Can I clean an old, unused fridge?
May 15, 2021 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I have a fridge in my garage that has sat empty and unusued for over a year. Is it possible to clean and use it, or is it a pile of recyclable material?

About 6 years ago, my mother gifted me a very nice fridge, because she couldn't fit it in her new house. I put it in my garage and plugged it in, and it hummed along keeping some drinks cold for about 4 years. It's nicer than my fridge, but my fridge had the advantage of being, y'know, already there, I had no reason to replace it.

A little under two years ago, I realized I was paying for a fridge to run 24/7 to keep some drinks cold, no more than I could fit in my main fridge. It was ridiculous, so I took everything out, cleaned it (not thoroughly), unplugged it, let it dry overnight, and closed it up. A few weeks later, my mother said it was now garbage, since an unplugged fridge will mold horribly and can't be recovered. I kicked myself, but no big deal, I didn't need it. I don't have a dolly, so there it has sat for over a year.

Yesterday, our 12-year-old main fridge broke. I'm not sure what happened, but it can't get below 50 degrees. I could call out a repairman, and I might, but I also realized I have a nicer, newer fridge in the garage. I went out and opened it up; looked like I left it, and smelled like enclosed plastic, nothing that offended my senses.

Do you know if there's any truth to what my mother said, or can you recover a fridge that's been unplugged for a long time?
posted by Pacrand to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
It's probably fine. The big thing is to make sure it's reasonably clean before you shut it down, and then probably give it a light bleaching or cleaning when starting it up. We do this every year with a fridge that is kept in an unconditioned area, it gets shut down in mid fall and usually doesn't get turned back on until early summer. If there's nothing to feed anything that might want to grow, I don't see where any significant mold would come into the picture, certainly nothing that couldn't be handled through surface cleaning.
posted by jgreco at 2:43 PM on May 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

If it works it's fine. Even if it had smelled there are things you can do to recover.

[Usually the must destroy after sitting is only if food went rotten inside. Even then there are things you can do.]
posted by Mitheral at 2:44 PM on May 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's fine. Like, if it was moldy you would see mold, and you don't,'s fine. If it has a water dispenser or icemaker you'll want to look on youtube for instructions on clearing out those probably gunky lines before you consume their product, but you left the rest of it clean and it's still clean and that's normal. Visually inspect the door seals, give 'em a little clean if you find some mold there, but it sounds like everything was pretty dry when you closed it up.

I'm entirely baffled where she thinks this mold is. Refrigerant doesn't mold, and clean dry surfaces don't mold. Uncleaned fridges left closed up can definitely get nasty but it's not by magic, there's cause and effect at work there.

The worst that's going to happen is it won't work anymore, but as long as it hasn't been knocked around I'd be shocked if it didn't work just fine. It is hard for an empty fridge to cool quickly so if you do have some low-stakes stuff - bottled water, soda - you can put in there to help it along that would be useful, but I suspect you'll have a 38-degree fridge in 12 hours or less if you plug it in now.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:46 PM on May 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

Think about it this way-- you would be unable to buy a secondhand fridge or even a new fridge of last year's model if sitting around in an unconditioned warehouse or garage ruined them. It should be fine.

The only thing I would be concerned about is the ice maker/water dispenser if it's got one. Those can get gnarly if it sits with moisture in the system, but you can either just not use that part or replace it for less than the cost of the fridge.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:08 PM on May 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Depending upon the climate in your area you may have to evict some insects or spiders. Yes it is sealed. They get in anyway.
posted by Splunge at 3:14 PM on May 15, 2021

A few weeks later, my mother said it was now garbage, since an unplugged fridge will mold horribly and can't be recovered.

So, this is true for a fridge that's lost power for a fairly extended time with food rotting in it. At some point all you can do is seal it shut and have it carted off. I remember this coming up a lot in footage about the post-Katrina cleanup in New Orleans, which may be what your mother is remembering.

An empty fridge should be just fine!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 3:39 PM on May 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

(no opinion, but check it's working right before you move it inside.)
posted by j_curiouser at 4:02 PM on May 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

Should be fine. If it's been sitting in a non upright position for any length of time, be sure to let it sit in the normal, upright position for a minimum of a couple of hours (and ideally longer) so the oil in the sealed system can drain back down to the compressor before you plug it in.
We bought a used fridge that had been sitting unplugged in someone's garage for an extended period of time and it lasted over a decade and had no mold problems.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 4:10 PM on May 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

We only run the gas fridge at our cottage for the few weeks we are up there every year. That fridge dates from the 1930s. Same with the fridge in our 1973 camping trailer. An empty dry fridge is fine to sit turned off until you need it.
posted by fimbulvetr at 5:53 PM on May 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Your primary question has been well addressed - just writing to note there are myriad reasons a fridge might lose cooling capacity that are basically routine maintenance items and don’t spell death for your older fridge. Luckily it sounds like you have a great replacement option, but I wouldn’t write off your old fridge (even if you just want to fix it up for resale or donation). I felt like I should note this because I recently had a cheap fridge considerably older than 12 years stop cooling randomly overnight, and it’s now working fine after remedying the consequences of an inadequate defrost cycle.
posted by exutima at 10:47 PM on May 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

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