“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.” — Edward Thomas
Full-timing friends of ours took off for a week away from their RV. On returning home to their hot Southern California RV, they were nearly bowled over by a scent that would cause CSI types to say, “Smell that decomp?” Yep, in their absence the refrigerator decided to take a vacation too, and the odor of rotting meat and other foods was—to put it politely—simply overpowering.
Perhaps you’ve had the dubious honor of trying to clean up after such a mess. Or (perish the thought) such a task may yet lie ahead in your RVing future. This month we will take up the subject of smelly RV refrigerators. And as a bonus, we’ll throw in a few tips on keeping your RV fridge cool during these warmer months.
Getting the Stink Out
RV refrigerators, just like the ones in stix-n-brix homes, have a plastic “liner” that serves as the vault area for your food. It’s a good substance for a refrigerator as it is lightweight and easy to clean. The problem is, plastic has a memory for bad odors. You don’t even have to have a cooling system failure to help your plastic liner memory score high on the Mensa test, just put something inside your chiller—like chili—that has a strong pungency, and even when the food itself is gone, the memory lingers.
So what’s the trick to cleaning up a bad mess? First rule: thoroughly clean up the mess. Put on rubber gloves, and get the rotten stuff out. If the smell is so bad you’re afraid you’ll lose your lunch, here’s another tip: Get a dust mask, put a touch of Vick’s VapoRub above your lip, and put the face mask on. The VapoRub will overpower nearly any foul odor, and you should be able to proceed with cleanup.
After the rottenness is removed, thoroughly clean the refrigerator liner and shelves. Some recommend ammonia water; others say that a strong solution of baking soda water works better. Regardless, make sure you go over everything you can.
Does the odor linger? Sad to say, it probably does. What’s to be done? Depending on the severity of the problem, one refrigeration tech we interviewed suggested simply propping open the refrigerator door and shooting a fan-powered air stream into the box. In our friends’ case, this required a temporary move out, as the odor was so frightful the RV had to be evacuated.
Perhaps stronger measures are required. Here’s a list of substances you can try that may be helpful in “killing” the odor:
Coffee grounds: No, not the ones left in the pot after you’ve perked up a batch. Toss a layer of unused coffee grounds in a pan and toss it in the closed refrigerator. The odor of the grounds themselves will linger after they are removed, but should soon dissipate.
Baking Soda: Using a similar approach as to the grounds, a thick layer of baking soda in a pan may help.
Charcoal briquettes: Charcoal has long been used as an air purifier. Put a few barbecue briquettes on the shelves and shut the door.
Newspaper and bread: Crumple up some of today’s bad news and toss inside the box. Add a few slices of bread. Tomorrow, you’ll probably want to change them all out for new.
Baking soda and vanilla: It is said to be the nuclear bomb of refrigerator odor killers. Take a half-cup of baking soda, stir in two tablespoons of pure vanilla extract. Leave it in a suitable container inside the closed refrigerator.
How long will it take to get rid of the odor? Like Mom and Dad said, “That depends.” How much of the odor was absorbed into the plastic, the nature of the plastic, the sensitivity of your nose, blah, blah, blah. It could take several days of concentrated effort to really scrub the air in your cooler box. Don’t hesitate to “change out” your cleansing substances every day or two to allow fresh fighters to work on the enemy.
Our friend the RV technician said that in his 20 years of experience, he’s only found one odor that couldn’t be effectively removed from an RV refrigerator: dead clams. Let this be a lesson to you! Leave the clams in the sand!
Hot Tips for Cool Refrigerators
A few things to keep in mind to keep your RV refrigerator working efficiently:
• Turn the refrigerator on 24 hours before putting food in.
• Pre-chill food before you put it in the RV refrigerator.
• Don’t stuff it. An RV refrigerator likes to have room for air flow around its contents. An in-the-refrigerator cooling fan really helps.
• Open door. Take mental picture. Close door. Decide what you want. Open door. Remove item. Close door. Whenever you open the door, cold air falls out of the box. The longer the door is open, the harder the refrigerator works.
• Keep the refrigerator level when turned on. It works better. Off-level operation can damage or destroy the costly cooling unit at the heart of all RV refrigerators.
• When possible, park your rig so the refrigerator side of the RV is shaded.
• Keep it ventilated. Don’t block the outside wall refrigerator vent door. Make sure nothing is blocking the roof level vent above the fridge.
Enjoy summer! In the Northwest, you’ll soon be back to winter!
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.