Can This Smelly Freezer Be Saved

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Dear Home-Ec 101,
Due to a series of unfortunate events, my small chest freezer (that sits under the house) was left unplugged for 3 WEEKS! Of course the entire inventory was a total loss, but the real problem is the SMELL. It really smelled like something died down there, and it permeated the house for a couple of days.

I have cleaned, bleached, Lysol-ed and baking soda-ed, all to no avail. It sat open and unplugged for a couple of weeks to air out It’s not as bad as it once was, but now that I have plugged the freezer in and closed the lid, the once (finally) faint smell seems stronger. I’m afraid the odor will attach itself to any new food I put in. I am almost ready to throw in the sponge and just get a new freezer, but my inner tightwad is having a hard time with that!
Heather, can this freezer be saved?

Kind regards,
Fetid Freezer

Heather says:

I have good news, there is a very good chance your freezer can be saved. There is a product called activated charcoal, which is charcoal that has been treated with oxygen to make it very porous. This means that it has a ridiculous amount of smell grabbing surface area.

There is a term called adsorb, don’t mix it up with absorb. To absorb means to take in and adsorbing means clinging by chemical attraction. See? SCIENCE! (Do you have any idea how hard it is not to do a Jesse Pinkman reference right now?)
Oh what the heck, I can’t resist, but I’ll stick to the clean version.



Those funky odors are the result of organic chemical compounds, which thankfully activated charcoal is super good at attracting and trapping. It’s thankfully much better at grabbing bad odors than the plastic in your freezer.

You can find activated charcoal in the aquarium supply sections of some large box stores and it is also on Amazon under the name activated carbon. Some people complain about the cost of activated charcoal, but compared to the cost of a new freezer, it’s pretty reasonable. It’s really going to come down to how much time and disposable income do you have to invest. If you’ve got enough money to replace the freezer and your time is at a premium, that may the route to take as I also suggest completely dismantling the freezer to clean it.

Think of the freezer as a plastic box wrapped in a Styrofoam or other insulating material and wrapped in another box with a motor and freezer coils attached.

You’ll want to dismantle your chest freezer as much as possible, without disturbing the coils or messing with the motor. You’ll want to be really sure none of the liquid from the thawing meat filtered is still inside the freezer insulating materials of the unit. Look for screws, unscrew them, and gently pull the plastic liner out. In most cases, the insulating material is nonporous.

Once the freezer has been disassembled and any missed leakage cleaned up -use an enzymatic cleaner or dilute vinegar OR dilute bleach.  Let the material dry fully, reassemble, and plug it back in. Now place the activated charcoal in the interior of the freezer and turn it on to its lowest setting. You’re not going to want it to run a lot, but you do want the fan circulating the air.

Close the door, cross your fingers, and give it 24 – 48 hours and I bet you’ll be surprised by the difference.

I have heard some people have had success with regular charcoal  briquettes, but please just NOT the kind with lighter fluid as those have their own smell and you’ll just be trading one funky odor for another. You could also crush the briquettes to increase the adsorbing surface area, too.

For those of you out there who have noticed their ice cubes taste like onions or other strong cooking odors, you may find that keeping a mesh bag of activated charcoal in the freezer really improves the taste and smell of your ice.

Best of luck, what an aggravating experience that had to be.

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More on Mildew – The Basement Is Damp

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Dear Home Ec 101,

When I am in the basement, my allergies kick in, immediately, with all the typical allergy symptoms! It may be associated with dampness in an 1880’s basement. We keep it very clean, and no moisture seems to be present, except on a wall or two in which the paint is affected.

Sneezing in Snelling

Heather says:

Allergies are no fun. As an aside for your overall health, I highly recommend getting tested to know exactly what is triggering the attacks. Is it dust mites or mold / mildew? (Granted some of the things I am about to go over will help no matter the cause, it’s just good information to have)

To make this information more helpful for the Home-Ec 101 audience, I’m going to answer it as though you hadn’t begun looking for water damage.

Humidity enters your home through four pathways:

  • rain water or plumbing leaks
  • capillary action – your building materials absorbing water from the ground. You’ve seen capillary action every time you’ve used a paper towel to mop up a spill
  • diffusion – water vapor molecules moving through your building from the outside (high concentration) to the inside (lower)
  • air transport – pretty obvious – windows, doors, vents etc

In a basement you’re most likely to see the first three, unless the basement is a walkout and in that instance, air transport can play a role.

Not seeing moisture damage doesn’t mean it isn’t occurring. Invest ten bucks or so in a hygrometer.  HygrometerIf your basement’s humidity level is more than sixty percent, it’s time to take steps to mitigate the problem.

Why sixty percent? This is the point at which our little microscopic friends begin thriving. What happens when organisms thrive? They multiply. Fun.

What can you do to reduce humidity in your basement?

First ensure that all gutters direct water at least a few feet away from your foundation.

Next, look for moisture damage and ensure there aren’t any plumbing leaks, if so have those fixed and ensure that none of the dry wall or insulation has turned into a mold factory

If your basement is unfinished, with dirt floors, install a vapor barrier -plastic sheeting- to do just that.

If it’s a minor, seasonal problem a product like DampRid can be useful, just make sure that the canister you buy is adequate for the square footage.

Danby PremiereIf the humidity problem is more than just during the spring, consider investing in a dehumidifier. Pictured to the right is one I have. As most of you know by now, I live in the South. I also have an older home and rather than crank the AC, I turn on the dehumidifier as lower humidity makes higher temperatures more comfortable (When you sweat it actually evaporates instead of just making you feel gross.) If you have a utility sink you can drain directly into that rather than fussing with the reservoir.

Once the humidity can be maintained below sixty percent, it’s time to thoroughly clean the basement. Don’t forget, if your washer is in the basement, to check it for mildew, too.

Good luck and feel better.

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Another Case of Musty Odors

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Dear Home Ec 101,

The problem in our family is confined to specific cotton undershirts and one specific dresser drawer. It does not matter how we wash the shirts. We’ve soaked, used vinegar, borax, triple rinsed, air dried for a week, used the gas drier and everything is fine until the shirts are put in a closet or that one drawer. Note, nothing bad has ever been in this closet or drawer. We’ve had them since brand new. After the clothes are confined there for a few weeks, they develop a strong odor that spreads to other clothes which would otherwise not get smelly. We’ve had to resort to banning that one drawer and going through the closets looking for cotton undershirts to re-wash (no other kind of cotton shirt is affected, even though they are usually worn against the skin without undershirts, so it’s not from body odor.) This only happens to some undershirts. Not even all, just some, even though they can all be in the same laundry load together. It seems to me that we will have to gradually separate the smelly from the non-smelly shirts then throw away the bad ones. I will never put anything in that one drawer again though. Nobody has ever had a clue about what could cause such specific smelliness. I look forward to your opinion.

Mystified by Must

Heather says:

I had an email exchange with this reader a few months ago. And admittedly, I dropped the ball in getting her a satisfactory answer.

We went back and forth for quite a while on this topic.

I think this is a case of false pattern recognition.

Why? Human beings are designed to recognize patterns, it’s part of the way we are wired, a bazillion -technical term- years ago it helped us find food, remember which cave or clearing was our home, and to learn, over time, cause and effect things like, I didn’t feel well after eating that, perhaps I shouldn’t eat it any more.

What is probably going on here?

I think at some point there was a particularly funky shirt that caused a faint odor in the drawer. This caused an association: stinky shirt came from this drawer. Have there been other stinky items from other drawers, probably, but this one was noteworthy. And the next time a stinky item came from that drawer the conclusion was – AH HA the clothing put in THIS drawer becomes funky.

Eh well, probably the damp items put in this drawer have the potential to become funky and it happens sometimes.

Almost every one of us is guilty of putting away slightly damp clothing at least once in a while. This isn’t a huge problem with clothing hung in closets as there is more air flow within a closet than a drawer. Damp clothes, in a pile, in a drawer are pretty much the perfect storm of mildew growth.

So even if the problem isn’t the drawer itself, how do we prevent funky shirt smells in the future?

Empty the drawer, dry it thoroughly. Maybe let it dry fully in the sun for an afternoon. Sunlight is great at killing mildew spores. I’d probably play it extra safe and do the same for the drawer above and below, just to get any lurking time bombs.

Treat the shirts like you would musty, mildewed towels. If they smell super funky, you aren’t going to wear them anyhow -we hope- so try not to stress about the possibility of fading.

If there is any deodorant or anti-antiperspirant build up on the clothing, be sure to remove it.

Finally, ensure clothing is completely dry before placing it in drawers and consider adding a bar of your favorite soap or a sachet in the drawer. It can’t hurt.

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Don’t Just Cover Up Musty Odors

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

My problem is that I keep towels that we have used in a closet until I do laundry at the end of the week, and I wanted to know if there is anything I could put inside the closet to keep down the musky smell until laundry day?

Musky in Muskogee

Heather says:

There are countless things you  could put in your closet to reduce the musty odor, but I don’t recommend any of them.

Why not simply cover up the smell of mildew?

You know that, fresh out of the shower feeling that goes completely away the second a funky towel touches your face? That is reason number one. Oh come on now, we’ve all had that experience, right? Yes, worrying about mildew and towels is totally a first world problem, but yuck. And hey, at least it is something I can help solve.

I will take a stand against mildewed towels. (How does that old song go? You’ve got to stand for something-and you’re welcome for the ear worm, free with every purchase)

You solve the musty odor in the closet problem by not putting the towels in the closet while they are still wet.

Hang your towels until they are dry before storing them in a hamper or closet. It’s that simple.

Where you ask? You have a small apartment? I’ve said it before, real life isn’t tv set perfect, thankfully it’s also generally not quite reality show obnoxious, either. . . generally, but it does have its moments.

Use door knobs, doors, a chair back, a towel or coat hook. . . you see where I’m going with this, right? Bacteria and mold have a favorite place to grow and that would be in a damp, still, preferably dark environment. What is your current storage place? Damp, still, and dark. And the best part for the mildew is that it grows with spores, so the more you use the space to store damp laundry, the worse the problem will become.

To help resolve any current funk, the best solution is to dry that closet thoroughly. DampRid is an option, as is leaving the door wide open and pointing a fan into the space until it is thoroughly dry.

Good luck and enjoy your fresh smelling towels.

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Getting Rid of Pet Urine Odor in Carpet

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

I recently officially moved out of my parents house. I was living in a condo while at school, but  got a house with my fiance, and have been moving a lot of my old stuff from their house into our new home. While I was away at college though, my sister’s cats turned my old room into a cat playground. Unfortunately, this lead to cat hair and urine all over my old clothes. I have been going through and washing everything with vinegar, which has mostly helped with the smell. The only problem I’m having now is that the carpet and the room near the hallway that I sorted through the clothes smells faintly of urine. I can smell it pretty strongly when I walk into the bathroom, though I didn’t ever bring any of those clothes into that room.

Any ideas on what to do?

I’ve vacuumed all the carpet in the area, but the smell is still there.

Catastrophe in Catawba

Heather says:

Sisters, cats, what do you do?

As far as the bathroom, if this is your first time living with a man. . . try wiping around the base of the toilet with an acidic, all-purpose cleaner. Let’s see if that doesn’t solve the urine odor in the bathroom. It’d be nice to blame the cat, but. . . I have my suspicions here. I have a part time job in a pub and yes, we all take turns cleaning the bathrooms. The women’s restrooms do not smell like urine, it’s a guy thing from splashing. Yuck, I know. Clean it up (ask him to clean it?) and carry-on with your day.

As far as the odor in the carpet, your best bet is to get an enzymatic carpet cleaner like Kids N Pets and rent a steam cleaner from the hardware or grocery store. Since the pet was not actually in your home, I doubt that any urine has wicked all the way to the padding. If that were the case, I would highly recommend hiring a professional carpet cleaner as their machines are generally in better condition, with more powerful extractors AND they often guarantee their services.

Just make sure you follow the directions on the steam cleaner AND run a fan, box or oscillating, over the carpet until it is completely dry. You do not want to remove the pet urine odor and replace it with the odor of  mildew. Bleh.

Good luck!

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