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Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

Illustration by Kip Aoki

Who knows what evil lurks in your
vegetable bin, what slimy secrets hide
behind the milk, or in the dusty
depths of the condenser coils?

The Refrigerator
Monster knows...

By Betty Shimabukuro


On Sunday, because it was Halloween and I needed a good scare, I cleaned the underside of my refrigerator.

That was freaky.

If you imagine that you keep a pretty clean house -- when's the last time you checked out those condenser coils under your refrigerator? Have you ever even looked down there? Have you ever even thought about it?

The coils collect heat generated when the refrigerator cools itself. Unfortunately, they also collect grime.

"If you don't remove all that stuff, it just traps all the heat that's in the condenser coils and it can't dispense it into the room," says Carolyn Verweyst of Whirlpool Home Appliances. "You have to let that refrigerator breathe through the front."


Bullet The point: To give your Thanksgiving turkey a nice, clean place to defrost
Bullet The date: Nov. 17

Need help?

Bullet Send for a free brochure: Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, 2000 N. M-63 Maildrop 4300, Benton Harbor, Mich. 49022
Bullet On the Internet: or email the doctor of refrigeratorology,
Bullet Call: (888)-CLEAN-OUT, after Nov. 15

Whirlpool is pushing for a national holiday: Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, a week before Thanksgiving. The spirit of the holiday requires that you sanitize, inside and out, removing decrepit food, unidentifiable masses in the vegetable crisper, mold spores, etc., before you haul in the turkey.

"We want you to throw out last year's leftovers and make room for all the new stuff you're going to buy for this wonderful holiday," Verweyst says.

She acknowledges it's an uphill battle. Back when refrigerators had to be defrosted, you pretty much had to wipe them down while going through the drippy defrost period. "When we got no-frost refrigerators it's like they became self-clean," Verweyst says. "That was the end of cleaning."

So let's go back to talking about me.

Kitty Drew submitted this winning photo of her 15-year-old
refrigerator with the quote: "Gray mold regularly climbs its way
up the walls.Water drips from the inside, making stalactites in
humid darkness ... coating many containers with ice or slime,
depending on the shim of the motor."

Refrigerator manufacturers recommend vacuuming off those condenser coils at least twice a year, more often if you have pets. "That thing just sucks in the dog hairs," Verweyst says. We have a dog who spent the summer shedding hair like it was her main mission in life. It was time.

Our refrigerator is fairly new, maybe 2-1/2 years, which means my cleanup project was probably easier than the average. And still, what a horror.

My original plan was to remove quantities of dust and dog hair and actually weigh them -- in the interests of concise reporting -- but when I saw that stuff, there was no way I was going to touch it with my bare hands.

Think of cotton candy, only sludge-colored, clinging to every surface like a blanket, and when you touch it, it sort of exhales. The only cure is the longest nozzle attachment of the vacuum cleaner. Of course, that only reaches so far, so then you have to get a long, stiff brush -- I found one in the garage, apparently used by my husband for some garage-related purpose -- and jam that way in the back between the coils. It comes out covered with muck, which you then vacuum off, because it sticks like glue and God forbid you should actually have to touch it.

Then you have to reach in and pull out something called the defrost pan, which is slimy and dank and must be dumped out and washed. You must also wash the grille that you removed to get to the coils. It's covered with a sticky form of the cotton candy. Warm, soapy water is generally enough, or a mild cleanser and perhaps a brush. Once upon a time, this thing was white. Your goal is to return it to that color.

"Some people call it the rotter,
not the crisper drawer, because
they put things in there
and it rots."

Carolyn Verweyst


Of course, the inside of the refrigerator is another matter. Verweyst, a veteran of 20 years at Whirlpool, including a stint as product manager for refrigerators, is known as the company's Doctor of Refrigeratorology. As such, she chaired the company's recent search for America's grungiest refrigerator. "We saw some of the most gross things I've ever seen in my life," she says. For example:

Bullet The man with the single-door, manual-defrost refrigerator that he'd never bothered to defrost. "Under the freezer, the entire shelf was completely one Titantic ice block. There's no telling how long that ice had been growing. They lost one whole shelf to that Titanic ice thing."

Bullet Hunters using the refrigerator as a morgue. "People do tell us how they go hunting and kill some animal and they keep them in the freezer or refrigerator until they get the money to take them to the taxidermist."

Bullet The lady who made a video to show off her mother-in-law's overcrowded, neglected refrigerator -- "She opened it up and we all gasped" -- and then revealed that her mother-in-law had five refrigerators, all the same.

The winner was Kitty Drew of Melbourne Beach, Fla., who submitted a photograph of a refrigerator covered in mold and rust, dripping with moisture and packed so tight that bottles were held in the door compartments with bungee cords. "Carpenter ants founder in curdling spilled milk near stray grapes in primordial ooze at the bottom..." Drew wrote in submitting her entry.

She won a kitchen makeover, including a new refrigerator, which hopefully she'll care for better.

All of Drew's problems could have been tamed with a little preventive maintenance, Verweyst says.

Her own routine is to sweep through the refrigerator every week before going grocery shopping. She throws out old food and wipes down the shelves. As a side benefit, this allows her to check her supplies and compile an accurate grocery list.

She also advises cutting back on the bottles of salad dressing and jars of mustard you allow to accumulate. "The one thing that we saw over and over and over is that refrigerators were so jammed, there was not one space could you even put an apple in."

A refrigerator needs air circulation to work efficiently (that's why the shelves don't go all the way to the back, so stop trying to shove things against the wall).

Bottom line, Verweyst says: Keeping old food in a dirty refrigerator is just not healthy. Throw it out; clean it up. "When you spend all that money for groceries it's like an investment. ... You hate to buy clean, fresh food and put it next to something that's old and awful."

How to slay the
refrigerator monster


Bullet Throw out mystery containers, old food, rotten produce. Check bottles and jars for expiration dates.

Bullet Turn the refrigerator off, unplug it, and take out all removable parts.

Bullet Wash glass shelves and plastic parts in warm detergent solution, rinse and wipe dry. Do not put either glass or plastic in hot water; they may crack, especially if cold.

Bullet Wash interior walls with a solution of 2 tablespoons baking soda to 1 quart warm water. Rinse and dry. Wipe down jars, bottles and containers.

Bullet Wash exterior with detergent solution; rinse and dry. A creamy appliance wax or even car wax may be used to protect the exterior and make spots easier to wipe off.

Bullet Clean door gasket with detergent solution; rinse and dry.

Bullet Never use cleaning waxes, spray-on cleaners or bleach on any parts. They may damage gaskets or leave dangerous residue. Don't use abrasives like scouring powder or scouring pads, as these plastics are easily scratched.

Bullet Vacuum condenser coils, found behind the front grille under the refrigerator. Use a long, stiff brush to reach the back. While under there, wash the plastic pan that collects water from automatic defrosting.


Bullet Pour a box of baking soda onto a pan and place it on a shelf of the fridge. Activated charcoal or freshly ground coffee placed inside for several days also does the trick.


Bullet Wipe up spills promptly to avoid staining and odors.
Bullet Tightly wrap or cover stored foods and remove foods before they spoil.
Bullet Do not cram refrigerator so full that cold air can't circulate freely.
Bullet Don't let moisture accumulate; it attracts odor and promotes the growth of mold.

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