Fig 1 Refrigerator with freezer section on top
Take the refrigeration components, controls, and ancillary devices such as ice-makers, fans, lights, and water valves out of a refrigerator and one is left with a plastic lined compartment surrounded by insulation and and a pretty outer covering of thin sheet-metal (okay, very thin sheet-metal on most new refrigerators). An insulated box with the least amount of insulation that the market will accept. That amount seems to be about two inches these days which works out to about R10. Put your hand on the side of a refrigerator when it is running and feel the cold. Then try to guess who is paying for that cold. If you try this on a freezer or dorm fridge with the condenser beneath the sheet-metal skin, you feel heat rather than cold.
The person that decided to make an R-10 insulated box and put the condenser just outside of the insulation (so that heat leaks back into the interior of the box through the inadequate insulation) was the same one that decided that putting a hot compressor under the refrigerator also made sense. Heat rises so while the compressor runs to make your box cold, it is adding to the heat-load that it must extract. I hear someone screaming my refrigerator is energy-star rated and is much more energy efficient than those old heavy (well built) energy-hogs of the past. I am saving the planet you mean man. Most of the reduction in energy usage has been the result of better insulation (not more of it) and the down-sizing of compressors, evaporators and condensers. Under-sizing systems to save energy may be why refrigerators now last eight years instead of twenty to fifty.
The modern refrigerators is a poorly designed appliance and none of the major manufacturers seem interested in rethinking the issue. One would believe that some of them were in the electric utility business.
Filter-dryers are placed at the outlet of the condenser in household refrigerators and contain mesh screens to trap contaminants and chemicals to absorb moisture. This provides protection to the capillary tube which can become clogged and block the flow of liquid refrigerant to the evaporator. A completely blocked capillary tube will stop all refrigerant from reaching the evaporator and no cooling takes place.
A clogged capillary tube is difficult to diagnose since it seems the unit is low on refrigerant (the evaporator doesn’t receive refrigerant, but not because it has leaked out). This is one situation where piercing-valves and manifold gauges are necessary to be certain. A system with a clogged cap tube and a good compressor will pull the low-side suction pressure down into a vacuum as low as 20 inches of hg. The condenser will be cold since it contains liquid refrigerant under high pressure. If the high-side pressure is low and the low-side is in a vacuum, the problem is likely a lack of refrigerant rather than a clogged capillary tube.
The filter-dryers installed to protect the capillary tube can also clog and the symptoms look the same as a clogged capillary tube. If a filter-dryer is only partially clogged and creates a pressure drop it will be coated with frost. A frosted dryer or frost on the cap tube at the outlet of the dryer indicates a partially clogged dryer that needs to be replaced. Dryers are cheap, but the economics of hiring a refrigeration tech to recover the refrigerant, replace the dryer, and then evacuate and recharge the system will depend on the age and cost of the system and type of refrigerant. R12 systems are likely better retired.
Capillary tubes usually clog in the first few inches after the dryer unless the system is contaminated with moisture. Moisture will almost always freeze and form an ice-plug at the inlet to the evaporator. This happens if the system is opened, moist air allowed to enter the piping, and a complete evacuation with a quality vacuum-pump is not performed prior to recharging.
Cap tubes can be replaced, but it is not an easy task. Almost all are attached to the suction line for much of their length. Their internal bore and length are part of the refrigerator design and cannot be replaced with just any cap tube one might have. The size depends on the type of refrigerant and capacity of the compressor.
In my foolish youth, I used to replace clogged cap tubes on almost new refrigerators by removing the evaporator, suction line, and cap tube back to the compressor area (as long as they were not buried in the foam insulation) and replacing the whole thing with a similar evaporator/suction line/ cap tube assembly from a scrapped refrigerator. The refrigerator that I am using now received this treatment, a new compressor, and a charge of R-409a over eight years ago.
In the past year I have seen three Frigidaire side-by-side refrigerators in which the capillary tube had not been brazed into the filter-dryer during manufacture. Thus they were sold (and returned to the retailer) without refrigerant. The replacement of the filter-dryer, evacuation, and charging with R-134a was worth it since they retailed for almost two thousand dollars each. Two other new Frigidaire units that I saw had broken cap tubes where they entered the filter-dryer. This likely happened in shipment (its a long way to China) due to the crappy placement of filter-dryers on Frigidaire side-by-sides.