Removing Odors from Refrigerators and Freezers after a Power Outage

Claudette Reichel  |  2/24/2008 3:56:48 AM

If food has thawed in your refrigerator or freezer, you are probably facing an odor problem that hangs on even after the spoiled food is gone. Getting rid of this odor is likely to take time, patience and a combination of techniques.

Empty, clean and disinfect:

  • Remove all food, unplug the appliance and take out all removable parts. Empty the defrost water disposal pan (if it has one).
  • Wash each part thoroughly with hot water and detergent. Rinse with a very mild disinfectant solution (1 teaspoon chlorine bleach for each gallon of water).
  • Wash the inside, including doors and gaskets, with a solution of hot water and baking soda. You can also try a solution of one cup vinegar or household ammonia to a gallon of warm water. Rinse.
  • Do not mix ammonia and chlorine solutions! This combination gives off deadly fumes.

Air it out:

  • Leave the door open for at least 15 minutes to air out. If you had a long power outage, 15 minutes may not be enough.
  • If odor remains, repeatedly heat and ventilate the inside walls. Warm the inside walls with a portable convection heater (one that blows warm air), hair dryer or hot air popcorn popper. Do not use a heat source that can damage the surface. Do not leave the heater unattended.
  • Then turn off the heat and ventilate with a portable fan until the inside walls are cool.
  • Repeat this process for several hours or until the odor is almost gone.

Use odor-absorbing materials:

  • If some odor remains, use activated charcoal filters or a tray of loose activated carbon to absorb persistent odors. Look for it at drugstores, appliance service companies and hardware stores.
  • If you can’t find activated carbon, you can use crushed charcoal (the kind used for barbecue grills), but it will not be as effective. DO NOT USE CHARCOAL THAT CONTAINS LIGHTER FLUID!
  • Large servicing companies may recommend chemical deodorizers that are stronger than charcoal and last several months. Foods should be covered if such chemicals are used.
  • Spread about 3 ounces of the fine powered charcoal on a sheet of aluminum foil or in a shallow pan, and place on the refrigerator or freezer shelf.
  • If possible, run your freezer with nothing but the charcoal or carbon in it for a couple of days.
  • After 6 or 8 hours, heat the pan of loose charcoal in a moderate (350-degree) oven to reactivate the carbon so it can be reused. Put the charcoal back in the refrigerator and freezer. Repeat the process until the odor disappears.

Store food in sealed containers or wrappings :

  • Foods can be kept in the cleaned refrigerator with the charcoal. Even if traces of the odor remain, sealed food will not be affected.
  • Refrigerate and freeze all food in sealed containers or secured freezer wrappings.
  • When you take out a package, remove wrappings as soon as possible and dispose of them immediately.

If nothing works:

If all these efforts don’t seem to help much, there may have been seepage into the walls of the freezer or refrigerator. If the insulation has gotten wet, the appliance may have to be discarded eventually because it may not only have persistent bad odors but may also run continuously or frost up on the outside because of the ruined insulation. (See also Caring for Large Electrical Appliances.) In some cases, it may be feasible to dry or replace the wet insulation. For most, a new energy-efficient refrigerator or freezer may be more cost-effective than extensive repair effort.

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