6 Smells From Your Heater and What They Mean

6 Smells From Your Heater and What They Mean

Fall is approaching fast, and although here in Fort Worth we probably still have a few months before the heaters come on for the winter season, it’s important to start looking ahead now so you can be sure that your home is prepared. In today’s post, we’ll be investigating one of the most common questions homeowners have about their heating system: why does it smell like it’s burning?

Read on to learn more, and if you need furnace repairs before winter hits, then contact the HVAC experts at Arthur Hagar! We’ve been Fort Worth’s trusted heating and cooling technicians for more than six decades, and each member of our team is fully licensed, bonded, insured, and EPA-certified. Contact us today to request an estimate or schedule a service call!

1. Heater Smells Like Burning Dust

Sometimes, homeowners will turn on their heater for the first time in the season and notice a strange, distinctive, “hot” smell. It may be hard to place, and for some, this is even a comforting and cozy aroma: one of the first smells of winter!

That smell is most likely burning dust. At the beginning of the season, when you first turn on your heater, the dust and debris that has been collecting in the ducts all summer long gets torched and burns up. The scent is usually short-lived, but we recommend that you open your windows when running your heater for the first time in the season. This can help to prevent burnt aromas from lingering.

If you notice that the smell doesn’t go away the next few times you run your heater, then the problem may be clogged or dirty filters. These can create problems all year long. In winter, dirty filters may not only cause that burnt smell, but also cause your heater to overwork or overheat, reducing your energy efficiency and raising your electric bill.

Make sure that you change the air filters as part of your annual furnace maintenance. If you’ve done this and still notice a burnt dust smell after your first few heating cycles, then you should contact a heating repair technician to make sure there isn’t a more serious problem.

2. Heater Smells Like Dirty Socks or Mildew

If you have a heat pump, and your home starts to smell like a locker room after you turn on the system, then you probably have a buildup of bacteria on your indoor coils. This problem usually does not happen with furnaces, since as furnaces produce heat, their internal components reach temperatures high enough to kill off bacteria and other microorganisms. However, heating pumps, which work by transferring heat from outside to inside, usually do not heat up enough to be lethal to bacteria. In fact, in wintertime they typically only reach between 105 degrees and 130 degrees Fahrenheit — the ideal temperatures for microorganism activity.

If you have a heating pump that’s producing a dirty feet smell, then contact a heating professional to inspect and clean the coils.

3. Heater Smells Like Rotten Eggs or Sulfur

Red alert. This smell is a sign that you may be in immediate danger.

If you have a gas furnace and you notice that your home smells like rotten eggs or sulfur after turning it on, turn it off, open your windows, and get out fast. It could be an indication that your furnace has a gas leak.

Normally, gas furnaces work by taking in natural gas through closed gas lines and safely igniting the gas inside the furnace, creating heat that warms the air in your home. When there is a leak that allows (extremely flammable) gas to seep into your home, even a small spark could set off a deadly fire or explosion.

Luckily, natural gas has a distinctive rotten egg smell added to make it easier to detect, so you can usually tell when something is wrong. If you notice this smell, evacuate your home and contact a professional at once.

4. Heater Smells Like Burning Plastic or Burning Rubber

If your heater is emitting a burning plastic or rubber smell, then you probably have a foreign object that somehow made its way into the ductwork through the air vents. This should be an isolated smell, so try to follow your nose to the source. Inspect the air vents in the area where the odor is strongest, looking for obstructions or other clues.

If you cannot find the source of the odor, then we recommend shutting it off and contacting a heating technician to take a look at the system. Fumes from burning plastic may not be safe to breathe, and obstructions can reduce your system’s overall efficiency, so having an expert correct the problem will help to ensure your safety and continued energy efficiency.

5. Heater Smells Like Oil

If you use an oil furnace, and you’re catching whiffs of the kind of smoky, oily odors associated with outdoor grills or fireplaces, then you may have an oil leak or a faulty oil burner. This is usually not dangerous, and can be fixed by having a qualified heating repair technician tighten the fittings in the tank, oil line, or filter or replace the failing components.

If you notice this odor, then turn off the heater and change the oil filter. If the smell persists after you’ve taken these steps, then call an HVAC professional for backup.

6. Heater Smells Like Electrical Burning, Gunpowder, or Fish

If you notice an electrical burning smell, a distinctive gunpowder aroma, or an unexplained fishy odor in the house, then something is probably overheating somewhere in your system. This could be due to fraying wires, a fried circuit board, an overheating blower motor, or some other failing component.

Because this smell could indicate a wide range of problems, it’s impossible to assess how dangerous it is without first diagnosing its source. Begin by turning off the system and replacing your air filters, which can cause internal components to overheat when they become too dirty and restrict airflow. If this does not remedy the problem, you should bring in professional backup. You may be at risk for an electrical fire or very expensive repairs or replacements if your blower motor overheats and dies.

Prevent Problems with Annual Furnace Maintenance

The best way to avoid weird smells, safety hazards, or expensive repairs this winter is to schedule your annual furnace maintenance checkup. If you’re in the Fort Worth area, then turn to the experts at Arthur Hagar!

During a maintenance visit, our heating technicians will inspect your system for problems including dirty filters, gas leaks, frayed wires, failing motors, and more. We can help you make sure you’re getting the most out of your heating system — and staying safe and warm all winter long.

Contact us today to request your quote or book an inspection.


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