Monday, August 8, 2022


How to kill lingering RV refrigerator smells

By Russ and Tiña De Maris
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 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. 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!



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1 year ago

Using an ozone generator worked when these other methods failed.

Robert Spencer
1 year ago

Cat litter works great

Gordy B
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Spencer

Unused I hope !! LOL.

1 year ago

Baking soda refrigerator box…..

RV Staff(@rvstaff)
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

Jeff, “Big Brother” is watching. 😯 We didn’t do that to you, but here’s a link to some of the bamboo charcoal air freshener/deodorizer product that we’ve advertised before: 😀 —Diane at

2 years ago

I have found that Eco friendly breathe green charcoal purifying bags help remove odors, bacteria, harmful pollutants, allergens, mold, mildew, and excess moisture. They can be found that

2 years ago
Reply to  Rita

You want to hang “snake oil” charcoal, buy from Amazon to save $$$.
With some charcoal hanging in a corner, HOW does it remove all these items you suggest? No where have I read that charcoal is a magnet to all/any of these items, except maybe moisture, now THAT I believe it could absorb naturally but how much? Surely not enough to make a difference. Using an electricity-eating dehumidifier and taking out a half to one gallon of H2O from the air may lower the humidity level a few points. Not some solitary package hanging in a corner, NEVER.
Now if you use these bags as a filter in a fan forced contraption, I could believe it would remove various particles, same as a high end pleated filter from 3M.

Stay cool

2 years ago
Reply to  WEB

Yup, been using the Charcoal Bags for 2 years now. In the Fridge and in the RV hanging on the wall as well.

You can buy these things in multi packs via Amazon or other sites.

I use the Coconut Charcoal ones!

Good product!

2 years ago

I’d be at least equally interested in knowing further about the fridge failure. If it was a residential one there probably would be no preventative, but if an rv type- it should probably have been prevented.

2 years ago

Vinegar and baking soda.

5 years ago

Straight vanilla extract wiped onto the plastic walls of the refrigerator. I’ve been doing this for over 50 years to ice chests.

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