As the warm glow of summer vanishes and the nights cool, so comes the dreaded first night of heater use. This often causes short-lived smells with baseboard heaters, but sometimes, baseboard heater smells can be long-lasting or can signal something more serious.
First-Time Smells Are Normal
Firing up the heater after a season of open windows and sunny days means you're cooking months of dust. It's not a great smell, but it's typical and not harmful. Heating pros will tell you not to panic if you're smelling burnt dust for the first and second time using baseboard heaters. However, if the third session rolls around and you're still smelling something, it's time to solve the problem or summon a pro.
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Smells Like Burning Dust
It's inevitable that a dormant heater getting its first-of-season fire-up will smell like burnt dust, but you can minimize this with proactive cleaning before that first cold snap. The baseboard cover either snaps off or needs to be unscrewed, but once it's off, you'll see what it holds. First, vacuum as much dust and debris as you can since it will include insect remains and other flammable things.
Use a duster or soft-bristle brush to loosen more dust to vacuum. Compressed canned air can also help blast things loose but wear a face mask so you don't inhale anything. Finally, after shutting off the power to the heater, use a wet, soft cloth to wipe it down and then replace the cover. You'll probably still get some burnt dust smell, but it should be short-lived.
Burning Plastic or Rubber Smells
Whether the wind blew some packaging into your baseboard heaters or you have kids or pets who like to hide things, it's not unusual for objects to slowly burn as the heater cranks up. You'll have to pry off the baseboard covers to see if you can determine the odorous culprit.
If you're lucky, it will entail a small amount of sleuthing before you can pop back on the covers. If not and the odor persists, there could be something more nefarious happening, and a professional should take a look.
Smells Like Electrical Burning
If you think you smell something like electrical burning — like a wire cooking — it's possible that your wiring is experiencing issues, but this is a rare occurrence with baseboard heaters. It could certainly just be something left behind that smells but don't gamble on it. Turn off the heat immediately, remove the baseboard covers and see if you can locate a conspicuous cause.
If your investigations yield no culprit, put the covers back and see if the burning smell continues on your second attempt with the heater. If so, turn off the heat and call a professional.
Other Potential Odor Issues
Unfortunately, critters can also be an issue. If your smells are musty or rotten, it may be that a rodent or something else met its end in your baseboard heater. You'll need to investigate to learn more. If you're lucky, any such corpses will be easy to remove. Be sure you wear some protective gear, like gloves and a mask.
It's less likely that you'll encounter critters or other foul smells with baseboard heaters. This tends to be more common with heating vents since things can be trapped and enclosed inside them.