After turning on a new space heater or a space heater that was long unused, it is very common to notice strange smells.
Some space heaters smell like something’s burning. Others give off plastic smells.
In this article, we’re going to check where your space heater smell comes from, whether it is dangerous, and, of course, how to eliminate the smell.
My name is Daniel, I am an electrical engineer, who worked in the heat sensing industry. I love solving simple, day-to-day electronic problems. Not the abstract stuff you study at university.
So, let’s check your space heater smell together and find out what to do.
Understanding Why Space Heaters Smell
There are several reasons for a space heater smelling. Let’s have a look at some of them.
1. Plastic / Chemical Smell: New heater “burn-in” phase
First and foremost, let’s start with a brand-new space heater. New space heaters usually have plastic casings (except some oil-filled radiators).
And even if yours has a wood or metal case, usually it has a protective coating on it.
There is always some artificial material on your space heaters.
Plastic materials and protective coatings contain VOCs (which stands for Volatile Organic Compounds). VOCs are (usually) unhealthy chemicals that evaporate from the plastic at room temperature.
The room temperature evaporation explains why these gasses are called “volatile”.
VOCs are a side-product of plastic production. For example, they are part of new PVC, which is one of the most commonly used plastic materials.
These VOCs cause the typical plastic smell. And it takes time for them to outgas.
The hotter the plastic gets, the faster it outgasses. This is very practical since we’re dealing with space heaters which naturally get hot.
Space heater plastic smell is expected in new space heaters, but not healthy.
Later on, we’ll check how to get rid of the unhealthy plastic smell fast.
But first, let’s have a look at the next smell.
2. Burning Smell: Dust and debris accumulation
If your space heater smells like burning, that’s likely due to dust accumulation on the space heater’s heating elements.
It can also smell like burning hair, or other burning smells, depending on the type of debris on the heating elements.
In fact, this happened to me just yesterday, where I turned on my infrared heater for the first time in a long while.
After turning the heater on, it smelled like something’s burning. The smell, however, faded within a minute.
Dust, hair and other particles settling on your space heater can cause a burning smell. The burning smell, however, has to fade within a short time after turning the heater on.
In case the burning smell remains, even after many minutes of running your space heater, you should turn your space heater off.
Skip to the next section to find out what to do to fix it.
3. Fishy / Burning / Smoky Smell: Electrical or mechanical issues
Any burning smells that are persistent, even after running your space heater for many minutes are very likely due to electrical or mechanical issues.
This also includes fishy smells. Some electronic components, especially capacitors, smell fishy when they blow up.
If your space heater’s burning smell does not fade within a short time, please check if your space heater even turns on. If it doesn’t turn on, there’s definitely a blown electric component inside.
Please check the next section on how to fix a broken space heater.
Step-by-step Guide to Eliminating Heater Smells
Let’s have a look at how to fix your space heater smell.
1. Plastic smell: Run your space heater on full power
To fix a new space heater smelling like plastic (due to outgassing), you can simply run your space heater on full power for a couple of hours.
The VOC gasses that cause the plastic smell evaporate at room temperature. But the higher the temperature, the more they evaporate and the faster the smell fades.
Since VOCs are not healthy, I recommend running your space heater in a room you don’t use. Also, vent the room you use for outgassing regularly to get rid of all the chemicals.
New space heaters should smell a lot less like plastic after a couple of hours of running time.
2. Plastic smell: Clean the heater’s exterior and vents
If the plastic smell still remains after running your space heater at full power for a couple of hours, I recommend cleaning your space heater.
Possibly, there is some residue from the manufacturer on the casing which causes all of the smell.
You don’t really need to use a special cleaner. A wet wipe with water should be enough.
But, of course, cleaners can help as well. However, to prevent your space heater from smelling like a cleaner, I recommend using a neutral cleaner or something that fades quickly, such as rubbing alcohol.
Rubbing alcohol is very good for removing any oily and greasy residue that can cause a plastic smell.
3. Burning smell: Clean the heater’s heating elements.
Usually, the burning smell fades within a minute or two. If the burning smell fades away quickly, there is nothing to worry about. Likely, it was just dust or hair on a heating element.
If the burning smell from your space heater doesn’t subside, there could be some sticky residue on it.
This only applies to space heaters with exposed heating elements, i.e. infrared heaters and ceramic heaters, and all other heaters where you can see the heating elements glowing.
Oil-filled radiators have embedded and sealed heating elements. So, they can’t cause any smells.
Usually, the heating elements are protected by a safety grid. So, you have to disassemble parts of your space heater first. Once, the grid is off, you should be able to access the heating elements for cleaning.
For cleaning heating elements, you can use rubbing alcohol or plain water.
4. Burning smell: Check the space heater’s power cord
Another possible source of a burning smell is your space heater’s power cord.
If it gets too hot, it can give off strange smells. Overheating space heater power cords are a safety hazard.
If your space heater cord gets too hot, please check out this guide on fixing a space heater cord getting hot first.
5. Burning smell: Checking and replacing faulty components
If your space heater keeps giving off a burning smell, please shine a light at it and have a close look at whether you see smoke coming out of your space heater.
If your space heater is smoking, unplug it immediately, disassemble it and see which part broke.
Once you know the broken part replace it. You likely need a soldering iron for that.
But also if your space heater gives off a burning smell without any visible smoke, I recommend checking out the this space heater troubleshooting guide: How to fix a space heater not getting hot
Also, oftentimes, if your space heater has some electronic issue, it makes buzzing, screeching, or similar noises. If your space heater makes any kind of noise, you should also check out this guide on fixing space heater noises (with sound examples).
Tips to Prevent Future Odors in Your Space Heater
To avoid encountering those unpleasant odors again, follow these practical and effective steps to ensure your space heater remains fresh and efficient:
1. Occasional cleaning and air purification
Like any other electronic equipment, space heaters require routine maintenance.
Dust and debris can accumulate quickly, especially if you use your heater frequently.
Burning smell from dust accumulation is very common.
One thing that can significantly reduce indoor dust and improve air quality at the same time is using an air purifier.
With the right HEPA + carbon filter, air purifiers are even able to pick up the plastic smell-causing VOCs from the air. So, they are perfect for the “burn-in” phase of your space heater.
2. Proper storage during off-seasons
To further limit dust and residue accumulation on your space heater, store it in a dust-free space, such as a storage room or the attic.
Ideally, cover it with a cloth or keep it in its original box.
3. Using heaters in well-ventilated spaces
While using your space heater, especially for the first time after a purchase or after a long time, ensure that the room is well-ventilated.
This will help the VOCs and other odors to dissipate faster and ensure you breathe cleaner air.
4. Don’t use a poor-quality space heater
The cheaper your space heater is, and the more plastic it contains, the higher the likelihood of your space heater smelling.
Really cheap space heaters don’t just outgas in the beginning. Over time, a cheap heater’s plastic casing melts near the heating elements which creates further plastic and burning smells.
So, please do yourself the favor and use good quality space heaters. They pay for themselves and can even save you money in the long run.
What to do if your Space Heater doesn’t stop smelling
If your space heater doesn’t stop smelling, I recommend simply getting a new one. Something is seriously off with your space heater.
Either it’s a broken electronic component, a short circuit that causes overheating, or simply bad build quality.
In this case I recommend replacing your space heater with a high quality infrared heater.
I recommend getting this Dr Infrared heater (click to see my review). Due to its wooden case material, it does not smell at all.