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How to clean and maintain your refrigerator

Maintaining your fridge means improved efficiency, better hygiene and more space

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    woman cleaning inside of a refrigerator

    Fridges are an essential part of modern life, and like all appliances that are designed to make life easier, they need some routine maintenance. One of the biggest parts of fridge maintenance is keeping your unit clean inside and out.

    I’ve bought, sold, fixed and cleaned a whole lot of fridges, so most of the following insights come from my own experiences. Modern fridges last an average of 10 years or so before biting the dust, but you can easily get more out of yours by maintaining it properly. Learning how to clean and maintain your refrigerator will not only help it last longer but keep your food fresher and help you save on electricity costs, too.

    Key insights

    • Fridges need deep interior and exterior cleaning at least once a year.
    • Dust in the wrong places (like on the coils) can seriously hinder your fridge’s efficiency.
    • Diligence with fridge maintenance makes your fridge and the food in it less likely to go bad early or become contaminated.

    How to clean a refrigerator

    To tackle this job properly, you’ll need a cleaning toothbrush, some all-purpose spray cleaner, a box of baking soda, a fresh dish sponge and a clean microfiber cloth. If your fridge is stainless steel, you’ll also need some dedicated stainless steel cleaner and some paper towels.

    Start by unplugging your fridge or deactivating the cooling mechanism. Remove all food items from your fridge and place them on your counter. Decide what to keep and what to throw away. If you have a chest freezer, temporarily transferring your frozen food there is a good idea. Now it’s time to start cleaning.

    Remove all shelves and drawers

    Carefully pull all shelves, drawers and compartments out of your fridge and place them on your counter or kitchen table. Spray them thoroughly with an all-purpose cleaner, then sprinkle on a little baking soda to help deodorize. Let the mixture of cleaner spray and baking soda sit as you move to the next steps.

    Spray and wipe the inside of the fridge

    Spray and wipe all flat surfaces inside your fridge, making sure each area is wet before passing the microfiber cloth over it. Pay special attention to any stains or marks.

    Clean the nooks and crannies

    Use your cleaning toothbrush laden with cleaner spray to access all the hard-to-reach areas inside your fridge, removing any dirt, debris and food particles you find there. These areas include the spaces at the back of the fridge that don’t normally see the light of day along with the grooves that house your shelves and drawers.

    Clean the door gaskets

    Use your cleaning toothbrush and some more all-purpose cleaner to gently scrub all the door gaskets, removing any bits of food and dirt trapped along their length.

    Clean the shelves and drawers

    Return to the shelves and drawers on your counter, using a fresh, dampened dish sponge to scrub them thoroughly, one at a time, until they’re perfectly clean. Then rinse any remaining cleaner and baking soda away, dry them, and gingerly replace them in your fridge.

    Clean the exterior

    For plastic fridges, use the same all-purpose cleaner and microfiber cloth to clean the outside. If your cloth is dirty, swap it out for a fresh one or switch to a paper towel. Stainless steel fridges clean up better with dedicated stainless steel cleaner spray. Either way, once everything sparkles, you can return your food to your freshly cleaned fridge and switch it back on.

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    How to clean refrigerator coils

    There’s more to cleaning your fridge than just wiping the shelves and drawers. All fridges have condenser coils underneath or behind them, as well as evaporator coils inside the fridge, and these need cleaning, too.

    Evaporator coils transport condensed liquid refrigerant while absorbing heat from the air, turning the refrigerant to gas and producing coldness in the process. Condenser coils disperse the heat from inside your fridge.

    If you fail to clean coils, they’ll operate far less efficiently, forcing your fridge to work much harder to maintain temperature.
    • Unplug your fridge and pull it away from the wall so the area of floor it normally occupies is completely exposed.
    • Use a vacuum to thoroughly clean the floor normally covered by your fridge. If the condenser coils are underneath, this dirt will hinder their function.
    • Remove the rear access panel at the bottom of your fridge to access the evaporator coils.
    • Vacuum all surface dust from both types of coils using a regular vacuum brush attachment. Reach the brush attachment as far around the coils as you can, but don’t try to force it between them.
    • Use a long, thin coil cleaning brush to dislodge dust from between the coils. Be sure to extend the brush into each space between coils so you don’t miss any debris.
    • Once you’ve dislodged all the dust using the coil brush, fit your vacuum with a flexible crevice attachment to clean the hard-to-reach areas.

    How to maintain a refrigerator

    Like all household appliances, fridges need some periodic TLC to keep serving you well. Want to help your fridge keep your food fresh for as long as possible, last as long as possible and use as little electricity as it can? Follow these tips and it’ll go a long way toward all of the above.

    Deep clean regularly

    Even if the inside of your fridge looks clean at a glance, I can tell you from ample personal experience that it’s amazing how much dirt and old food you miss until you do a deep clean. Don’t stop with the inside of the fridge, either. Clean the coils at least once a year to keep things running efficiently.

    Keep an optimal temperature

    Even though many modern fridges have built-in digital thermometers, I always like to keep a regular thermometer in my fridge, and another in my freezer. Ideally, your fridge should hover around 37 degrees Fahrenheit to keep food fresh, while your freezer should sit around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Make sure the fridge is well stocked

    Take regular inventory of what’s in your fridge, and which foods are nearing their expiration date. It’s easy to miss foods that have gone bad if you don’t take a good look every two weeks or so. Besides that, your fridge works better when it has something to keep cold.

    Change the air filter

    All modern fridges are fitted with replaceable air filters to keep airborne bacteria and other contaminants off your food while allowing fresh air to flow inside. Change your filter every six months or so to ensure it’s doing its job.

    Don’t overload the freezer

    While it may be tempting to stuff as much frozen food into your fridge’s freezer as it will hold, doing so can compromise function in a big way. Cold air from the freezer goes through an evaporator before entering the fridge. Stuff too much food in the freezer and that air won’t be able to circulate properly, meaning both the fridge and freezer will struggle to maintain proper temperatures.

    Clean under your fridge

    Even if your fridge’s condenser coils are located at its rear and not underneath, it’s still a good idea to pull your fridge away from the wall at least once a year to clean the area of floor it occupies. Chances are you’ll find more than one item you thought you’d lost.

    Defrost your freezer regularly

    It’s a bit of a headache, but emptying and defrosting your fridge’s freezer section once a year is a great way to keep it running at peak efficiency. Once frost builds up thicker than one-fourth of an inch or so, your fridge will be forced to use considerably more electricity to keep things cold.

    Check the drip pan

    Some fridges have a shallow pan underneath to catch excess moisture created during the condensing process. If your fridge has one, check it every six months, dumping any stinky water you find.

    Common refrigerator problems

    Even the best-designed fridges occasionally have problems. Here are some of the most common ones I’ve seen, along with their causes and solutions.

    Fridge not staying cold

    This could have a number of causes, including dirty coils, failing door gaskets, an overstuffed freezer or a broken compressor. Only the compressor issue warrants calling in a professional. The rest you can easily fix yourself.

    Fridge leaking water

    Start by checking your drip tray. If it’s not overflowing, check the water supply line if your fridge has a water dispenser. Tighten or change it if need be. If that’s not the issue, your leakage could be caused by frost buildup triggered by a clogged freezer defroster drain. Hot water directed at the drain usually fixes this.

    Fridge cycling on and off constantly

    If your fridge kicks on and off more often than it should, start by checking the state of your condenser coils. If they’re dirty it could explain why your fridge is overworking. Clean the coils and you should be good to go. If dirty coils aren’t to blame, an internal part could be failing, and it’s best to call in a pro.

    Fridge freezing food

    If your fridge is acting more like a freezer, your thermostat setting is probably to blame. Try simply setting it lower. If this has no effect, chances are the thermostat itself is failing and needs replacement by an appliance technician.

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      Bottom line

      If you’ve made it this far, you might be thinking that proper fridge cleaning and maintenance sounds like a ton of work. That’s probably why many folks don’t bother. The thing is, I can tell you from experience that it’s not nearly as troublesome as it seems. The effort’s worth it, too.

      If general hygiene, keeping food fresh, and saving electricity matter to you, you should definitely be cleaning and maintaining your fridge regularly. Yearly deep cleans are a great place to start, as is familiarizing yourself with common fridge problems so you can solve them. Bottom line — a little fridge maintenance effort goes a long way toward better food, longer appliance lifespan and less energy waste.

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