How To Clean A Refrigerator That Has Been Sitting: 4 Steps


Mold and offensive odors can develop in a refrigerator that has sat for too long without use. These are issues that you can rectify on your own with a little elbow grease and some time.

To clean a refrigerator that had been sitting:

  • Empty the refrigerator and disconnect power and water sources (if needed)
  • Gather cleaning materials and odor absorbers
  • Clean all interior and exterior parts, including seams and seals
  • Allow it to thoroughly dry before plugging it in and using it

Reasons Why A Refrigerator Has Been Sitting

There are several reasons why a refrigerator may sit unused for extended periods of time.

These include the following:

  • Not home for extended periods: Travel, vacations, or hospital stays that are more than four weeks can run a refrigerator unnecessarily long. Food inside can spoil and it uses up electricity.
  • Power outage: Extreme weather events or anything that affects the power source to a home can cause a refrigerator to sit for an undesired amount of time without electricity.
  • Abandoned property: If a rental unit or home is unoccupied, the refrigerator will likely have an offending odor if left untouched.

If you choose to unplug your refrigerator due to one of the above reasons, completely empty it of all foods. Toss inedible food and what you don’t need, pack edible food in plastic bins with ice, or store items in a backup refrigerator or at a neighbor’s house.  

Clean and deodorize the refrigerator following the steps below. 

4 Steps To Effectively Clean A Refrigerator

This article will offer you step-by-step directions and alternatives to get your refrigerator back to a healthy state.

What You Need

  • Towels
  • Cleaning tools (sponge, scrub brush, toothbrush, power towels, cloths)
  • Cleaning solutions of your choice
  • Odor absorber of your choice (kitty litter, baking soda, coffee grounds, silica gel, activated charcoal)
  • Cookie sheets (2 or more)
  • Mineral oil
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Cotton balls
  • Plastic tarps or sheets
  • Water-resistant tape
  • Pressurized canned air or vacuum with nozzle attachment
  • Rubber gloves
  • Mask
  • Trash bags
  • Spray bottles

1. Completely Empty The Refrigerator And Disconnect Parts

If not already done so, unplug the refrigerator. If the refrigerator was running, even though empty, you will need to defrost the freezer.  Put down towels to collect any moisture. 

Allow the refrigerator to come to room temperature before cleaning. Room or warm temperatures will keep cleaning solutions from freezing. Warmer surfaces will also release debris better.

If you have a water supply line that connects to your fridge, turn off the water supply valve before unhooking this part for cleaning.

If the refrigerator has been sitting unplugged with food inside it, you are likely going to find a stinky and moldy mess inside. Consider wearing a mask and rubber gloves to dispose of these items.

Remove all items and parts that can be taken out, such as drawers and shelves.

2. Choose A Cleaning Solution And Odor Absorber

Many of these cleaning solutions are those that you can make at home to effectively clean and deodorize a refrigerator. You can use more than one of these, as needed. 

However, use caution when mixing commercial and natural products. Refer to packaging labels. 

Bleach cannot be mixed with many other things, including vinegar. If using any bleach products, ensure that you completely rinse and remove any residue off of the surfaces before using a different cleaner.  

Additionally, concentrated bleach can turn many white surfaces yellow. The room should also be ventilated when using cleaning solutions.

Cleaning Solutions

Cleaning SolutionRecipeHow To Use It
Warm water and vinegar spray (or lemon or 3% hydrogen peroxide)Mix equal parts of warm tap water and vinegar.Spray onto surfaces and wipe in circular motions. 

Rinse clean.
Baking soda pasteAdd a little bit of water to 1-cup of baking soda until it forms a paste-like consistency.Apply to surfaces in a scrubbing, circular motion.

Rinse clean with water using a sponge or cloth.
Baking soda paste and vinegar sprayUse water with baking soda to make a paste. 

Fill a spray bottle with vinegar.
Apply and scrub paste onto surfaces. 

Spray with vinegar.

Scrub again, and rinse clean.
Dish detergent and warm waterPut 1-teaspoon dish detergent and 1-cup hot tap water in a spray bottle. 

Shake to mix.
Spray onto surfaces and wipe in circular motions. 

Rinse clean.
Bleach sprayUse 1-tablespoon chlorine bleach per gallon of water. 

Pour into a spray bottle.
Use 1-tablespoon chlorine bleach per gallon of water. 

Pour into a spray bottle.
Toothpaste (not the gel variety)Apply to surfaces with a dampened toothbrushApply and scrub paste onto surfaces.  

Rinse clean.
Commercial productsChoose ones that are suitable for use on the various materials that your refrigerator is made out of.These types of products boast their abilities to remove stains, debris, and odors while sanitizing. 

Use according to product instructions.

Odor Absorbers

Kitty litter, baking soda, ground coffee, silica gel tub-sized absorbers, or activated charcoal will effectively absorb odors. You will need enough to fill the bottoms of at least two cookie sheets.

Alternatively, you can use newspapers.  

  1. After following the cleaning instructions below, crumple newspapers up and put them on every shelf inside the refrigerator.  
  2. Put a cup of water on the top shelf, or lightly dampen the newspaper throughout with water. 
  3. Run the appliance for five to six days with the newspapers in place.

Another option is to soak cotton balls in vanilla extract. Place the cotton balls in a small bowl inside the refrigerator and freezer, leaving them inside for a minimum of 24 hours.

You can also preventively use an odor absorber that stays in a small box or bowl in the back of your fridge to get rid of offensive odors from leftover foods.

3. Clean All Parts Of The Refrigerator

When cleaning, do a thorough job, leaving no part untouched to effectively remove any mold, debris, and odors. Preventatively, it is also a good idea to clean your refrigerator every three to six months.

Before cleaning, make sure the refrigerator is unplugged. Ask for assistance in pulling the refrigerator out from the wall, taking care not to tip it or scratch the floor.

Wipe Down Removable Parts

Use a soft cloth or paper towels along with a cleaning solution to wipe down drawers and shelves. Rinse clean. Set them aside to air dry, or buff them dry with a clean towel.

Dust

Dust using a soft cloth to remove particles from the top, back, and bottom parts of the exterior surfaces. Use pressured canned air or a vacuum to remove dust from the fans and other small components.

Wipe Down Exterior And Interior Surfaces

Wipe down the exterior surfaces of the refrigerator with a cleaning solution. Use a toothbrush or small cloth to clean the connecting seams, crevices, and rubber seals of the doors. Wipe down with clean water to rinse off any residue.

Repeat the same process for the interior surfaces, paying attention to any corners, drawer slots, and crevices.

Drying Logistics

Leave the doors open and allow it to completely and thoroughly dry. Repeat cleaning if you notice any musty or moldy odors. Use caution to ensure small children or pets do not play near and get trapped inside a refrigerator.

Other Care

If desired, you can condition any rubber parts and seals with mineral oil.  Apply oil with a soft cloth or cotton ball. 

Mineral oil can also be used to remove sticky residues.  To remove any oily residues, soapy water or rubbing alcohol can effectively remove it.

This video demonstrates how to clean out the refrigerator’s drain, if necessary:

Alternative: Pressure Wash Cleaning

This option will only work if you can get your refrigerator outside.

You should avoid spraying the rear side where the condenser coils and compressor are located, to avoid the risk of damage. Cover them with protective plastic barriers and water-resistant tape.

Spray and scrub the inside with a cleaning solution of your choice. Use the pressure washer or a jet stream option on a hose nozzle to blast it clean. Allow the refrigerator to completely dry before plugging it back in.

4. Plug The Refrigerator Back In And Deodorize

Once everything is thoroughly dry and clean, you can use the refrigerator again.

What To Do

  1. Put the shelves and drawers back in place.
  2. Plug the refrigerator back in. If necessary, reconnect and turn on the water supply.
  3. With assistance slide it back into place against the wall.
  4. Fill at least two cookie sheets with your odor absorber of choice. Place at least one cookie sheet in both the freezer and refrigerator compartments. Do not put any food items into the refrigerator yet.
  5. Run the refrigerator for two to three days with these trays in place. 
  6. After time has passed, remove the trays and discard the odor absorber. If odor remains, repeat the cleaning and odor absorbing process. 

Once you are all done with this process you can use the refrigerator as intended. 

If you are planning to be away for an extended time, you can put trays with odor absorbers inside an unplugged and empty refrigerator. Prop the doors open slightly with towels to allow for air circulation.

If you cannot remove offensive odors, it is possible that spoiled food has gotten into an internal part. At this point, you may need a service professional to assist you.

In Conclusion

When a refrigerator sits for an extended period of time, it can build up odors, mold, and mildew. To clean it, scrub off mold and debris with a DIY or commercial cleaner. Absorb any odors with ground coffee or kitty litter, then let the refrigerator dry completely before using it again.

Lisa Burlison

Lisa is a freelance blogger, literacy specialist, teacher, and self-published author with a vast DIY experience. When she’s not writing for PlumbJoe, Lisa enjoys testing homemade cleaners and doing repairs around her home. Her other hobbies include birding and bicycling.

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