The Amateur's Guide to Defrosting a Freezer

    defrosting freezerPerformed improperly, as it usually is, defrosting a freezer almost certainly leads to some kind of emotional meltdown. This is why most people neglect the appliance to the point where it can fit only a single ice cube tray balanced awkwardly atop a range of frost stalagmites. And really, it's not nice to leave this job for your mother, even if you could whine her into it.

    Please note that this guide is for manual-defrost freezers and fridge/freezers; if your auto-defrost unit has heavy frost buildup, it's time to call a service pro.

    Ice is Frozen Water

    This scientific fact should be foremost in your mind as you prepare for the task ahead. Since ice is frozen water, it follows that melted ice is just plain water, the kind that loves to run down over everything and find its way into every nook and cranny within a surprisingly large area.

    Towels Absorb Water

    Are you starting to see a connection here? Good. Now get yourself ready with as many towels as possible. Call the local YMCA if you have to. Next, gather some pans. Roasting pans with a nice high lip are best. Cookie sheets are ok, but you have to empty them frequently because a wide, flat pan becomes comically unwieldy when full of water. Finally, get a large cooler or insulated bag.

    The Process

    With towels and pans at the ready, turn off the freezer (many fridge/freezers cool from the freezer area, so you might be turning off the fridge, too; just don't open the fridge door). Empty the freezer's contents into the cooler and add any ice available—now you know why you've been crowding the freezer with those little blue ice packs for the past 18 years. Lay out some towels over the floor around the appliance, and as far under it as possible. Slide a pan or two partially underneath the unit or fridge door.

    Carefully scrape off thick frost/ice buildup inside the freezer compartment, using a plastic spatula or similar tool. Even if you're one of those people who thinks it's fine to drive a snow-buried car with nothing but a frosty peephole for visibility, you should challenge yourself to try scraping ice for a change. This can greatly reduce the amount of water you have to contain. DO NOT use metal tools for scraping. That includes knives, chisels, crowbars and hammers. Also, don't scrape all the way down to the freezer wall or near any cooling elements.

    Replace and reposition towels as needed to contain the water as the ice melts. Building a small levee of towels across the top of the fridge door helps to minimize water flowing down over it. Defrosting can take a few hours or many more, depending on the extent of neglect. Whatever you do, don't leave the house or go to sleep during the process. If you question this advice, you'll have to learn the hard way.

    When the ice and frost are gone, wipe down the freezer compartment with a sponge and clean, warm water, and let the surfaces dry. Close the door and turn on the unit. Refill the freezer after about 15 minutes.

    If Patience Isn't One of Your Virtues

    A few old school methods for speeding up the thawing process:

    1. Set a pan or bowl of boiling water inside the freezer compartment. Replace the water as it cools.

    2. Direct a fan to blow into the freezer, circulating warm room air in and cold air out.

    3. Use a hair dryer to help thaw large ice deposits. Don't let water contact the dryer or stand in a puddle as you work, as electrocution may result.

    When to Defrost

    Self-respecting homeowners should plan to defrost their fridges when frost buildup in the freezer reaches 1/8 to 1/4 inch in thickness. Much beyond that and you're well on your way down that slippery slope of watching your freezer space shrink down to nothing. On the other hand, if you want to be like that guy in the neighborhood who stores his tools on pegboard with little crime scene-style outlines, defrost your freezer as soon as you're done waxing the garage floor

    Updated April 16, 2018.

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