IT'S NOT EASY to pull the plug on a household appliance.

In my childhood, we had a Kelvinator refrigerator that was part of the family for 20 years. At least. Wasn't fancy, ran noisy but was reliable as hell. It's probably still running somewhere.

So excuse Gizmo Guy for hesitating when a repair man told me that my 15-year-old, 25-cubic-foot Frigidaire Gallery side-by-side was "overdue for replacement."

The water and ice dispenser was leaking - the most vulnerable element of any refrigerator and good reason to invest in a warranty.

And it was still leaking after the repair guy reluctantly replaced a feed line ($20 for the part, $180 for two house calls). A fan blowing air over the ice bin was cutting out. And while most of the food in the freezer seemed hard, the ice cream was a sloppy mess.

"Ice cream has a lower freezing point than meat and vegetables," shrugged my now very familiar repair guy, Mike. "Start shopping for a replacement before the thing fails completely."

SIZE SHOCK: When my Frigidaire was new, its 36-inch wide, 67-inch tall frame was among the biggest side-by-sides made. Kitchen cabinets were built around it for a custom fit, with less than an inch of clearance on the sides and top.

Can you guess how many 25-cubic-foot side-by-side refrigerators made today fit in that space?

Exactly none, I discovered after scouring online appliance search engines at Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears, Best Buy and a local fave, Pennsauken's ABC Appliances.

In their escalating brawn race, refrigerator makers are sticking with the 36-inch width but growing the boxes taller, to 70 inches or more. Some fancy LG and Samsung models loomed especially large on a showroom floor.

Sexily slim and tall "counter depth" fridges also had to be crossed off my list.

A NEW GAME PLAN: I had to drop back and punt with a 33-inch wide, 22.0-cubic-foot side-by-side. And even here, the only options were a GE and virtually identical (but $150 more) Kenmore, both likely made on the same assembly line in Louisville, Ky. (Another American appliance mainstay, Whirlpool, has just introduced its own 22-cubic-foot model.)

I went with the GE GSH22JSDB ($1,250 in stainless steel, before the $40 rebate) and am generally pleased. It's attractive and quiet, except when making its curved ice cubes.

I love the see-through vegetable-, deli- and meat-keeper drawers, and the digital display of refrigerator and freezer temperatures. GE has downsized the icemaker, making room for more freezer storage cubbies.

Exterior walls are also thinner, thanks to better insulation materials. Still, freezer shelves are only 10 inches wide, forcing vertical storage of larger pizza boxes.

Best off, the new fridge consumes less than half the energy of my 1998 model, saving $60 a year in electricity, according to the Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator at energystar.com.

If I'd tossed a 20-year-old fridge, my annual savings would be almost $200!

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