Thursday, September 21, 2023


How to kill lingering RV refrigerator smells

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. Clip and save this story—maybe under your refrigerator door magnet.

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.” —Edward Thomas

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.

How to clean up a bad mess in the refrigerator

So what’s the trick to cleaning up a smelly 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. Yeah, it’s the same trick that novice murder scene investigators use to keep their cookies in place.

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.

Substances that may help “kill” the refrigerator odor

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 place 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 does the process take?

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!

Do you have any tips that have worked for you to remove stinky smells from your fridge? Please enlighten us in the comments below.


Want cold food & drinks? Keep your RV refrigerator happy!

##RVDT1594 ##RVDT2202

Russ and Tiña De Maris
Russ and Tiña De Maris
Russ and Tiña went from childhood tent camping to RVing in the 1980s when the ground got too hard. They've been tutored in the ways of RVing (and RV repair) by a series of rigs, from truck campers, to a fifth-wheel, and several travel trailers. In addition to writing scores of articles on RVing topics, they've also taught college classes for folks new to RVing. They authored the book, RV Boondocking Basics.


  1. I don’t leave anything in my rv fridge. When we get home, everything comes out (both the fridge and freezer) then turn it off and wipe all the inside down and leave both doors open. It don’t take that long to re-stock it before you roll out again. I still keep it plugged up to shore power, I’m just not dealing with fridge issues.

  2. Thank you! Wish that I had read this in September 2019. We left a portable freezer (fits in one of the RV storage bays) full of frozen ground beef at home while we did a 4-month trip to Alaska and back. The freezer lost power days (weeks?) before our return and the odor was nauseating upon our return.We were not favorites of our garbage service for months even though we double-bagged the rancid meat, which was still in the heavy plastic wrap used by the packing house. I used white vinegar and water to clean the plastic and copious amounts of baking soda to try to remove the odor. Ultimately we left the freezer outside in the sun for a few weeks. The odor isn’t detectable any longer, but I’m sure the battle to remove the odor would have gone better, faster with your advice. Thanks again!

  3. Off topic; we use Vics Vapor Rub A LOT in the fire department, especially on medical calls. It’s great for when going into a smelly environment.

  4. We have used charcoal to a freezer that the power was off for a while. We loaded the bottom and shut the lid, after a couple days, changed it out and put new in and it cleared it up.

  5. A couple of years ago we came home from an extended RV trip out West to find our kitchen refridgerator had died. Talk about smell!!! There were even maggots in the freezer. How did they get there? My wife had to go outside and I had to empty the entire freezer and fridge into heavy duty contractor plastic bags. After emptying it I duct-taped the doors closed and a friend helped me move the fridge outside to await disposal. The smell lingered in my nostrils and literally the next morning I vomited so hard I tore something in my right eye. The replacement fridge is wi-fi connected so I can monitor it when we are away.

  6. Lost a half a bottle of Zinfandel the last trip inside our residential refrigerator in the motorhome. Disassembled just about everything in the fridge for a good cleaning and then bleach solution. Then another wipe down with with bleach wipes. Left some baking soda in there. I noticed last week, 6 weeks after the cleaning, most of the odor was gone. The fridge has a sort of an earthy, new product smell. With more time, maybe the baking soda will help.


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