Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Be very afraid

Your refrigerator -- inside,
outside and underneath --
can be very scary territory

» Weekend refrigerator maintenance

The other day, my toaster oven caught on fire. It was doing nothing more demanding than toasting a couple of taco shells when suddenly it was like a mini-fireplace. Flames, smoke, taco shell ashes.

Disaster was averted -- the fire put itself out -- and the appliance was immediately relocated to the garbage can, so no autopsy was performed. But that's not the point anyway.

The point is my refrigerator.

Once the toaster oven was gone, its corner needed to be cleaned. Adrenaline being high due to the fire, the wipe-down was fairly aggressive and progressed laterally across the counter until reaching the refrigerator. It's a 200-pound polar bear that when you're in a cleaning frenzy seems to call out, "Well, what about me?"

People don't clean their refrigerators often enough, and do you know why? Because it's a big, dirty job that takes all day and messes up the whole kitchen.

Whirlpool Home Appliances has been trying to establish Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day during the week before Thanksgiving, the idea being that you should have a spotless fridge before you bring the turkey home.

No offense, but this is a dumb idea. The way time compresses between Halloween and Christmas, who can set aside an entire day to muck out an appliance that's been working fine for a decade?

Well, OK, it won't be working fine for much longer if you don't clean it sometime. The standard recommendation is to turn it off, unplug it, take everything out, pull it away from the wall and clean from the floor underneath to the very top and everything inside and in between. Every six months.

Ha ha.

While swabbing the decks the other day, I came up with a much better concept of regular maintenance that I call the Clean One Shelf Every Saturday Plan. It's outlined below. You can even cut it out and put it on ... your refrigerator!

The plan has five steps. The first time you make your way through the list, you might want to tackle the first four steps all at once. But if you prefer your housekeeping in small bites, spread them out. Step 5 is the one best divided among Saturdays: You empty and clean just one shelf at a time.

Commit to this plan every weekend, and it will take a couple of months to get to the last shelf. Then you start over at Step 1.

Now, this may sound a little like daily flossing: We know it's healthy, but we don't always do what's good for us. Consider the rewards, though: a bright, clean refrigerator. And the alternative: When the fridge is dirty, that grime is touching your food.


Weekend refrigerator

Keeping the mold and grime away from your food, one step at a time. Perform one cleaning task per weekend. Step 5 will take several weekends to accomplish.

Clean underneath

Turn off and unplug the refrigerator (the food will be fine inside for several hours if you don't open the door). Remove the plastic grid beneath the door, vacuum it clean and wash it down. Using a long nozzle attachment, vacuum out all the dust, pet hairs and such that cling to the condenser coils and decrease the cooling power of your fridge. Use a long, stiff brush to remove the grime you can't reach with the vacuum (vacuum off the brush as you go). Empty the defrost pan, which is on the freezer side of side-by-side models. You'll see lots of gross, grimy stuff, but you'll feel so triumphant when it's over.

The waterworks

If you have an ice dispenser set in the door of your freezer, it's a mold magnet. While on the floor (this is where you'll be while accomplishing Step 1), look up into the dispenser. It's probably spotted with black mold. Imagine -- you drink water that comes out of there. Wipe it down with a mild cleaning solution, using cotton swabs to get into the tight spots.

The floor

Carefully pull the refrigerator away from the wall. If you've never done this, the floor beneath is sure to be impressively grimy. Plus, you may find a cookie sheet or a spatula that you thought was lost forever. Beware: If you have an icemaker and haven't moved your fridge in years, you might disengage the pipe that brings fresh water into the freezer. If this happens, shut off the water valve and call for help. For your neglect, you deserve to be without ice for awhile.

The exterior

Remove all the magnets and other paraphernalia. Take everything off the top. Wipe it all down. Try to reduce the magnet clutter when you put things back. To make things easier next time, line the top of the fridge with waxed paper (tape down the corners). Next time you clean, just change the paper.

The interior

If you clean everything at once, you'll have to empty the refrigerator and find someplace to keep all the food cold while you work. A better alternative is to remove the contents of just one shelf or bin at a time; you should be able to put it back before anything starts to deteriorate. Remove the shelf and shut the door. Wash the shelf. Throw out all the bad food. Before putting things back, wipe down the interior walls around that shelf. A clean towel at the bottom of vegetable bins will make cleanup easier next time. This should take only about 20 minutes out of your day, even if you do all the door shelves at one time.

Helpful cleaning tools

Vacuum cleaner with long nozzle attachment; long, stiff brush; disposable cleansing wipes or rags; cotton swabs; mild cleanser (do not use abrasives).

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