Recognizing Electrical Fire Smells and Risks

Burned 250V uk style socket and converter. Improper use of AC Power Plugs and Sockets cause of short circuit and fires at home

As a certified electrician, one of the most commonly asked questions is what does an electrical fire smell like?

  • Acrid Burning Plastic Smell – The smell of burning plastic is often associated with overheating wires and insulation breakdown.
  • Fishy Scent – A fishy scent can indicate the presence of ozone, which is produced when electrical sparks occur.

Many people are unaware of the potential risks associated with electrical fires, and it’s important to understand the signs of an impending hazard.

Signs of an Impending Electrical Fire Hazard

Burned eu style socket in hand. Power Plug after short circuit and fires on white background

There are several signs that indicate an impending electrical fire hazard:

  • Random Flickering or Dimming Lights – If your lights are randomly flickering or dimming, it could be a sign of an overloaded circuit or faulty wiring.
  • Persistent Burning Smell – A persistent burning smell, often described as burning plastic or hair, could be a sign of overheating wires or insulation breakdown. This smell should never be ignored and requires immediate attention.
  • Frequent Tripping of Circuit Breaker – If your circuit breaker trips frequently, it could be a sign of an overloaded circuit or faulty wiring. This should be investigated by a licensed electrician.
  • Discolored Outlets and Switches – Discoloration or charring around outlets and switches could indicate overheating and require immediate attention.
  • Sparking While Plugging in Outlets – Sparking or arcing while plugging in outlets could indicate a loose connection or damaged wiring and should be inspected by a licensed electrician.

the Odors of Electrical Fires

Failure caused by burning of the wire cable and socket outlet plug in the house, blurred photo, concept blurred background, selective focus.

Electrical fires produce distinctive odors that can help identify the source of the problem.

Two common smells associated with electrical fires are:

  • Acrid Burning Plastic Smell – The smell of burning plastic is often associated with overheating wires and insulation breakdown.
  • Fishy Scent – A fishy scent can indicate the presence of ozone, which is produced when electrical sparks occur.

Responding to Electrical Fire Smells

cell phone charger short-circuited, smoke and fire, electrical appliance melting

If you notice an electrical fire smell in your home, it’s important to take immediate action:

  • Evacuation and Calling Fire Department – If you see flames or smoke, evacuate the building immediately and call 911. Do not try to fight the fire yourself.
  • Unplugging Appliances and Turning Off Power – If you only smell burning and there are no visible flames or smoke, carefully unplug any appliances that may be causing the smell. If possible, turn off the power to the affected area at your home’s breaker box.
  • Consider Upgrading Electrical Wiring – If you have old, outdated wiring, consider upgrading it to prevent future hazards.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.