I had a lady call me one night at Fire Station 1 and say, “Do you respond to the smell of something burning in a home?” I told her, “Yes ma’am, sometimes several times in the same day.”As we were going down the steps, I commented; “Quite the aromatic polecat.” What we would come to find out was that her smell of something burning was the same aromatic polecat that had sprayed her dog, which then went through her house. This is not the point of this article, but it started as the smell of something burning. Every piece of leather, from our belts to our boots to the seats in the engine, soaked up that skunk smell.
The “smell of something burning” call is the fire service’s version of the proverbial needle in the haystack. Heat guns are worth their weight in gold, where these calls are concerned. However, it may still take forever, if ever, to figure it out. The source could be tied to so many different things. With the exception of being lucky enough to single something out because it stops working, finding the problem may start with the area where the smell is the strongest. It could be an outlet, a switch, a wire, a light, or a fan. In the kitchen, you can add every electrical appliance to the list.
Sometimes the source of the smell of something burning is a fire that has been smoldering for an extended period of time, whether in a wall or under the sub flooring. For those that burn fires in a fireplace, a breakdown of the fireplace or the flue can lead to a smoldering fire that never gets the air that it needs until it finally breaks through the floor or wall. In many cases, this type of fire ends up being called in when there is a smell and maybe even a hint of smoke.
Heading back to the kitchen, the smell can be an oven element that burns in two, or something that melts in the dishwasher. There have been houses burnt to the ground because of a faulty toaster. Leaving an appliance on for an extended period of time can be catastrophic.
Another common source of the smell of something burning is the primary heating system. A burnt-up motor or a burnt electrical component can fill a space with a burning smell. For the heat pump, it could be a problem with the outdoor unit or the air handler. If the heat strips are coming on for the first time, it might be nothing more than the dust being burned off.
The smell could be coming from a problem in the panel box. Overheated wiring or breakers can be smelling, though the problem has not yet caused something to trip. Energized electrical equipment or wiring is as dangerous as it comes. To cut the power to a breaker box may require the main breaker to be cut off, cutting power to the entire home. It is vitally important that you ensure that the power is off to any piece of electrical equipment that may be overheated or overloaded, that you may be checking. Never assume that something is de-energized without knowing for certain.
There are so many things that can cause the smell of something burning. This is why we need a proper number of properly located and properly operating smoke alarms. Alarms will not activate based on a smell, unless there is smoke associated with the smell but it’s protection nonetheless. At some point, an undetermined smell may turn into something that actually causes a fire, even a smoldering fire that will cause smoke. Smoke is the product of incomplete combustion. If you have a burning smell, just know that it might be difficult to locate. Fire departments deal with these calls pretty regularly, but even with the best of equipment it could still be a nightmare to locate.