious inability to cool. I didn't track the temperatures before though. I only recall they were acceptable, but... can't say if they were in as tight a range as they are now.

Edit: If you have this problem, it would be useful to get a refrigerator and freezer thermometers. If the freezer temp not tracking tightly around 0F, and refrigerator temp is not tightly within 32F and 40F, it could indicate a temperature sensing issue.

The repairmen came about two months ago and replaced the "start device and capacitor." This quieted down the banging by about 85%. Instead of banging loudly every day, and commonly having loud clicks from time to time, it would happen once a week, and it was muted. And it was more of a chugging I guess. The loud click would occur with the banging/chugging too. The refrigerator still wasn't cooling consistently though. It would intermittently cool, getting down to freezing, but it would routinely stray well above freezing in the freezer and up to nearly 70 in the refrigerator.

Then about a month later (I don't have much perishable food, was able to get by, and I waited to gather more evidence and try to identify any other patterns), they replaced the "refrigerator thermostat". THIS totally solved the problem, in conjunction with the starter mechanism fix. It's been nearly a month, I haven't heard any clicks, no banging/chugging at all, and it's holding 0F in the freezer and 32-40F in the refrigerator very well, and the compressor starts and runs smoothly.

So, I think the root cause of the click/banging was a malformed start signal maybe? That signal going into a worn starting mechanism causing the banging, and then that click which coincided with the compressor banging stopping.

FYI. @jerry-contrary and @ed-beal, thanks for the information.

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