You know your fridge needs a cleaning when it has bad breath. Time to scrub off those mummified cheese bits, sticky spills and the winter vegetables that have made their own stew in the bottom of the bin.  To freshen things up naturally, without leaving chemical residues wafting around your food, mix a solution of one part white vinegar to three parts warm water, plus a few drops of  plant-based dish soaps like these or these.  

Use baking soda to scrub off crusty spots without scratching surfaces.

As long as you're at it, give your refrigerator an energy-efficiency check-up. After all, the big cold box drains up to one-fifth of the average home’s energy, and, because it's always running, drinks more electricity than any other kitchen appliance.

The following easy refrigerator maintenance tips can save the equivalent of up to 700 lbs. of carbon emissions a year.

1) Turn your fridge thermostat to 36-38 degrees F. Presto! It's the magic number for maximum efficiency, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).  The freezer compartment should be kept at between zero and five degrees F.

2) If there's an energy- or power-saver switch inside, turn it on!

3) This is probably a no-brainer, but we promised simple, right? To preserve your fridge from working harder and drawing more energy, let hot foods cool before storing there. Use readily recognizable containers, or label them, so you aren't standing with the door open, searching, while cold air escapes. Keep the freezer full (short of frozen-banana/ samosa avalanche.)

4) Make sure the door closes tightly enough by seeing if it will hold a dollar bill. If the dollar slips, you're losing money, so replace the rubber seal. Ask for help at the nearest hardware or home store.

5) Defrost regularly.

6) Let cool air circulate around the fridge. Remove clutter, yes, even that dusty old punchbowl and that paella pan, from the top. Keep it in a cool, shady space, rather than in full sun or next to a heat-generating stove, washer or dryer. Save your energy and back by paying a couple of teenagers to move it.

7) Clean those coils (unplug the fridge first!) with a vacuum and/or a refrigerator coil brush.

If your fridge is really tired, say, seven years or older, you may want to replace and maximize savings in dollars and carbon emissions. A new model with the Energy Star label, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, uses 40 percent less electricity than a conventional fridge from 2001, and is required to use at least 15 percent less than current federal standards allow. That's just the minimum, however: You can find a fridge that runs on 20 to 30 percent less energy and can save you up to $100 in electricity bills a year. The lower the kilowatt hours (kWh) a year, the more you'll save, ACEEE advises.

For what to look for when buying, such as a top rather than bottom or side freezer unit, click here. For lists of  Energy Star approved fridges, click here.

You've done your daily bit for planet and pocketbook. Now, chill.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008. The story was added to

Upgrade your fridge: Cleaner, more efficient
Freshen up your refrigerator and improve its energy efficiency with these tips.