Why Does My Heater Smell Like It’s Burning?

Before winter approaches and temperatures begin to dip, it is important that you get your heating system ready for the coming conditions. Your heating system often has to work overtime during the winter to keep up with the taxing demands of the season. Depending on where you live, your furnace or heat pump could combat temperatures well below freezing. When you switch your heat on and adjust your thermostat, the last thing that you want to be confronted with is an unpleasant burning smell.

Your HVAC system contributes to your indoor air quality. When there is a funny smell, it could be alarming. A few likely suspects might be behind the burning smell when you turn your heater on. You need to note whether this is the first time you have smelled the odor or a recurring issue. Depending on your heating system, there may be different reasons why a furnace would smell this way versus a heat pump.

If you have found yourself in this situation, there could be several reasons for a burning smell. While some of the potential causes for the smell could be serious, other reasons aren’t as big of a deal. If you have found that you have to ask, “Why does my heater smell like burning?” you will need to troubleshoot a few things. You may even need the assistance of an HVAC professional. Let’s look at why your heating system might have a burning smell.

Dust on the Furnace


One of the most common reasons you have a burning smell when you turn on your furnace is dust buildup. For homeowners who live in areas where they experience season changes, it is likely that the furnace isn’t in use year-round. While your system is not in use during the spring and summer, dust can collect on the furnace and internal parts. When you turn it on for the first time, the dust will burn off and often circulate an odor for a few minutes. Eventually, the burning smell should dissipate when all of the dust has been burned off. Typically, this isn’t a cause for concern. If the smell lingers and doesn’t disappear, you may need to contact an HVAC professional to check out your equipment.

Debris in the Heating System

Similar to how dust collects on your equipment when it isn’t in use, some objects or debris could have fallen into your equipment or ductwork during the summer months. When your system turns on for the first time, there may be a burning plastic smell or other odor if this is the case. If you have central heating with various vents, you can try to pinpoint the smell in a specific room or area to help locate the source of the problem. If you are successful at locating the issue, you can safely remove the object to remedy the issue. If you can’t remove it or locate the problem, you will need to call a technician to help find the problem, clear the air vents, and stop the smell.

Damaged Electrical Wiring


A more serious problem that could cause a burning smell is an electrical issue. General wear and tear can damage your system’s electrical wiring throughout normal use. If the wiring is damaged, it could result in a cracked heat exchanger, an overheating blower motor, or a variety of other problems. These issues could also lead to a dangerous carbon monoxide leak causing serious health problems. If you suspect that there is an electrical problem, you need to cease the operation of the heating unit and contact a service technician immediately.

The best way to avoid problems with a burning smell coming from your heater is to have regular preventive maintenance performed on your system every year. From dirty equipment to electrical issues, a qualified HVAC technician can help you prevent many issues that could cause an unpleasant burning smell.