A couple years ago, the BF and I returned home from an expensive vacation in the desert to learn that our fancy-pants french-door fridge's compressor had bit the dust, naturally just after the warranty expired. Repairs seemed to be a short term and expensive option, so we searched for an affordable replacement.
One of the most defining attributes to the refrigerators I was drawn to, but could not afford was the ample interior illumination of higher end models. It's more common to find a single bulb up top, and when looking at models on display, the empty interior is well lit. However, once you begin to fill the shelves, everything gets pretty dim. We ended up buying an open box side-by-side model that had the most basic components we wanted for a really great price. Prior to delivery I had decided that I would upgrade the lighting using inexpensive LED tape.
The entire process took about an hour and the results make our refrigerator and it's contents look spectacular. Even in our often very packed fridge, everything on each shelf is well illuminated. With no dark corners, It's rare that something is left to be forgotten. This is definitely something you can add to your weekend projects. The cost and effort is minimal compared to the benefit!
Step 1: Determining Your Materials & Electrical Hookup
Every refrigerator is different, so you will likely have to adjust these instructions to suit your own refrigerator, but not much. Most basic and mid-range refrigerators are illuminated with a single standard light bulb at the top. You'll be using the power source for this light bulb to illuminate your LED tape. Using this source will also turn it on and off.
Originally, I thought to remove the bulb and use a lamp socket power adaptor, which would be the fastest and simplest way to power your LED tape. Rather, I opted to keep the existing lamp and tap into it's wiring. The LED tape will require a low voltage transformer, commonly 12V DC. These are often very small for this purpose. They can usually be purchased from the same source as the LED tape. I happened to have an acceptable transformer on hand. Be sure to use a DC transformer to avoid flicker. The smaller the transformer the better as you will want it take up the least amount of space in your refrigerator. You may also get lucky as I did, and be able to secure the transformer inside a plastic panel that housed the wiring for the existing lamp and also had a reasonable amount of room to spare. Otherwise, I'd suggest using some zip ties and your imagination to locate the safest and most out of the way location.
The warm white LED tape I used was not water proof. While most LED lighting I saw in refrigerators was a very cool-white color and gave the empty fridge a modern aesthetic, the blue-white color temperature doesn't make food appear as much appetizing as it does sterilized. Take a look at the super-warm color temperature of lighting used in the produce section of groceries. I would recommend using a water resistant model of LED tape to avoid damage and prevent hurting yourself on the sharper edges of raised LED's, which are sealed and prevents minor injury from scraping your hand. That said, it's been a couple years, and I have experienced no problems whatsoever with the unsealed LED tape I've used.
Here are Amazon links for LED tape options a transformer, and optional socket adaptors:
Silicone sleeve enclosure LED tape: http://amzn.com/B00CMX2KGK
Epoxy enclosure LED tape: http://amzn.com/B006079BCK
12V DC transformer: http://amzn.com/B007ME2HMQ
Plug-free 12V DC transformer: https://amzn.com/B017R17YQC
Lamp socket adaptor: http://amzn.com/B001PCVTFC
Lamp socket that permits continued use of existing bulb: http://amzn.com/B0015SJYRQ
Step 2: Installing the LED Tape
Working with an empty fridge is ideal, but an emptier one will suffice. I was lucky to install the tape right after it was delivered.
You will need two lengths of LED tape, one to run on each side of your fridge. The length of these will vary with your model. This basic installation should be easily adapted to a variety of refrigerator configurations. LED tape can be cut at intervals of usually 3 or 6 LED's depending on it's density. Refer to any instructions that came with your LED tape for cutting and wiring it.
At one end of the LED tape should be a prewired connector for the 12V transformer. At the other end, you'll need to connect the two segments with a measured length of wire. You can connect the LED tape together using snap-on connectors, but I recommend soldering. Using a length of small gauge wire, such as 22 gauge, solder your two cut lengths together.
Learn how to solder LED tape here!
The length of this wire should be the width you are spanning from one side of your refrigerator to the other. In my setup, this wire is run along the floor of the fridge under the bottom basket and covered with white vinyl or duct tape.
Measure and mark your placement for the LED tape, peel the facing off it's preinstalled double-faced adhesive tape and carefully adhere to the insides of your refrigerator. I chose a location about an 1 1/2" back from the front of shelves.
Step 3: Connecting to Your Refrigerator Power
As described previously, connecting power to your LED's could be as simple as using a lamp socket power adaptor.
If however, you are wiring into the existing lamps power as I did, reference the image where I've illustrated what is under the plastic cover. With the refrigerator unplugged (SAFETY FIRST!), I cut into the two wires running to the existing lamp and added the wire leads coming from the short power cable I have my transformer plugged into. Polarity is not an issue on this side of the transformer. This is very simple wiring, and will be familiar to anyone who has replaced a wall switch or light fixture. I used wire nuts to connect everything together, and small zip ties to ensure nothing ever works it's way loose. While your wiring is still accessible, plug the refrigerator back in to test. All of the lighting should be functional now.
LED lighting is low power, so you are not at risk of overloading any wiring or circuits with this additional or supplemental lighting, and they won't be on very long at any point. It's also very thermally cool, so there's no risk of heat related issues. LED's also thrive in the colder conditions of your refrigerator and should last as long. If done as described and with common sense, there should be no risk to you or your refrigerator. If you have any concerns, invite a handy friend over to help!
Step 4: BONUS UPGRADES!
Another upgrade I can't recommend enough are small turntables often referred to as lazy-susan's. I bought two in stainless steel and they make accessing small jars and bottles much easier, and organize what would otherwise be a mess.
Our previous refrigerator was a KitchenAid brand, along with the rest of the appliances. When it died, it was replaced with a Frigidaire, a respectable brand, and to one that I've come to like better. In any case, I liked the fancy KitchenAid metal badge from our dead fridge than the cheaper looking printed Frigidaire one. I simply removed the metal logo and covered the simpler Frigidaire logo on the door dispenser. The only other logo was inside the fridge, where I printed a thermal label to stick over it. Instant upgrade! Now even the Appliance repair guy visiting for the range thought it was a KitchenAid, a much costlier brand. Completely silly, yes.
Pick one or two up on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B000IENGB8
For well under $100 and in a short time, you can have that de-luxe refrigerator you've always wanted this weekend! Enjoy!
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