The defrost mechanism in a refrigerator heats the cooling element (evaporator coil) for a short period of time and melts the frost that has formed on it. The resulting water drains through a duct at the back of the unit. Defrosting is controlled by an electric or electronic timer: For every 6, 8, 10, 12 or 24 hours of compressor operation it turns on a defrost heater for 15 minutes to half an hour. The defrost heater, having a typical power rating of 350 W to 600 W, is mounted just below the evaporator in top- and bottom-freezer models and below and sometimes also in the middle of the evaporator in side-by-side models. It may be protected from short circuits by means of fusible links. In older refrigerators the timer ran continuously. In newer designs the timer only runs while the compressor runs, so the more the refrigerator door is closed, the less the heater will be on and the more energy will be saved. A defrost thermostat opens the heater circuit when the evaporator temperature rises above a preset temperature, 40F (5C) or more, thereby preventing excessive heating of the freezer compartment. The defrost timer is such that either the compressor or the defrost heater is on, but not both at the same time.
Inside the freezer, air is circulated by means of one or more fans. In a typical design cold air from the freezer compartment is ducted to the fresh food compartment and circulated back into the freezer compartment. Air circulation helps sublimate any ice or frost that may form on frozen items in the freezer compartment.
Instead of the traditional cooling elements being embedded in the freezer liner, auto-defrost elements are behind or beneath the liner. This allows them to be heated for short periods of time to dispose of frost without heating the contents of the freezer.
Alternatively, some systems use the hot gas in the condenser to defrost the evaporator. This is done by means of a circuit that is cross-linked by a three-way valve. The hot gas quickly heats up the evaporator and defrosts it. This system is primarily used in commercial applications such as ice-cream displays.
Freezers with automatic defrosting and combined refrigerator/freezer units which also apply self defrosting to their freezer compartment are called "frost free". The latter usually feature an air connection between the two compartments with the air passage to the refrigerator compartment regulated by a damper. By this means, a controlled portion of the air coming from the freezer reaches the refrigerator. Some older models have no air circulation between their freezer and refrigerator sections. Instead, they use an independent cooling system (for example: an evaporator coil with a defrost heater and a circulating fan in the freezer and a cold-plate or open-coil evaporator in the refrigerator.