“My question is: Are they right?”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Phil

“Dear PoPville,

For the past month or so, there has been a terrible odor coming from the fridge and freezer in the house I rent. My housemates and I have done everything we can think of to solve this issue- We have cleaned regularly and aggressively with bleach-based cleaners, used baking soda and fresh coffee grounds, used commercial odor eaters. All of these make the issue slightly better for some time, but the smell still persists in varying levels. We have checked for dead animals, that that water filter is properly draining, and there is no water collecting. The smell seems to be coming from the back of the fridge/freezer, but we do not have the tools to pull off the paneling. The smell has permeated our food such that we’re not using the fridge for much food storage anymore. Unsurprisingly, it’s also highly disgusting.

A few weeks ago, we reached out to the landlord for assistance with this issue. They sent a repair person, who said the fridge was working “perfectly” (…) and thus they had no further obligation to assist.

My question is: Are they right? My understanding is that the fridge is a fixture, and they are responsible for making sure the fixtures are in working condition. A smell that’s preventing us from using it seems like it’s not in working condition. But I’d like to have a better sense of my rights/obligations before I throw down the gauntlet with them. Who’s in the right here?”

43 Comment

    • The smell of a dead rat dissipates in about three weeks. (If you are wondering how I know this, for a while I worked in a small ngo office where rent was cheap because the landlord was letting the building fall apart while the lot value skyrocketed. Rats died in the walls and ceiling all the time. The smell, which I will forever remember, “died” down in three weeks, each time a rat died…we moved offices as soon as we could). I suppose a larger animal would take longer- but the smell would go away.

  • Is there possibly a dead animal in the wall right near the fridge?

    • Thanks! I guess this is possible but the smell is coming from the fridge, not the wall. We’ve pulled it back and the wall was dusty but smell-free.

  • Just to clarify- you’ve pulled the fridge away from the wall and checked behind and under it?

    • Yes indeed. We have basically checked everything that doesn’t involve removing parts of the fridge.

      • You need to remove parts then. It’s not unheard of for mice to get stuck and die in fridges. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I do.

        • this. little guys love to get warm in the parts around the motor. you can usually get the back panel off with a pair of pliers or a small wrench.

  • I can almost guarantee you you have a dead rodent in the back of the fridge. I had to remove the back of the fridge and then use tongs to fish out the carcass.

    • (sorry, got cut) – I had a similar experience in my house and basically had to take the back of the fridge off to find the dead animal.

      • This is helpful and also terrifying. WIthout going to far down an already very gross path, I grew up in a rural state and we had animals get into things a lot, and the smell always seemed to clear within a few weeks due to decomposition, so as the smell lingered this possibility had fallen off my radar a bit.

        • Could the smell linger longer because the fridge motor is periodically heating the carcass back up? I don’t know much about animal decomp; just spitballing.

  • I love it when the Prince chooses a photo with an animal for a posting like this — it’s like a bonus Afternoon Animal Fix.
    Usually what landlords are worried about is that tenants _aren’t_ cleaning or otherwise properly taking care of appliances. If I had tenants who said, “We’ve cleaned the fridge and it still smells,” I’d be concerned.
    Have you pulled the fridge away from the wall to see if there’s anything behind/under it that could be causing the smell?
    Is the landlord local? Maybe you could get him/her to come over and take a whiff of the smell in question?

    • Also, I don’t think this is the root of your current stinky-fridge problem, but for future guidance: The Interwebz disagree as to what the appropriate products are to clean the interior walls of a fridge, but there seems to be a consensus that you shouldn’t use anything strong-smelling, because the smell can sink in and stay there. I would avoid bleach if you can and try to stick to baking soda and dishwashing liquid.

  • As If

    sounds like a dead critter back there. i had a dead mouse under my dishwasher once, and had to remove the whole unit out from under the counter to remove the carcass. (which was tiny and easy to miss)

    or you can wait a couple of weeks till it dries out and the smell goes away…

  • We have cockroaches living in the walls of our dishwasher. We opened it up, washed everything, disinfected, etc. and the cockroaches were finally gone after that.
    Yeah, see if you can get inside the the fridge walls and deal with the problem yourselves… looks like your landlord will not be of much help.

    • As renters, the OP and her housemates really shouldn’t have to do things like take off the back of the fridge to look for rodents inside. The fridge repairman should’ve been the one to do this.
      If the OP thinks it’ll be more of a hassle to get the landlord to take action than to go to the DIY route, then it might make sense to go the DIY route… but it would probably be a good idea to 1) notify the landlord beforehand and 2) say something like, “We’d really prefer if you could have a repairman come out and take the back of the fridge off, since we’re not professionals and we don’t want to damage anything.”

    • This whole post is creeping me out.

      I think the landlord should be interested in resolving the problem (the repair guy probably isn’t going to have the sense/authority to determine the next steps) – agree with what another commenter said, have the landlord (or appropriate rep) come experience the situation him/herself…at worst they replace the fridge.

    • Well, this is certainly going to be in my nightmares for the foreseeable future….

    • My dishwasher gets a pretty gross smell sometimes before it is run which I attribute to the baby bottles waiting to be run through the cycle (ew, milk smell). Now I am totally paranoid that I have cockroaches living in my dishwasher walls instead!

      • OMG, me too. I live in a basement studio and thankfully the worst I’ve seen is fruit flies and moths, but I’m so paranoid. I mostly just use my dishwasher as a drying rack (leave it open), but it does have kind of a humid smell.

      • I know that we have cockroaches that live in our dishwasher (though they’ve come down in numbers because we’re aggressive about killing on sight as possible & putting traps/boric acid in spots we can reach), but it doesn’t smell. So I doubt that the smell relates to cockroaches if that makes you feel any better.

    • The cockroaches don’t emit a smell; we just saw a few running around the kitchen. We cleaned everything and put poison everywhere and they were not gone. Somehow we figured that that they may have been living inside the dishwasher … and alas, we found a few + eggs. After that, no more cockroaches. Our landlord had already sent someone to spray but that didn’t kill the ones inside the machine.
      Agreed, the landlord SHOULD be the one responsible to clear whatever is happening with the fridge, but is the landlord is not responsive or unwilling, it may be an instance of “taking matters into your hands” to ensure a odor free fridge again. Of course, the OP says he/she needs special tools to open the panel in the fridge, so that is an obstacle.

  • Did the fridge have something of an odor when you moved in, or was it perfectly fine for a while? If the latter, probably a rodent behind as others have mentioned. If it was always a bit “off,” it might be the fridge itself. Learned all about this living in New Orleans during Katrina. Miraculously, our apartment was undamaged, but the fridge sat full of food for at least 2-3 weeks with no power while we were evacuated. We spent an entire day tearing it down and cleaning/sanitizing every last bit, but it was never quite right again. Fortunately, the landlord replaced it a couple of months later.

    • Yup, place I moved into a while back (in Kansas actually) had an old fridge that was turned off when I moved in. Smelled terribly and I scrubbed the hell out of it. Didn’t help. Told the landlord and they delivered a new fridge days later. Even brought it in while I was at work and moved my food into it. 🙂

  • Came here to pretty much say the same things as others: I would bet there’s a dead something tucked into one of the crannies of the fridge. You wouldn’t believe how many spots there are for things to crawl into and die in a fridge and stove and dishwasher. I’d pull the fridge out, unplug it, and start removing some screws and panels and poking around. At the very best, you find it. At the worst, you maybe break the fridge and you’ll need a tech to come out, maybe on the landlord’s dime. You could also call a repair tech, though likely you’ll be paying for it, and see what they think.

  • I’m guessing you already checked, but I had an issue like this but it turned out my roommate had a bag of potatoes behind her cereal boxes on top of the fridge. I cleaned the fridge, pulled it out from the wall, and was about to give up when I noticed the strange cereal box fortress atop the fridge. Lo and behold, a strange black goo sloshed and growled back when I exposed its hiding space.

    • Gah, I had a roommate in grad school who hid and then forgot about a bag of potatoes. The smell was excruciating. My other roommate and I pretty much emptied the kitchen in search of the smell only to discover that the bag of potatoes had turned in to a gelatinous black goo that had seeped down the back of our fridge and all over the wall. Puke.

    • Rotting potatoes and rotting citrus both smell much, much worse than one would think.
      As for the OP, I don’t know about residential leases, but in commercial leases there’s usually some language about “use”. For example, if the elevator is working, but we can’t use it because the lights are burned out and that’s like climbing into a moving coffin, well, it violates the “use” terms. So I wonder if your inability to use the fridge due to the stink attaches some duty to the landlord.
      Where our lawyers/ landlords at??

    • Indeed, the worst smell I’ve ever smelled is rotten potatoes. But this is getting into the food inside the fridge, as I understand it.

    • My brother duct-taped an egg-salad sandwich under the desk of a friend of his. I can’t imagine why one would do this to a friend, but he still laughs about it. I’m unsure whether the friend appreciated his humor.

  • Does the scent strike your nose similarly to cat pee? Not quite the same, but in the same range?
    I ask because I’m wondering if it could be our friend the Oriental cockroach, who I believe fancies such places.
    Maybe you’ve seen some, or maybe they lived there pre-you. That might not be it at all, but it seems possible.
    (Readers are now advised to think of a field of freshly-bloomed flowers, and cool, clear-running mountain streams.)

  • I am guessing that you have a dead rodent in the wall behind the fridge. The smell will eventually subside, but in the interim there is a spray that you can find at the hardware store that will take care of the smell. I can’t remember the name of the spray, but it works.

  • Have you checked to see if your freezer drain tube is clogged? Years ago I had something leak in my freezer and it caused the freezer drain to clog and cause some nasty stink. I little hot water and baking soda cleared it out down to the pan where I could clean everything out. The freezer drain tube can sometimes get moldy if the fridge is old. Since its just a drain for the freezer you’d never know until the stink happens.

  • I had this problem once too – and had repairmen come look. They couldn’t find anything — turned out it was because there was a dead mouse under the fridge. So I would check that out!

  • Once had similar problem with our fridge. It was NOT a rodent, it was the drip pan (or something like that) in the back of the fridge, which basically became a cozy repository for heated mildew. The fridge worked fine at the time, but it was due (I think) to a leak within the fridge that ultimately would have caused the fridge to not work fine. Our landlord took care of it (2 repairman visits worth). If you describe as likely leak, perhaps landlord will be amenable to having repairman return.

    In the interim, scrubbing the drip pan with bleach on a regular basis helped.

    • I agree with the commenter above. It is most like your drip pan underneath the fridge. I had a similar problem.

  • This might be an electrical issue. I lived in a condo where the previous owners messed with the master electrical panel and caused a few of the breakers to melt down. The smell was awful, like a dead animal and wouldn’t go away for weeks. I called the building manager and engineer and they were able to isolate the smell to the melting breakers. We thought for sure a dead animal was caught in the walls, but then they noticed that every time the A/C kicked on, the smell got stronger. I was about 2-3 days away from a major electrical fire.

  • Look up how to remove the back panel from the interior of your model fridge. If it has a top freezer and something rots in there at the back it will end up behind the panel in the fridge, still rotten but refrigerated.

  • janie4

    As many have said, may be a dead rodent in the mechanics of the fridge. If the smell is getting worse right after you’ve opened the door to the fridge, and the motor kicks on, then it’s in the motor compartment.

    Good luck.

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