How to Clean a Smelly Refrigerator
Are you getting a less than pleasant smell coming from your refrigerator? If so, it may be time for a good cleaning and basic inspection of your refrigerator. From homemade cleaning products to a bit of "refrigerator 101", the following information can help you clean your refrigerator more efficiently and thoroughly. It may even help you to discover problems that your refrigerator is having.
Aside from removing unwanted odors, this cleaning doubles as a maintenance that can help to increase the lifespan of your refrigerator and its parts.
When to Clean Your Refrigerator
Though any time of year is a good time to clean the refrigerator, it's best to clean when your "stock" is low. Having less food to move around during the cleaning will make it easier to get around inside the cabinets.
It will also make it possible to relocate food from one shelf to another so that you can clean one section at a time. Cleaning one section at a time will keep you from needing the refrigerator door open for long periods of time. We all know that isn't good.
Get Rid of Expired Products in Your Refrigerator
It wouldn't do much good to clean our refrigerator and keep food items that have overstayed their welcome. Freezer burnt items fall into this category as well. This is a good place to start getting rid of unwanted odors, wouldn't you agree?
What You'll Need
- Bucket or Spray Bottle
- 3 or 4 Rags - A couple for cleaning and a couple for drying.
- Towel - This will be to lay under the front of the unit to catch water.
- Toothbrush - Needed to scrub a few key areas.
- Vacuum - One with a hose and attachment for hard to reach places.
- 1/4" Hex Wrench - Yours may need a different size or perhaps a screwdriver (see below).
- Pliers or Wrenches - Two pairs of small pliers may be needed if you have a water dispenser or ice maker.
- Scouring Sponge - A Magic Eraser is quickly becoming one of my favorite cleaning products.
- Cleaning Solution - The most popular product for this task is . This solution really does an amazing job and is simple if you don't feel like making something homemade to clean with. But if you'd prefer something homemade, there's another option for you in this next section. this Simple Green 13022 solution
Did you know that toothpaste is a good cleaner for refrigerators? It has light abrasive qualities that make it good for removing buildup. The minty smelling goodness is just a bonus quality.
Homemade Refrigerator Cleaning Solution
There are many products that can be used to clean a refrigerator. Simple Green is probably the best store-bought choice, but you can also use a bleach and water mixture; even water and dish soap can do the trick. But for those of us who want something else, you can use this homemade recipe that is simple and doesn't require a rinse-down after using. You can either pour this into a bucket or mix and add to a spray bottle.
- 1 gallon of warm water
- 1 cup of ammonia
- Approx. 1/2 cup of vinegar
- Approx. 1/4 cup of baking soda
With some products, you may want to use a separate bucket of warm water and rag to do a rinse wipe. Make sure you read the instructions on whatever product you choose to see if it needs to be rinsed afterward. Regardless of what you use, be sure to dry down the areas you clean as you go.
Cleaning the FreezerClick thumbnail to view full-size
There is no need at this point to unplug the refrigerator. If we work steadily and with a good plan of attack, the door won't be open long enough to cause any problems or wasted food. Also, I always like to work from top to bottom to avoid having to re-clean areas that I've already done. With that in mind, let's start in the freezer.
- Step 1: Rearrange your frozen foods so that you can remove the rack for easier cleaning outside of the unit. Then, move all the freezer food to one side or the other. For a side by side unit, you can put the food on the door or in the refrigerator while you clean.
- Step 2: Once you've removed the rack(s), you can begin to clean with whatever solution you've chosen to use.
- Step 3: Thoroughly dry this area and then move the food to that side so that you can clean the other.
- Step 4: Once the cabinet is clean and dry, shut the door and clean the rack in a sink so that your freezer isn't hanging open while you do this. The rack will likely take longer than the cabinet since it has so many individual surfaces so we don't want to keep the freezer open unnecessarily.
Once the rack is clean and dry, place it back into the freezer so that you can put your food back where it was. This will also give you a place to set the food that was in the door since that will be the last area we clean before finishing up in the freezer.
NOTE: For those of you with ice makers, do not tear down any parts that you are not comfortable knowing you can put back together for cleaning.
Cleaning the RefrigeratorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Staying with the theory of cleaning top to bottom, we'll clean the refrigerator in the same fashion as the freezer. The main difference between the refrigerator and freezer is that usually, the shelving in the refrigerator is more complex than that of the freezer. These will likely have glass and trim that can be broken down.
- Step 1: Move as much of the food as possible to one side of the refrigerator and remove any racks or shelving. As you can see in the picture, this one shelf has four different parts. Leaving these pieces on while we clean will undoubtedly leave behind what it is we're trying to remove.
- Step 2: Clean the area inside the refrigerator that is clear of food with your cleaning solution. Make sure the area is clean and dry before moving on. As we work our way down, you may notice that the refrigerator is slanted behind the "crisper" drawers. Laying towels down in front of the unit will help to catch any water that wants to run down and out onto the floor. No doubt this is where we'll also find much of our stinky culprit so the mess can be, well...messy.
- Step 3: Clean any racks, shelving, or trim pieces thoroughly in the sink. Here is where the toothbrush comes in handy. These trim pieces have multiple grooves that can be hard to get to with a rag. Our toothbrush will make quick work of these crevasses and leave them as clean as the rest of our appliance.
- Step 4: Now we get into cleaning the door. This too is a commonly dirtier area than others. Clean and dry it well but don't forget to wipe off the bottom of the food containers that are likely going to have stickiness on them.
At this point, I would say, "Job well done!", if we were done. That was the inside, but let's not forget the very important outside.
Prepare to Clean Under and Behind the RefrigeratorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Let's go ahead and unplug the refrigerator at this time so that we aren't in danger of getting hurt by running parts inside the mechanical area of the fridge. As long as the doors are shut, our food will be fine because this won't take long. Also, be careful if you have an ice maker or water dispenser. You may not have enough slack in the water line to pull the unit far enough away from the wall to access the mechanical cabinet. If this is the case, you will need to disconnect the water line.
First, locate the shut-off valve for your water line and turn it off. You should be able to follow the water line to its' origin where the valve is located. (See example picture) Once the valve is off, you will need your wrenches to disconnect the water line. Be sure to put one wrench on the stationary male fitting and one on the removable female fitting to avoid twisting the line and causing a leak when reinstalling.
Clean the Bottom Vent
At the bottom front of your refrigerator, there is likely a vent of sorts. This vent can be removed for cleaning as well as cleaning some of what is hiding in behind it. Your vacuum may be good to suck out some of those dust bunnies in here. This is also where many refrigerators keep their drip tray. This tray is a prime suspect for smells and dirt. If you can access it from here, it is likely it will slide out easily for cleaning.
Clean Behind the Refrigerator
The rear of our refrigerator may take a little more effort to get to, but let's not stop now. Even if we don't find nasty food here, there is likely a large amount of dust built up on the back of the unit and on the mechanical parts of our refrigerator. Much like our furnaces and ductwork, the fan is drawing air into the back of the unit and, along with it, a large amount of dust.
This doesn't just leave it smelling dusty but can also make our fan motor and compressor run hot. This is not good for these parts and, if allowed to build up too much, can shorten the lifespan of our refrigerator. Once again, this is where our vacuum will come in quite handy.
Clean the Mechanical ComponentsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Note: Usually the back of the refrigerator is pretty simple to take apart so you can access the internal mechanical components. However, don't take apart anything you aren't confident you can put back together.
Cleaning out the mechanical components of your refrigerator might not only help it smell better, but also could drastically increase its life. Dust and dirt buildup in the mechanical parts of a refrigerator is one of the biggest reasons they fail.
Carefully remove the screws to the cover to gain access to the mechanical components of your refrigerator (see photos above). Once you have access, start by thoroughly vacuuming the area and getting as much of the dust and dirt out as possible. Screw the cover back on, and you're done!
Checking the Refrigerator Door Gasket
Now that we've done all this cleaning, now might be a good time to check the refrigerator door gaskets. Leaky door seals on your refrigerator or freezer can cause inconsistent temperatures inside the unit and ultimately allow better conditions for smells to develop. This is quite easy to do and will let you know if you need to replace the gasket.
Tips for Preventing Unwanted Refrigerator Smells
- Place a partially opened box of baking soda in both the refrigerator and freezer. Baking soda is good for absorbing odor.
- Placing a crumpled up piece of a paper bag in your crisper drawers for a couple days is also good for absorbing odors.
- Cotton balls or a piece of extract dipped linen placed discretely inside the cabinet will offer a pleasant smell every time you open the door.
- A dryer sheet clipped in behind that vent at the bottom can act as a filter as well as absorb odor.
- Try to maintain a temperature between 36 and 38 degrees in your refrigerator.
- If you don't keep much food stored in your refrigerator, try placing a gallon of water in it to help the reduce the amount of empty space to be cooled inside the cabinet.
Cleaning the Refrigerator Thoroughly Is Important
Perhaps much of this information is common knowledge, yet in my years of home service, I've seen some of the worst case scenarios that you can imagine. I have seen the look on homeowners' faces as I tell them the lack of simply cleaning the mechanicals has likely caused them to spend hundreds of dollars in repairs or a new appliance. As we read daily about clean air, bad foods and the dangers of mold, people still forget how important a part the refrigerator plays in our home health.
Hopefully this information has provided at least a couple of new tips and reminded you how important it is to give our beloved food storage appliances some tender love and care a bit more often.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
How can I get rotten chicken smell out of my refrigerator?
While I’ve never had to do this I know that baking soda is a great smell absorber. Beer works on skunk smell so maybe washing it down with a cold one is worth a try. There is also a product called “Clean-air” by Nu-Calgon that is an odor neutralizer. Dryer sheets also absorb odors. Again, I’m not positive these things will do the trick but they are cheap and easy so perhaps worth giving a try.
© 2012 Dan Reed