What Does an Electrical Fire Smell Like?

A strange odor is a telltale sign of an electrical fire in your home. At Black Hills Home Services, our electricians are often asked, “What does an electrical fire smell like?” A strange smell that doesn’t go away should never be ignored. Recognizing it can mean the difference between disaster and averting major safety hazards or unnecessarily wasting money and time on AC/air duct cleaning or exterminator services.

That being said, an electrical fire can smell like the following:

  • Burning Plastic: The acrid odor of an electrical fire is often described as that of burning plastic. This is because wiring insulation, connectors, and many other electrical components are made of plastic materials. Electrical fires often start behind walls, so you’ll sometimes start to smell rather than see one.
  • Fishy Smell: Instead of burning plastic, many people say an electrical fire emits a fishy scent. This typically means it has just started. The fish odor is caused by electrical components overheating that haven’t begun to burn up. Their heat-resistant chemical coatings can also release a fishy odor when burned.

Whether you smell burning plastic or something more like fish (when no one has cooked fish in your home recently), you are in serious danger. Common sources of overheating and electrical fires include overloaded circuits, incorrectly sized or malfunctioning breakers, loose wires, frayed cords, and damaged wire insulation.

Don’t Mistake the Smell of an Electrical Fire for Anything Else

Fishy odors in a home almost always mean there’s an electrical fire, or one is imminent. The longer a wire or electrical device overheats, the greater the risk of a fire. If wood, wallpaper, paint, and other flammable materials are nearby, the fire danger is even higher. No other hazard, including mold, sewer gas, or a dead animal, will emit a fishy odor or smell like burning plastic.

Other Signs of an Electrical Fire

Not every electrical fire gives off an acrid smell. Your other senses can pick up additional warning signals. These include:

  • Hearing: A buzzing sound from a switch, outlet, or unidentified source usually indicates an electrical problem. If the buzzing is isolated to one location, a fire might be behind the wall. A buzzing outlet likely has a loose connection or is shorting out.
  • Vision: If outlets and switches look charred or discolored, burning has already occurred and a fire may be in progress. Sparking, dimming or flickering lights, or frayed/exposed wires and cables are bad signs and mean it’s time to call an emergency electrician.
  • Touch: If an outlet, switch plate, or other electrical component feels hot (even if connected to a heat-producing device such as a hair dryer or toaster), it can mean wiring has overheated and that an electrical fire may be imminent.

Electrical fires often start from overloading and bad wiring. These are the same factors that cause circuit breakers to trip. If you have breakers that trip regularly, too may high-amp appliances may be plugged in or there may be an electrical short—risk factors that are associated with electrical fires and major damage.

What to Do If Your Senses Tell You There’s an Electrical Fire

The sensory feedback you’re getting is alerting you of immediate danger. Whether there’s a fishy odor or a discolored and/or hot outlet, now is not the time to ask around, “What does an electrical fire smell like?” Calmly leave your home and get a safe distance away. Then call 911 or your local fire department. Firefighters use various methods to find a fire and put it out quickly. Once the fire is extinguished, an electrician can get to work and fix what caused the problem in the first place.

Contact Black Hills Home Services

Homeowners in the Olympia area can trust Black Hills Home Services for wiring repair, house rewiring, and electrical updates. Our licensed electricians can reduce your risk of a house fire, electrical shock, and other safety issues. Never attempt to fix an electrical problem yourself. Properly trained, equipped, and experienced, our team can safely resolve any electrical issue. Call 888-295-1201 to schedule prompt service.