Ideally, refrigerators should prevent unpleasant odors, not cause them. If your refrigerator smells, a good starting point is to give the refrigerator a deep clean. If the odor isn’t caused by something inside the refrigerator, the refrigerator’s drip pan may be causing the odor. The refrigerator’s condenser fan and coils can also cause the refrigerator to smell, as can food that has ended up underneath or behind the refrigerator.
Read on to locate and fix your refrigerator’s odor problem.
1. The refrigerator needs a deep clean
It should go without saying that a smelly refrigerator usually means it needs to be cleaned. The interior of the refrigerator is primarily made of plastic, and plastic absorbs odors. If the refrigerator is not regularly cleaned and emptied of spoiled food, it is most likely the reason the refrigerator smells.
Deep cleaning a refrigerator requires the removal of all the food and beverages, and so it gives you a good opportunity to throw out food that has spoiled or identify the food that is causing the unpleasant odor.
Once the food and beverages are removed, take out the refrigerator trays and drawers and wash them with dish soap and warm water. If you are concerned about the dish soap scent being absorbed by food in the refrigerator, baking soda can be used to clean the refrigerator instead (see below).
While the trays and drawers are drying or soaking, the refrigerator’s door seal (gasket) should also be wiped down. Dish soap and warm water can also be used to clean the door seal. The refrigerator door seal is often a place where mold forms, usually underneath where you cannot easily see it. If you peel back the door seal, you may be surprised by what you find.
Before returning the refrigerator trays and drawers to the refrigerator, clean the interior panels with dish soap and warm water (or vinegar or baking soda).
If you encounter stubborn stains or mold while cleaning the refrigerator, either distilled white vinegar or baking soda can be used to remove them.
If using white vinegar, it is best to put some vinegar into a spray bottle and spray it onto the surfaces that need cleaning. The vinegar should be left for a few minutes after spraying, and it should not be diluted with water.
Baking soda is particularly good at removing odors, and it can also be effective for removing stubborn mold. If using baking soda, it can be mixed with water to create a cleaning solution. If mold or food residue is caked-on, baking soda can be applied and left for ten minutes to break it down (if leaving baking soda inside the refrigerator, leave the door open).
A baking soda cleaning solution can be made with two tablespoons of baking soda and 1 quart of hot water. The cleaning solution can be used with a cloth or scrubbing brush. After cleaning, the refrigerator surfaces should be dried with a clean towel.
If mold is the problem, chlorine bleach does a great job of removing it. However, it can make surfaces turn yellow, and it is unsafe to use around food and food surfaces, so it is best to avoid it when cleaning the refrigerator.
2. The drip pan is dirty
Not all refrigerators have drip pans, but if yours does, mold, food debris, and dead insects may be causing it to smell. If deep cleaning the refrigerator has failed to remove the smell, the drip pan is your next best bet (if you have one).
If you are unsure if your refrigerator has a drip pan, you can check its manual or look for a small pipe that runs down the back of the refrigerator; however, the pipe may be internal and hidden from view.
If the refrigerator has a drip pan, it is usually located behind the refrigerator’s rear access panel, close to the compressor. If it is not located there, look for a grille at the base of the refrigerator that can be removed; the drip pan is likely behind the grille.
Before you access the drip pan, make sure to disconnect the power to the refrigerator. If your refrigerator is connected to a water line, you will likely need to turn the water off and disconnect the water inlet line as well.
Depending on how dirty the drip pan is and where it is located, you may be able to clean it with a paper towel without having to remove it. If you need to remove the pan to clean it, look for screws or tabs that secure it, or check your manual for drip pan removal instructions.
Once you have removed the drip pan, clean it with dish soap and warm water. If the drip pan is particularly dirty, consider replacing the drip pan as they are relatively inexpensive.
3. The refrigerator temperature is not set correctly
Strange smells from the refrigerator may be caused by the temperature not being set correctly. Most refrigerators require the temperature to be set between 36 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit. If you cannot specifically set the temperature, turning the knob clockwise usually makes it colder.
You may need to try adjusting the temperature to see if it solves the refrigerator’s odor issue. If the refrigerator temperature is not regulated properly, a trained technician may be needed to diagnose and replace the component that has likely failed.
4. Dirty condenser coils or a defective condenser fan
If you located the drip pan, you likely also found the condenser coils and condenser fan, as they should be located in the same place—usually behind the refrigerator’s rear access panel.
The condenser coils can be cleaned with a vacuum attachment or a condenser coil cleaning kit, which can be purchased from hardware stores.
If the condenser fan is not working, it should be replaced to ensure the refrigerator can maintain the proper temperatures and to prevent the unpleasant odors that a defective fan can cause. If you are unsure if the condenser fan is defective, the motor can be tested with a multimeter for continuity. If there is no continuity, it means the fan motor needs to be replaced.
5. Something around the refrigerator is causing the smell
If the solutions above have failed to resolve the odor issue, there may be something underneath, behind, or around the refrigerator that is causing it. If you haven’t already, pull the refrigerator out and see what you find. Hopefully, it’s not a mouse!