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full of jenn-air
Oct 2015

Why does a company blame its valued customers for their own mistakes? This is a story of a Jenn-Air fridge that turns lettuce into green goo, why their design is at fault, and how the company blames this flaw on its own customers.

Our new apartment's kitchen came fully stocked with Jenn Air appliances. And, in many ways, they are a pleasure to use and own. For example, most conventional oven's dial indicators frequently diverge by up to 50F from actual measured average temperatures. They also cycle on and off to maintain this average temperature, generating excursions of another +25F. So they could be 75F off during a portion of the cooking cycle.

Ever wonder why some recipes don't seem to work as written? Or why cookies are too brown and bitter? It may be your oven's temperature controller.

But our new digital display, Jenn-Air convection oven is significantly more stable and accurate. Not only is the *average* temperature exactly as indicated on the front panel, but the excursions around that temperature are about half the level measured in dozens of other ovens. And, the interior recovers relatively quickly when the door is opened and closed. Very pleased:

We even designed a custom burner cover for the Jenn-Air stove top, that hinges up and performs double duty as a splash guard.

Ah, but the refrigerator is another story entirely. Mechanically, the shelf track was assembled slightly off kilter from its ideal position, so half the shelves are canted at an angle. Visually distracting, though livable.

But the deli drawer temperature control is a feature that works better on paper than in reality.

The deli drawer incorporates a touch panel on the front lip, where you can select among three temperature options appropriate for different food types ("deli", "produce" and "meats"), as well a quick chill mode. In the back of the drawer there is an electrically controlled damper that diverts freezer air into the deli drawer, and thus can adjust its temperature to match the display by modulating the damper position in response to drawer temperature. In principle.

Much to our surprise, the day after storing just one head of lettuce, a few carrots, a squash and some peppers in the drawer, we discovered the lettuce was frozen solid and the squash punky on one end. The touch panel correctly indicated "Produce", and (following the instruction manual) we did not obstruct the damper. What could have caused this problem?

Fortunately, I have a number of data loggers and accurate temperature probes at my disposal. The sensor confirmed the Deli drawer held between 35-36F. Quickly opening the drawer didn't perturb the temperature. So far so good. BUT, if you opened the drawer for a minute or so and added warm food- like a head of broccoli, the Jenn-Air fridge overcompensated. And dropped the drawer temp to as low as 17F for hours! Which turns lettuce into green slime. I also tried adding a stack of kitchen plates (to eliminate evaporative cooling as a factor), and the same arctic conditions were triggered:

(fridge interior set to 36F)

We called Jenn-Air customer care, who confirmed the fridge was still under warranty. They suggested we might have blocked the vents with food (which we didn't) or inadvertently set the drawer to "Quick Chill" (which we hadn't), and scheduled a repairman from Whirlpool, who owns Jenn Air. Which meant a week's delay and taking time off from work. The repair tech thought the damper might be sticking, and ordered a new part. Which arrived a week later. I screwed the new damper into place, yet the behavior was unchanged.

So another round of calling Jenn-Air customer care, more explanations, and again they scheduled a service call. Again more delay and wasted time. He ran a number of self-check tests, said the fridge is fine, but offered to replace the control board. Except a few days later he called to say the Whirlpool engineers (who examined at my temp curves) claimed the freezing was "normal", and it was "user error causing the problem by keeping the deli drawer open too long".

Before exploding in indignation, I again called Jenn-Air customer care. Who responded calmly and dug through their service FAQ. They made two concrete suggestions- first, keep your food sealed in plastic bags (again to suppress evaporative cooling and to insulate) and try slowly raising the fridge temp from 36F to 38F by a degree a day.

Now, a sealed bag will help prevent freezing- but condensation inside a sealed bag can also trigger leaf rot, and veggies last longer with a bit of ventilation. So not a preferred solution.

The suggestion to raise the temperature to 38F by a degree a day *was* of particular interest. And oddly specific, as if they had seen this issue before...

After transitioning to 38F the deli drawer was much more stable. Harder to trigger a deep-freeze dive, but still possible if loaded with warm veggies from the store. So it appears their control algorithm is fragile, teetering on the edge of stability. Which sounds like a known design flaw.

Blaming the customer is UNACCEPTABLE. You should not require an intelligence test to use a refrigerator. And, in the real world, the deli drawer might remain open for a minute while loading the fridge, pacifying a crying kid or grabbing a ringing phone.,

There is absolutely no reason the controller cannot handle this set of circumstances at 36F- it could employ the damper in a feedback loop to limit cooling rates and prevent the temperature from dropping much below 30F. If my mechanical engineering design students tried to claim that freezing veggies in a deli drawer was either "normal" or "user error", they would fail my class.

I cannot recommend you buy Jenn Air products until they change their design and respond properly to a valid customer complaint.



After writing this note, I called Jenn-Air one last time, pleading to speak directly with an engineer. Denied. Any such request is contrary to company policy. However, they agreed to forward all my data and their notes to engineering, and remarkably, two days later, offered a solution to the problem!

Despite blaming the customer and insisting the fridge was operating normally, it turns out they are clearly aware of the issue. And offered a "band-aid" fix, almost literally. Their solution is to partially restrict the damper gasket area by sticking an adhesive gasket over the existing damper gasket, so less cold air enters the deli drawer. From their instruction sheet:


I followed their instructions, waited a day for the fridge to reach equilibrium, and retested. The "band-aid" sort of worked. Instead of diving to 17F for a few hours, it mostly plateaued at 25F for around an hour. A distinct improvement:


Better than before, but still cold enough, long enough to freeze lettuce. So I threw in the towel, and tweeted Jenn-Air customer for advice on how to shut off the variable temperature deli drawer entirely, and turn it into a "dumb" drawer at the same temp as the rest of the fridge.

Their reply?

Ah well. I removed the flexible gasket connecting the damper to the deli drawer (so the damper function could operate unimpeded), then taped over the opening to the drawer. Preventing any freezer air from entering:

Then I retested this *unauthorized* fix by opening the deli-drawer for a minute, inserting a few salad plates as a surrogate thermal load, and closing the fridge:

Success! The deli drawer temperature remains above freezing, and drops to around 33F in under a half hour. The fridge (blue curve above) recovers in around 10 minutes (note the blue humps as the fridge cycles to hold the interior at a constant average temperature).

Hopefully sealing the rear of the drawer will not cause mold or condensation to build-up (so far, so good). And who knows, maybe Jenn-Air will issue another, more effective, silent repair in the future.


Additional articles on kitchen science can be found HERE.
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Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.