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.

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 other electrical components are plastic. Electrical fires often start behind walls, so you’ll sometimes start to smell rather than see one.
  • Burning Rubber: Burning rubber is another smell of an electrical fire, which is the odor of melting plastic insulation.
  • Fishy Smell: Many people say an electrical fire emits a fishy scent instead of a burning plastic odor. This smell 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.

The smell of an electrical fire is very distinct. You are in grave danger if you smell burning plastic or something fishy.

Common sources of overheating and electrical fires include overloaded circuits, incorrectly sized or malfunctioning breakers, loose wires, frayed cords, and damaged wire insulation.

Is It an Electrical Fire or Something Else?

Unless someone in your household has recently cooked fish, 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 fire risk. The fire danger is even higher if wood, wallpaper, paint, and other flammable materials are nearby. No other common residential hazard, including mold, sewer gas, or a dead animal, will emit a fishy odor or smell like burning plastic.

Electrical Fire Odors: Are They Toxic?

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Burning plastic and insulation do release toxins into the air. When plastic begins to melt, it releases ketones and aldehyde gases, which are harmful to breathe. HVAC systems might spread the smell through your house, making it harder to pinpoint the location of the fire.

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 can include:

  • Hearing: A buzzing sound from a switch, outlet, or unidentified source usually indicates an electrical problem. A fire might be behind the wall if the buzzing is isolated to one location. 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, 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. Switch plates can be slightly warm, but if they are hot, there is a problem.

If you hear buzzing, see charring, or feel heat on a switch or outlet plate, cut off power to that section from the electrical panel’s circuit breaker, and don’t use it again until you’ve had an electrician inspect the problem.

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 many high-amp appliances may be plugged in, or there may be an electrical short. Drawing too much power or electrical shorts in faulty wiring are risk factors associated with electrical fires and major damage.

What to Do If You Think 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 or hot outlet, calmly leave your home and keep 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. Our team is properly trained, equipped, and experienced, and we can safely resolve any electrical issue. Call 888-295-1201 to schedule prompt service. We offer residential home electrical inspection and safety checks in Olympia and the Greater Washington Area.