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Refrigerator Odours - Why, What, How?

By Donald Grummett

Ever had a bad smell in a refrigerator? It isn’t pleasant. Nor can it be easy to find the actual source. It may take days to localize whether it was the fruits, vegetables, meats, or fish. All can be the culprit.

Plus the air in a refrigerator can seemingly enhance an odour. A simple odour one day can move throughout the interior, until the whole refrigerator reeks. In a frost free refrigerator air is constantly circulating and passing over all the other foods. Therefore an odour in one part of the refrigerator can very quickly be picked up and passed to everything else.

Most odours inside a refrigerator can be localized using your eyes and nose. It is usually an old piece of forgotten food, or an outdated carton. But, if the source evades you try the following:

1. Check the food. It is the primary reason for refrigerator odours. Use your nose as the smell detector. Use your hands to feel for spills.

2. Check the crisper drawers and shelves for small pieces of rotting food. Although obvious, this is often overlooked. Remove crispers and shelves and wash thoroughly in warm soapy water. Use a semi-soft scrub brush to get into cracks and crevices. Many metal shelves are small enough to be washed in the dishwasher. When replacing shelves don’t forget to clean the plastic supports they snap into.

3. Check glass shelves. Small liquid spills here can be transparent. Also glass shelves can be complex – requiring intricate frames. Check the undersides of frames for hidden debris.

4. Clean the inside edge of the door gaskets. Start at the bottom. It is a major location where food and mold accumulates. Rap a soft wet rag around a butter knife to get in behind the gasket. Avoid pulling on gasket because it can rip.

5. Clean the freezer section floor. It too can be an odour producer. If you see loose frozen vegetables on the freezer floor look for the source here. Carefully run your hand around the freezer interior. There may be hidden holes that are not normally visible. Loose foods can be trapped here.

6. If odour persists try using baking soda. Spread two tablespoons of baking soda onto a saucer, and place into the refrigerator section. If the freezer is under suspicion then also place one here. It must be thinly spread out to be affective – leaving it in the box will do limited work at fighting odours. Check every few days. Once it becomes crusted over replace with fresh baking soda. This works well, but does require patience. Allow two or three weeks for even simple odours to subside.

7. When all else fails: turn off refrigerator, allow it to warm to room temperature, remove all shelves and drawers, and thoroughly wash the interior walls. Use warm, soapy water. Avoid using any cleaning products that have a strong chemical smell or are heavily scented. Dry completely using a clean, dry rag. Be especially aware of crevices near bottom of refrigerator interior. If crevices appear dirty clean with a semi-soft brush.

Avoid any product that is sprayed into the refrigerator. This only results in the odour being masked rather than removed.

Since the best defense is an offence, try to avoid any reason for odours to get a foothold in the refrigerator. The following are a few simple tactics in preventing odours from getting started:

1. Keep all foods covered. It is a simple idea that really does work. Any food placed into the refrigerators cool, humid environment will immediately begin to oxidize. Place a steel bar into the refrigerator and it will oxidize (rust) – well, your food will undergo the same process. But, as foods age they also give off odours. Keeping food covered slows oxidation, which in turn will slow the creation of odours.

2. Avoid spills. This may seem like a silly suggestion – except if you have children. One trick is to keep a separate kids container on a lower shelf. In it provide them with foods they are constantly craving. Apples, oranges, precut vegetables, and juice boxes can all be kept here. This keeps the kids spills to a minimum - adults are on their own.

3. Separate fruits and vegetables. The acidity of one can affect the other. Once home from the grocery store separate them and store in their own bags. Zip top bags work well for this purpose. If bagged they can be placed into the same crisper drawer. If simply dumped together into the crisper they can interact, causing some rather unusual smells.

4. Watch out for fruits. They in particular are different than most other foods. Many of them will actually deteriorating faster when inside a cool environment. Apples are a good example. When removed from the sealed bag and put into the refrigerator, they leave their dormant state and begin to literally “breathe”. Taking on more air leads to accelerated decay.

5. Beware the preserves. Odours can occur when an old container (Aunt Martha’s Christmas jam?) is pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten. Being semi-sealed they can produce slow, almost imperceptible spills and gasses. If you have a really obnoxious smell that comes and goes, look for preserved pickles or fruits. Preserved jams on the other hand will tend to bubble out, producing sticky spills.

6. Throw away leaking containers. Milk bags in particular are renowned for leaking. Simply pouring contents into a sealed container before placing into refrigerator will eliminate this problem. If leak occurs clean the entire shelf immediately. Even a few drops of milk or cream can cause horrible odours if left long enough to go sour.

7. Beware the stinky cheese. Store within its own sealed container rather than open on the dairy shelf. It’s a live food. It continues to age because of bacterial content. As it ages its characteristics can change. While processed cheeses harden with age, natural cheeses can start to weep. Weeping will produce ever-increasing amounts of gas. Some cheeses can really start to stink. Anyone who has ever had cheese go bad will never forget the smell.

8. Be aware of packaging. Pre-packaged foods can become odour absorbers. Cardboard containers can easily pick up and then hold any odours that are circulating inside the refrigerator. Also the cartons can break down with age, slowly spilling their contents. Ever found an old cardboard carton of molasses at the rear of the refrigerator. Bet you it’s been there since you made baked beans. Ten years ago?

Keeping your refrigerator interior clean and smelling fresh requires constant vigilance. The major advice we offer our clients about preventing odours is -- don’t let them get started. Although a simplistic answer, it’s truthful. A bad smell is much easier to prevent than to treat.

Copyright © Donald Grummett 2005. All rights reserved.

Need answers about repairs and maintenance of Household Appliances? With 30 years experience Donald Grummett can help. Visit http://www.mgservices.ca to learn more invaluable information.

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