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When autumn and winter temperatures arrive, and it becomes time to switch on your home’s heating system for the first time in a season, you might have a startling experience. You might hear the system turn on and feel the air blowing from your vents — but within seconds, that air is laden with a horrible and acrid odor that could leave you frantically searching for signs of flames. When your heater smells like burning, it can be a very disconcerting experience. What should you do in such a situation where the stakes seem serious?


Is This the First Time You’ve Used the Heater This Year?

There’s good news: on almost every occasion, there’s nothing to worry about if your heater smells like burning the first time you use it after a long interval. In the many months that elapse between shutting off the heater and when you need it again, dust and other airborne particles settle onto the furnace equipment. This is true whether you have a gas furnace or electric resistance heating.

When you turn on the system, this dust begins to burn away harmlessly. As electric coils heat up, they singe the dust off. Likewise, a furnace’s heat exchangers and other equipment may burn away dust from a few seasons of non-use. As the blower motor pulls this air throughout the home, you smell the unfortunate odor of this burning dust — but don’t worry, nothing is actually on fire. It’s a natural phenomenon that will subside after a few minutes. It should not re-occur the next time you turn on the furnace this season.


What if a New Heater Smells Like Burning?

If you have just recently had a brand new furnace installed, you may also think there is an acrid or burning odor when you turn on the system the first few times. This smell is often a result of a similar process — dust alongside factory and shipping oils will vaporize as the unit rapidly heats up from operation. Again, this is a typical situation and no cause for alarm. However, if the smell persists, you should contact the installer or another licensed HVAC team to inspect the system.


What About Burning Smells At Other Times?

If you believe you smell burning and use your furnace regularly, that may be more cause for concern. Typically, there is no easy way for the flames inside your furnace to cause an actual fire elsewhere unless something is very wrong. However, there may be debris trapped in the ductwork that could cause the smell. A very dirty furnace filter could also mean your system pulls dust into the system, which subsequently burns off due to the high heat. Dirty ducts could be an issue too.

Try changing your filter first to see if that solves the problem. Remember, you should change your furnace filter at the beginning of the heating season and at least once per month following that to maintain a strong flow of air. If that does not solve the problem, you should arrange for service so that a trained professional can inspect potential problem areas inside the heating system. If the smell is extremely strong or worrisome, switch off your furnace and request emergency maintenance service to address the concern.


True Furnace Dangers Don’t Often Produce Odors

It’s logical to assume that the odor of something burning would equate to a serious problem in your heating system. After all, in most cases, there are actual flames inside that equipment — though quite isolated from anything that should be able to catch fire. While being vigilant for such odors is essential, it’s even more important to remember that the real potential dangers of home heating have no odors at all.

Carbon monoxide, a byproduct of burning natural gas or fuel oil, is colorless and odorless and can be deadly in large concentrations. Symptoms of CO exposure often include dizziness, frequent headaches, and even short-term memory loss. While a furnace operating in normal conditions will vent CO and other combustion gases to the outside atmosphere, damage to components such as the heat exchanger can allow CO to leak. Always use a CO detector in your home and keep the batteries fresh.


HVAC 101 Everything you need to know


Finding Help To Keep Your Furnace in Top Condition

Although it can be very worrisome when your heater smells like burning, it’s not cause for alarm in most cases. Your own diligence, combined with regular and routine HVAC maintenance, will keep you and your family safe and warm during the winter months. Always be sure you connect with a local, licensed, and insured service provider to inspect and maintain your furnace, especially at the start of the season. That way, you won’t have to worry about burning smells — just what thermostat setting you want.


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