Is a Burning Smell Normal When I Turn on My Home Heat?

Woman with her hands on their home heating system to check if it's properly working.
It’s the first cold day in a while and you can’t help but notice the chill in the house. You switch on the heater to warm up, but the first thing you smell is a scorched, burning smell. Is that normal? Is your house or HVAC system in danger? It’s very normal to wonder if that burning smell is normal or dangerous. After all, in every other scenario, a burning smell is a cause for alarm and immediate action. So is it normal? Fortunately, yes. That smell is normal. Now let us explain why that scorching smell is normal. How long does it last? And how to prevent it from happening again in the future.

How Your Home Heat Works on the Inside

A home heater runs air across heating elements to warm up the air before circulating it through your home. A central heating unit uses your HVAC intake to pull filtered air into the unit, run it past the elements, and then blow it out through your ducts and vents. A smaller unit for heating one room or area works similarly, but on a smaller scale. This means that when you fire up the heater, those elements get hot and the blowers get started churning air. But whatever is on the elements is going to scorch when they get hot — mainly, dust.

Where the Burning Smell Comes From

When your heater is running, air blows over the elements and keeps things moving. But when the heat is turned off for warmer months, any small flecks of dust that made it inside the unit can settle onto the heating elements. You know how dust forms and you know that over a few months. It can make a light blanket on anything, even with that air filter at the intake. When the heater gets hot for the first time in a long time, that dust is going to burn off. That is where the scorching smell comes from. Eventually, all the dust that had settled on the elements is burned by the elements or blown away by the now-cycling air circulation, and the burning smell stops. After this, the constantly moving air will stop dust from settling on the elements until your heater is switched off again for a long duration.

How to Prevent the Burning Smell Next Year

Is that burning smell when you turn on the heater normal? Yes. Assured there is nothing wrong? Just fire up your heater like normal each year and wait for the scorchy smell to abate. But if you hate that smell and don’t want to smell it again, you have that option. The first thing you can do is use high-quality air filters and change them every 3 months, especially during winter. This will significantly reduce the amount of dust that can and will build up on your heater elements. If there is already dust on your elements, you can call for an HVAC technician to open the unit and clean the elements before you fire up your heater for the year. The last thing you can do is have your ducts cleaned once a year to reduce the amount of dust capable of building up and releasing inside your home and, eventually, inside your heater.

When the Burning Smell Isn’t Normal for Your Home Heat

Lastly, it’s important to know when that burning smell from your home heat is not the usual dust burn-off. If the odor smells like hot metal instead of burning dust, be on alert; likewise, if it smells like burning plastic. If the smell doesn’t go away within the first hour or two, this could be a sign that the wiring or elements inside your heater have gone haywire or that a broken piece of the heater has fallen onto the elements. Switch off your heater and call for a heating repair service immediately to ensure your home and family are safe.

Contact Our HVAC Company in Yankton, SD Today!

Whether you’d like a pre-heater service to avoid the burning smell or an HVAC check-in to check that the smell is safe, we’re here to help. Contact us today for the trustworthy and helpful local HVAC services your home needs. Our HVAC company serves homeowners and businesses throughout the area, including Yankton, Vermillion, and the surrounding communities in SD.

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