Getting the Refrigerator Door Into the Proper Swing

By Jeanne Huber
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 27, 2006

Q Cooking in my kitchen is clumsy, partly because the refrigerator door opens the wrong way. What's involved in changing that?

AChanging the door swing can be easy, expensive or impossible, depending on which model you own. Luckily, refrigerators whose door swing matters most -- those that have a wide door or two -- tend to have reversible doors. And even if you own a model without this feature, you may still be able to reverse the doors if you're willing to buy a replacement hinge or perhaps a replacement door.

Side-by-side refrigerator-freezer combinations and "French door" refrigerators with two narrow panels over the fresh food compartment can't be changed, but that's rarely much of an issue because these styles don't put roadblocks in your kitchen when the doors are open and they're designed for access from both directions. Only a very few refrigerators are like die-hard political partisans, determined to swing only left or right all the way to the grave.

Manufacturers began producing refrigerators with reversible-swing doors about 30 years ago, says Jill A. Notini, a spokeswoman for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Today, when a wide-door refrigerator lacks this feature, it's a deliberate choice, often because of style issues or perhaps because internal water lines make switching impossible, according to Allison Eckelkamp, a spokeswoman for General Electric's consumer and industrial division.

As a first quick test to determine how involved it might be to reverse the swing on the model you own, inspect the doors near the hinges and handles. Reversible models typically have plastic caps over metal fittings threaded so that you can swap the handles and hinges. If you find caps on the refrigerator cabinet but not on the doors, that's a clue that you might need to buy a new door. Be aware, however, that finding caps doesn't guarantee anything. Very rarely, the caps merely plug holes in the refrigerator's shell and don't lead to threads.

So, before you pry up the caps, a step that might lead to scratching the surface of the refrigerator, consult the owner's manual or contact the manufacturer by phone or through its Web site to find out the particulars for your model. Look for the number on a label inside the freezer or the fresh food compartment.

Besides verifying that the doors are reversible on your model, ask for specific instructions on how to reverse the swing. Some companies post the steps on their Web sites, where you can usually see illustrations that help make the process clearer.

Although instructions vary, the basic strategy consists of removing the doors in a way that keeps them from crashing to the floor. Start by unplugging the refrigerator and moving its contents to coolers, or improvise by loading food containers into paper bags and wrapping them in blankets. Remove any plastic caps, using a putty knife or another thin, flexible tool. Wrap the blade in masking tape so you don't damage the finish on the refrigerator.

Some manufacturers suggest taping the top door shut with masking tape while you remove the top hinge screws. Refrigerator doors are usually kept in place with magnets inside the rubberlike gaskets, but the tape is extra insurance against something slipping once you remove the top hinge, says Mark Steffenhagen, a senior engineer for Whirlpool. Once the top hinge is off, remove the tape on the door and tilt it up and out to free it from a pin on the bottom hinge, which usually doubles as the top hinge for the bottom door. Using a similar procedure, you can then remove the lower door. But refer to the specific instructions for your model. For example, you may find that instead of removing screws on the top hinge of the lower door, you need to pull out a pin with a socket wrench or unscrew several bolts.

Enlist a helper when you move the fresh-food door because it's large and awkward to handle. Dropping the door could bend a door stop on the bottom, as well as scratch the floor. As you set each door aside, place the screws next to the related parts so you don't get mixed up about what goes where.

With the doors off, remove the bottom hinge and transfer it to the opposite side. Reposition the handles as well. Lift the lower door into place, and assemble and install the hinge that goes at its top. The top door usually fits directly on that. Finally, move the top hinge. Line up the doors before you fully tighten all the screws.

Some refrigerator models will require buying a new door. For the GE Monogram, a stainless steel model that retails for about $5,400, replacing the standard right-swing door would cost about $550. And there are retro-style refrigerators that would call for a new hinge to reverse the door's swing, at a cost of about $50.

There are other details to deal with, too, such as removing and replacing the grill covering the bottom of the refrigerator and perhaps moving the door stop on the bottom of the lower door. If your refrigerator provides ice or chilled water on the outside, you also will need to move electrical and plumbing connections, which usually thread through or under one of the hinges. But this should give you a good idea of what's involved and whether you want to tackle the job yourself or call a repair company to do it for you. If your refrigerator is under warranty, check the fine print to see whether you will void its terms if you do the work yourself.

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