Ask a Clean Person: Radiators, Freezers, and Fridges

I rent an old townhouse in a city, and I do a pretty good job keeping it dust-/dirt-free and comfortably clean. The only things in the house that I don’t really know what to do with are the radiators, which are old-fashioned hot water radiators. They are extremely dusty/grimy between the coils, and my vacuum cleaner attachment doesn’t reach in there to suck out all the grossness. Is there a way to get these really clean? I’m not sure how to really get in between those coils and clean them out.

If you guys promise not to tell, I’ll confess to you that my radiator was a source of great shame for me. It was disgusting and I knew I needed to clean it before I could paint it and oh God why are things so hard and so gross?? But then this nice lady came along and gave me a good reason to get on with doing something about that filthy thing! And our beloved Handy Femme took the time to explain what to do about sprucing up an ugly radiator.

With ample motivation to clean the hulking dust beast sitting in the corner of my bedroom, I began. What will follow is what’s known as TAKING ONE FOR THE HAIRPIN TEAM. Because this task? UTTER MISERY. Never let it be said I don’t suffer for my art.

What you’ll need:

– Rubber gloves
 — Small bucket or bowl for cleaning solution
 — Cleaning solution of choice (I used ammonia solution, but soapy water would work just as well, as would any sort of all-purpose cleaner mixed with water)
 — A pile of thin rags (t-shirts, sheets or dishcloths work well for this; bath towels much less so)
 — A hairdryer
 — Music

OK, ready? Ready!

First move everything away from your work area. Things are going to get seriously messy, so make sure all furniture, drapery, books, dumbcats, window mushrooms, hairpins, ghosts, etc. are moved to another place. If the area around your radiator is carpeted, put down a tarp or garbage bags to keep dirt and water off the fibers.

Now put on some music. Something upbeat to keep you from killing yourself isn’t a bad choice. Not that this task will make you want to kill yourself! (This task will make you want to kill yourself.)

Next make yourself comfortable: If you’ve got hardwood floors, consider sitting on a folded up towel to give your tush/knees some relief; if you’ve got a bad back, take a couple of Advil (or whatever you take) prior to starting to stave off aches and pains that will come with the weird stretching and bending this task calls for; if you’ve got allergies, make sure you’ve taken your antihistamine of choice, because there’s going to be a ton of dust flying and you’ll be a sniffling, watery mess if you don’t. And for God’s sake wear appropriate clothing. This is basically yoga with grime, so dress accordingly.

OK now hunker down in front of the radiator. Starting at the top and working down, you’ll want to wipe down the exterior of the unit with your cleaning solution, being careful to wring out your rags before doing so. You don’t want to soak the radiator because it’s metal and you’ll wind up with rust problems.

Once you’ve gone over the exterior a few times, you’ll want to get in between the coils. Basically you’re going to floss the radiator. So sort of roll your rag up and then stick it through the opening of the coils, then move it up and down, pulling it tight to get maximum friction. This will take some time and definitely more than one going-over for each coil. The majority of the built-up dirt is going to be at the bottom of the coils, since that’s where dust settles, so pay particular attention to those areas.

I also found that dipping my be-gloved hands right in the cleaning solution and using my fingers to pull dirt and grime off was effective on spots that the “floss” didn’t reach.

The back portion of the coils is tricky. Depending on how the unit is configured in relation to the room, the flossing method may not be possible (it wasn’t for me). Start off by turning a hairdryer — set on cold air — on the unit; the blowing air will help to dislodge some of the dirt fur coating. It won’t get things off completely, but it will make it easier. Now reach around the back end of the unit and get your fingers in there. Sort of grab at the barnacle-like dust bunnies that are clinging to the coils and then dip your digits in the cleaning solution and try to rub off as much grime as you can by wiggling your fingers.

When you’re done with that perhaps offer the radiator a cigarette and cuddle with it a bit. You know, treat it like a lady.

Right, so, this is an awful, frustrating, miserable job. It’s also intensely, deeply satisfying.

I started drinking halfway through.

My freezer is small, but it’s pretty frost-lined. Also something spilled it in recently, and froze immediately, so there’s that too. What’s the best way to defrost and clean a freezer? What do I do with everything inside it during the process? And how do I maintain a tidy, frost-free freezer?

To defrost: Take everything out of the freezer and the refrigerator and place frozen and perishable items in a cooler. You can get an inexpensive cooler at any major chain drugstore; depending on how much stuff you have you might need two, but this is also a good opportunity to throw away old or expired foods. Now unplug the unit. Line the bottom of the refrigerator with old towels or t-shirts or rags to absorb the water as the freezer defrosts and things head south. (Depending on the configuration of the unit you may need to put a towel down in the freezer as well.) It’s also not a bad idea to have a garbage bag lining the floor in front of the fridge to catch any water and also to use to gather up the wet towels once you’re done so you’re not dripping water everywhere during clean-up time. Now we wait.

To clean: Once the defrosting process is done, the first thing you’ll need to do is get those wet towels out of the refrigerator, and then go over the interior of both spaces with a dry towel. Then spray the interior of the freezer with a cleaning solution. I know the white vinegar obsession has turned into a running joke around here, but really this is a place where it shines: It’s anti-bacterial, it helps with odor reduction, and it’s entirely non-toxic, so you’re not spraying down the space where you keep your foodstuffs with dangerous chemicals. Of course, if you’re a person who likes dangerous chemicals, please do feel free to do you! Wipe everything down with paper towels or rags or sponges or whatever doesn’t make you upset.

To keep a freezer frost-free: When you notice things getting a little icy in there it’s time to do some spot-defrosting. This will help the freezer from achieving a Titanic-level iceberg state. In the biggest pot you have, boil water. While that’s coming up, take everything out of the freezer and toss it in your cooler. Pour some of the boiling water into a bowl that will fit inside your freezer, put it in and close the door. Switch the water out for fresh boiling water a few times — it will take some time, but it will defrost eventually. Another option is to turn your hairdryer up to the highest setting it can go and point it at the icicles. I’ve tried this and found it to be too frustratingly slow for big jobs, but it works nicely on smaller floes.

And, at the risk of insulting everyone’s intelligence, it also bears suggesting that you may want to turn up the freezer temperature so things don’t ice over as much.

What do you recommend using to clean out a refrigerator? Also can you help with my fridge & freezer organization issues? I need a plan that I can stick to.

In the same way that white vinegar is tops for freezers, it’s the best thing for the fridge, too. In addition to having paper towels/sponges/rags on you, when it comes to the fridge you might also want to pick up a Dobie Pad. Refrigerators often house more sticky spills and splatters and God only knows what else than freezers do, and the Dobie Pad will help you sgrunge things off the walls without scratching up the plastic.

With our tools in hand it’s time to take everything out!

Have a trash bag or garbage pail near by and throw away anything suspect before you even start cleaning. Set items you’re keeping on the countertops and/or in a cooler. If you have foodstuffs covered in plastic wrap or tin foil use it to protect your hand while you scoop old food into the trashcan. (That’s a nifty little trick from me to those of you with tactile squick issues.) Alternatively: Wear rubber gloves.

Once everything is out, the next step is to remove the shelves and drawers and wash them with hot soapy water in the sink or tub. Probably the tub is better because it gives you more room for what are fairly awkwardly shaped items. Also it frees up the sink so that you can fill it up with hot soapy water and put any storage containers, pots, pans, jars, other things I probably don’t want to know about, pitchers, etc. right in to soak.

Now you’ll turn your attention to the interior of the fridge. Spray with white vinegar solution, wipe down with your Dobie Pad, get after any stains with a Magic Eraser if necessary, and that’s sort of it. Depending on how gross things are this might take some elbow grease, so don’t be surprised if my easy-sounding instructions end up being more work than you anticipated.

Now the fun part: putting everything back in! First you’ll want to survey your foodstuffs and group things together. Wipe sticky bottles, tighten lids, snap Tupperware tops back in place, tell your Tabasco sauce how nice its new haircut looks. Tend to your things. Then put everything back in a way that makes sense to you. Some ideas! Try to keep labels facing out so you can easily distinguish similar-looking items from one another. Put things you don’t use often toward the back of the unit. Put taller items behind shorter ones. Make a note of things you have duplicates of and, um, stop buying those things. Put raw meat and eggs on the bottom shelf so if there’s a leak it doesn’t contaminate your other food. (At the risk of being hollered at for the wasteful use of plastic, I usually grab a produce bag and put meat in it while doing my grocery shopping. Then it goes in the fridge all wrapped up.) Try not to put temperature-sensitive items like milk in the door if you can help it; the regular opening of the door will mess with its happiness level.

OK now look at where your things are. From now on that’s where those things go. When you come home from the market the milk should go in the same place it was before. Doing so will create a habit that helps to keep things organized. In terms of keeping things clean, every time you take out your trash, open your refrigerator and throw away any old food. This should be part of your taking out the trash routine. Remember your routine? Raise your hand if you’re still following your routine!! Hurrah! Gold stars all around!

Previously: The Move-in, Move-out Clean.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you looking for a green alternative to the suggestions found here? Because we’ve got some! More importantly: Is anything you own dirty?

Photo by Sarina, via Shutterstock