How to Clean a Refrigerator that has Been Sitting (10 Steps)

Refrigerators are arguably one of the most useful modern-day appliances to prevent food and other items from spoiling. If you have ever owned a refrigerator that has had to sit for some time due to a power outage, vacation, or you have moved into a rental property, you may have had the misfortune of discovering just how smelly a sitting fridge can be.

Whatever the case, refrigerators are prone to smell because of stale food particles and moisture that may be in hard-to-reach corners and crevices. If you have encountered a foul-smelling fridge, here are ten steps you can take to clean and restore it to its usable state.

Before getting started, you will want to make sure you are cleaning your fridge safely with the right tools and supplies.

Safety First!

While cleaning a fridge might seem straightforward, there are some steps to ensure your safety, along with preserving your food while you clean. To start, do a visual inspection to check for any mold. Because mold can be carcinogenic when inhaled and ingested, it is sometimes best to consult an expert if it is quite pervasive.

If you cannot see any mold but are still concerned, it is advisable to wear a proper particle-filtering mask along with gloves while cleaning. Try to clean your fridge in a well-ventilated area, where you can open the windows so that harmful particles do not settle in other parts of your home.

You will also want to keep your food from spoiling as you clean the inside of your fridge. This is the perfect time to discard any forgotten or expired items that have made their way to the back of the bottom shelf. If you know you can clean your fridge within the day, bags of ice in a cooler should suffice to keep your refrigerated items cool but please be mindful of items that need to stay fully frozen.

Items You Will Need to Clean Your Fridge

Here are items you will need to clean your fridge:

10 Steps to Cleaning a Refrigerator that has Been Sitting

  1. Remove items that are currently in your fridge. While most food items are typically okay to be out of the fridge for a short period of time, fill a cooler with some ice and store the items in it. This can be particularly useful in the case of a long-lasting power outage or tougher cleaning jobs.
  2. Take out any small removable shelves or drawers and wash them with dish soap and a non-abrasive scrub pad or sponge in your sink.
  3. Use bleach kitchen cleaning spray, or for a natural alternative, mix two parts vinegar and one part water in a spray bottle, to disinfect the inner walls, doors, and non-removable surfaces of the fridge.
  4. Use a non-abrasive scrub pad or sponge to wipe away cleaning spray and caked-on food spills. For stubborn stains and food spills, consider sprinkling the area with baking soda then spraying with your vinegar solution to lift the debris before wiping away.
  5. If needed, give the interior another spray and wipe down with a microfiber cloth.
  6. If time permits, leave the fridge door open for a few hours to air out.
  7. Ensure all removable parts (ice trays, shelves, drawers) are completely dry before installing them back into the fridge.
  8. Wipe off any sticky or leaky food jars with a damp cloth and ensure they are completely dry before putting them back in the fridge.
  9. Consider sticking a baking soda deodorizer to the inside of the fridge to maintain freshness.
  10. Spray some vinegar solution or kitchen cleaning spray onto a microfiber cloth and wipe down the outside of the fridge for an all-around clean appliance.

spray cleaner for deep cleaning

Alternative Fridge Cleaning Options

Okay, maybe your fridge has been sitting much longer than it should, maybe it wasn’t even plugged in. This happens and things get gross, especially when the door is closed. If you are leaving your fridge unplugged for some time, remember to keep the door open for airflow. If not, you are extremely likely to get mold and then things get extra smelly.

Pressure Washing a Refridgerator

Yes, you can pressure wash a refrigerator but you should avoid spraying the rear side including the condenser coils and the compressor. Spraying the inside and the fridge body should cause no harm in the working condition of the refrigerator.

However, keep in mind that pressure washing should not be your first choice when it comes to cleaning a filthy refrigerator. Most people looking to deep clean a fridge have the fridge inside their kitchen, nobody wants to spray all that water inside their home. The best time to spray down a fridge with a pressure washer, or even a standard garden hose, is when you have the refrigerator outside for whatever reason.

Many times people store a fridge in storage, they keep the door closed and it is full of mold. This is when a deep clean and pressure washing may be required. Certain people will just throw away the fridge when it’s that bad, but refrigerators are expensive, so this method of cleaning can work.

Here are the steps to cleaning a refrigerator with a pressure washer:

  1. Protect the rear side (internal) parts of the refrigerator. You can place pieces of a cardboard box or whatever you have on hand to create a small barrier to protect the internal parts of the fridge. If you spray these with a powerful pressure washer you may damage them and then the fridge will no longer work. You can just be aware of this and completely avoid spraying the area, just be smart!
  2. Spray distilled white vinegar throughout the refrigerator. There is no need to dilute the vinegar since vinegar is a strong mold and mildew killer just spray it throughout the fridge. Let the vinegar sit for 5 minutes to start to work.
  3. Spray the fridge with a degree nozzle that won’t damage the fridge. It is important to use a spray pattern and nozzle that won’t cause damage, pressure washers can do some serious destruction to a surface. Choose wisely and begin spraying. Make sure you wear proper protective equipment for your eyes, skin, and a mask to prevent breathing in any dangerously polluted air. Just spray water, no need for a chemical spray.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the mold and dirt is removed.
  5. If mold and other dirt are still remaining scrub the surface with a dish scrub pad. Sometimes the filth just needs some scrubbing to come off. You can use vinegar and warm water mix, or dawn dish soap, or even chlorine bleach. Again, wear proper protective equipment when dealing with dangerous products. Feel free to wipe everything clean after scrubbing or go ahead and give it one more pressure washing.
  6. Once the fridge is clean let it completely dry and air out. You must keep the door open at this point, once completely dry you can now test to make sure it works. Now it is ready for use once again.

Sitting Refrigerator FAQs

What Causes a Refrigerator to Start Smelling?

While some fridges start to smell because of visible spills, strongly scented foods, or food spoiling there are other inconspicuous reasons as well. Because plastic can absorb strong scents, the smell may be within the walls of the fridge itself which is why cleaning with a bleach-based cleaner, vinegar, or baking soda is a great place to start.

Fridges can also smell foul because of the presence of moisture and the potential for mold growth. It is important to keep the fridge door fully shut when not needed, especially if you live in a humid climate, and wipe up any spills immediately so that liquids do not seep into any hard-to-reach corners and crevices.

How Long Does It Take for a Refrigerator to Grow Mold?

Because a refrigerator stores food and liquids, there is a reasonable risk of mold growth. The temperature of a refrigerator and the presence of nutrients from food is enough to allow mold to grab a foothold and spread. Once the spores of mold are present, they can spread within hours causing a foul smell and safety risk.

Once Cleaned, Should I Place Baking Soda in My Fridge?

Baking soda can be an effective way to keep your fridge free of foul odors. Because any scent consists of molecules not visible to the eye, they need something to bond to. Baking soda acts as a bond to those scent particles, effectively absorbing and neutralizing them. Because baking soda captures these scents, it is not advisable to use the same baking soda to cook or bake with. This is where baking soda fridge deodorizers that stick to the fridge interior come in handy so you can use the boxed powder form in your cooking and baking.

Final Thoughts

It is almost inevitable that you will encounter at least one foul-smelling fridge in your lifetime and though there are many reasons it may smell, a regular deep clean can keep the smell at bay. Whether you have discovered an old food spill in the back of your fridge or you just moved into a rental unit with a fridge that has been sitting unused for a while, these steps will make it bearable again.

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