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Question DetailsAsked on 12/5/2016

I have a smell in my office that comes and goes

Smell is in cold weather activated by small electric space heaters

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2 Answers



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Answered 3 years ago by Member Services


You did not say what the smell is like - burning paper or wood, melting plastic, chemically, hot metal, or what. Could be indication of a problem or not a problem - but assume it is dangerous until proven otherwise.

If you can tie down that it occurs only when the space heaters are on, then should not be too hard to pin down which unit is causing the smell - or maybe all if it is overheating plastic smell or such. If you are able to turn them on individually (or turn off or unplug all but one at a time if on plug-in cords or have individual thermostats or on/off switches), should be pretty easy to tie down the source.

Other alternatives, still assuming it is the heaters coming on that is causing the problem -

1) undersized wiring so the wiring itself (especially common right at the unit where the unit is heating it as well as the elecrtric current flowing through it causing heating)

2) unit is getting so hot that it is overheating paint of other wall covering, causing the stink - sometimes these units are improperly designed or installed and are actually charring the material right around or behind them. Can be chemically, burnt plastic, wood fire, paper fire, grassy, etc smell depending on what is overheating. With face-mount as opposed to recessed unit, baseboards commonly do this because the unit is designed for a certain minimum standoff from the wall but ends up installed tight against the baseboards - be they wood or plastic

3) possible carpet or plastic flooring or clear-coated surface flooring or expoxied or painted concrete flooring getting too hot and melting or severly outgassing due to the heat

4) unit naturally runs hot so the metal housing or a metal wire or ceramic heating element generates a smell - usually hot metal or cookware type smell if that is the case

5) if a built-in unit recessed into the wall, commonly installers do not do it right and do not put proper rock wool or asbestos insulation around the unit, leave the vapor barrier too close, fail to cut back the drywall opening properly so the surface paper and paint burns, etc. Or they don't wire it right and end up with looped or unprotected wiring exposed to the heat behind the unit so the insulation starts melting or charring. I would say for in-wall or on-wall units, probably 80-90% of the ones I have seen did not have proper installation - in many cases leaving vapor barrier or insulation batt paper facing in contact with or close to the unit, not even installing protective metal shielding that came with the unit, or bringing insulation down tight to the protective insert shield so it cannot do its job of radiating the excess heat.

6) if the type that are fluid filled (oil or glycol antifreeze) even though electric fired, leaking fluid can cause a nasty smell - from antifreeze to oil to putrid greasy to acrid acidic odor depending on what type of fluid is in it and how hot it is

7) sometimes it is something in the wall getting overheated (especially with insert type units) - damp insulation, wet wood growing fungus because of the heat, even the type of insulation - for instance, blue jean and shredded fabric insulation (for those who waste their money on things like that) can stink to high heaven (like a scorching clothes dryer) when they get too hot - either due to the coloring and sizing getting hot, or due to melting of polyester and similar materials in the fabric.

I would not ignore this situation or delay finding the cause, because if it is overheating of materials they may initially outgas fumes, but as the material gets overheated a number of times commonly the combustion temperature comes down, so what is initially just overheating becomes charring becomes actual combustion over time - which can occur at temperatures around about 250-300F for many artificial materials, and from around 300 to 350-400 for wood or paper (cellulose) based materials depending on a lot of factors and on the amount of exposure - both overall and per exposure cycle.

Obviously, if all are doing it then likely an installation of unit issue (which may or may not be indicative of a fire hazard) - if only one out of several similar ones, then likely a flaw in that particular unit or its installation.

If you are unable to track this down or solve it yourself then a Heating and A/C contractor (your Search the List category) would be the normal vendor - they are more familiar with the proper installation and with failure modes for that type of unit than an electrician, who may be who installed it.

Answered 3 years ago by LCD

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