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The food inside this refrigerator looks nice and fresh. The coils hiding inside the base of the fridge? Not so much. Photo: Corbis

In an effort to cut costs wherever I can, my attention has turned lately to one of the most notorious energy hogs: the refrigerator.

It's an easy thing to ignore. I don't actually own my fridge because I rent my apartment, but I do pay for the electricity it eats up. So it's in my best interest to make sure the fridge runs at optimum efficiency -- and part of that process is cleaning the appliance's coils regularly.

The fridge is right up there with heating and air conditioning costs, using about 15 percent of a home's total power. Its refrigerant coils, located at the base of the unit, are designed to remove heat from the unit. When caked with gunk, they're forced to run longer and more often. A machine with soiled coils requires about 25% more energy (and produces that much more CO2 emissions) to function properly than a fridge with a clean underbelly. And all that extra work translates to dollars and cents.

An average family's dust-free fridge (16 to 23 cubic feet) uses approximately 150 to 200 kilowatt hours (kWh) per month, which costs anywhere between $9.50 and $12.20. A study revealed that homeowners could cut electricity costs by as much as 3% to 6% annually (around $100, or 150 kilowatt hours) just by cleaning those coils.

At first, I was afraid of what was lurking beneath my own fridge. Especially since I have a cat, and I spend staggeringly large parts of my days wrangling huge wads of fur. Thankfully, I found a lot less detritus under my fridge than I expected. And the whole process was, surprisingly, very manageable. So I've promised myself that I'll do it every time the appliance manufacturer recommends, which is every month or so.

Here's how to clean your refrigerator coils:

1. Power off. (A good way to tell if you've cut the juice is to check that the light is off when you open the door.)
2. Locate the coils. They're usually found near the floor, hidden behind the rectangular cover panel, also called a kick plate.
3. Remove this protective plate. Usually it's attached via spring clips and just snaps off, but some require removal of two tiny screws. If in doubt, consult your owner's manual. (Tip: An open door may provide better leverage.)
4: Remove caked-on dust from the lower coils with the crevice tool on your vacuum cleaner.
5. Insert a long-handled brush and sweep it over and under the coils. Don't worry about pushing more debris into the back of the unit: This type of brush is designed to dislodge dirt from behind, later to be vacuumed up.
6. Replace the cover and plug it back in. (Again, this may be easier to do with the door open.) Line up the two notches on either side, and the cover should easily pop back into place. (Again, consult the user manual if reattachment is problematic.)

  • Pat

    You can also try reversing the hose on your vacuum cleaner and blow instead of stucking. At the same time I use a second vacuum to help suck up dust. Also do this several days before cleaning the house.

  • Karine

    Oh yea - it just so happen that everyone has TWO vacuim cleaners in their home.. KIS Keep it simple ...

  • sailormoon

    mosy people do have two vacs. a shop vac which can be reversed to blow air and a regular household vac to suck up the dust, so i think its a great idea.

  • Tom

    I have 2 vacs i the house! As a matter of fact I have 3 around my home 2 in the house and 1 in the garage. It is best to blow out the dirt and vac at the same time. But I wish the fridge manufac. would put these coils back on the back of the unit rather than under neath !

  • MIKE


  • Paul Reed

    WE have six. vacs. 2 small 3 large and one for pet messes.

  • Jane

    Also, you can take an old cardboard tube (like from the center of paper towels) and put it on the end of the vacuum cleaner hose and then shape it until it is almost flat to reach into the hard to get areas and when you are done, just throw it out.

  • Mea

    thanks for the cardboard tube idea! I never can find the crevice tool when I need it!!!

  • Ruth

    I vacuum the front area and use a spray can of air for the computer. It blows out all the dust that is in the center of the coils. It works great!

  • Dave

    I have my ex clean it for me she sucks big time

  • cappy


  • jenny

    Are you crazy? Your EX? lmao

  • Mike

    That's why I liked the older refrigerators with the coil in the back, Easy too clean, never got that dirty anyway and no noisy fan. The disadvantage was you had to keep it away from the wall, but that was no big deal to me.

  • Mike

    That's why I liked the older refrigerators with the coil in the back, Easy too clean, never got that dirty anyway and no noisy fan. The disadvantage was you had to keep it away from the wall, but that was no big deal to me.

  • dave

    If they made the refrig. Like they used to it wouldn't eat so much electricity the older models never ran this much , but the people are to lazy to defrost the freezer so it runs to defrost, then runs again to freeze, and does this all day long continuous, the older ones ran three four times a day unless it was opened more often but that was all, so just pay for your laziness and quit your complaining

  • Lenore

    Dave, I will gladly pay the extra hundred a year to KEEP FROM DEFROSTING THE FREEZER!! Agh!!!! Hated that job with a capital H. In fact, we have a stand alone freezer in the basement that is NOT frost free, and I can hear it calling me at night, "Pleeeeeeze defrost me, pleeeeeze!" We're down to about two cubic feet of frost-free space in it. Guess I'll have to attack it sometime soon.

  • Preston

    Do you think the author meant "frost-free" instead of "dust-free"? At least a few people will benefit from the article. Dad taught me years ago about keeping all your tools and equipment clean. This works for anything electrical.

  • Al

    No he meant dust free as in a properly clean operating fridge... The brush to clean the coils can be had at Home Depot or Lowes... tapered and long, reaches deep and dislodges dust but a vacuum is necessary...and if you use a old paper towel roll center remember to make sure it doesn't close down due to the suction at the lip of the roll... Newer units have coils on bottom because it is more efficient for space... I always pull the unit out and take off the plate covering the fan...since it can get quite dirty...and I oil the bearings... I do this bi-annualy!

  • judy

    karine..we have 4 different vacuums in our home!! 1 old 70's hoover, 1 80's hoover, a eureka and an older dirt devil..when it comes to cleaning, like alot of other is never enough!! j. we had one from my mom from the 60's that cleaned better than anything else, but alas it gave out..

  • m320753

    there is a lot more than just cleaning the condenser from the front. if it's a built in pull it out so you can get behind it take the screws out of the cardboard access panel while your at it pull the plug. remove the panel and you'll see the compressor and the rest of the coil you couldn't reach from the front. use a radiator brush and brush the coils while twisting it with your other hand next get the dust off all the tubing, compresser and wiringwith a mini vac you probably already have next check the condenser fan and blades be careful it may be hot. if it's hot go back to the front and take out the evaporator drip pan wash it in warm water and a little liquid soap do this weekly if you have babies who crawl around while you are making food as the gunk in the pan along with the fan can cause respitory problems that was a main cause of legionaires disease the stagnet water heated and dried by the condenser fan. ok get in the back and wipe any grime off the fan and blades put the cover back on and the plug into outlet. wipe down or use a spray cleaner to clean top and sides before pushing it back in, clean up floor of any dust remaining it will be on the floor where the unit was while cleaning. might be a good time to clean crispers and shelves because there may be food that you forgot to use clean crispers in sink and wipe them dry before putting them back. never blow air out of 1 vacuum ate try to suck up the dust with another one. that will only make your smoke detecter go off. as for refrigerators with coils in rear they don't get as dirty as there is no air movement and do tend to run alot in warm weather. they don't save much money in the summer and i have changed countless evaporators due to helping it defrost with a sharp object and putting a hole in it plus how many trips to the er at your local hospital for stitches becaus the knife cut tour finger damn near off

  • 27 Comments / 2 Pages

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