There is a vast range of smells all around our homes, from cooking smells, pet odors and perfumes.
As we get used to the daily smells, we notice very quickly when something doesn’t smell quite as it should.
Many of us know the smell of gas, but do you also know what an electrical fire in your home smells like?
Smell is often very subjective, to some an electrical fire smells like burning plastic, while others think it smells more like fish.
In addition, an electrical fire does not always produce an odor. This makes it much more difficult to spot before the fire gets out of control.
In this article, we take a look at what electrical fires typically smell like. We find out how you can spot an electrical fire early on, and what to do when you spot one.
What Does An Electrical Fire Smell Like?
Electrical fires can occur when cables, circuit breakers or electric wires fail or malfunction.
As most cables and wires are behind walls, it is very difficult to tell when an electrical fire starts.
Sometimes there is a certain odor that indicates the start of an electrical fire, but this is not always the case.
Electrical fires have a very distinct smell. Most people found that this type of fire has an acrid odor which is similar to burning plastic.
This is likely caused by the burning of the plastic components near the wire or cable.
When you notice that your home has a fish scent, then it is likely that an electrical fire has just started.
This smell occurs when electrical parts start to overheat but the fire hasn’t had a chance yet to spread to the plastic components to properly burn.
However, it can be difficult to identify this very early stage of an electrical fire, as odors often combine with other scents.
This is particularly difficult when you cook fish or seafood regularly. However, the actual plastic smell of the burning electrical fire is very distinctive.
It is very important to note at this point that not all electrical fires give off a smell that’s similar to fish or plastic.
Depending on your home and the different wires, cables and appliances in your house, electrical fires can smell different.
In some cases, there is no odor at all. Then, electrical fires can burn for quite some time until they get detected.
There are some tell-tale signs that indicate that there may be an electrical fire. We’ll take a look at the visual signs of an electrical fire further down.
Causes Of An Electrical Fire
Unlike other classes of fire, such as gas fires, an electrical fire can occur without any fault of your own.
Before we find out how else you can spot electrical fires, let’s take a look at the causes of this type of burning or smoldering.
Here are some situations in which an electrical fire might break out.
Old Or Faulty Wiring
Although we would like to believe that our homes can stay new and beautiful forever, we do notice some wear and tear already after a few years.
This does not only apply to the visible decorations, such as wall paper or flooring, but the age of your home also shows in the wiring.
As a rule of thumb, the wires and cables of your home should be updated every twenty years to ensure that the wires do not malfunction.
Old wires cannot withstand the greater electrical load with modern devices. This leads to the overloading of the circuit and circuit breakers.
This can cause the breaker box to overheat and it can even start to burn.
Unless you have experience with electrical wiring, it’s best to contact an electrician to check the condition of the wiring in your home.
He will also be able to advise whether any of your wiring needs to be replaced.
Faulty Extension Cords
Extension cords are handy and practical when you need to use more electrical devices than you have sockets for.
However, extension cords can pose a great fire risk when they are not used correctly.
Extension cords should never be placed under carpets or furniture. These devices can get warm when plugged in, so they do catch fire when covered.
It’s also important that you do not connect additional extension cords with each other. Called daisy-chaining, this could cause the electric circuit to overheat and burn.
Make sure that you know what your extension cord is for. Indoor extension cords should be used only inside.
If you use an inside extension cord outside, it may get wet, and as we all know, electricity and water do not mix. This can lead to a short circuit.
Just like with any electrical device in your home, you should never try to modify an extension cord. This will make the device unsafe, and may even cause electrical fires.
Incorrect Space Heater Usage
One of the most common causes of electrical fires is additional heating devices, such as space heaters or portable radiators.
They can be plugged in for a quick output of heat, but they are also often left plugged in.
As space heaters work with added heat, they pose an increased fire risk. That’s why there are some precautions you need to take to ensure that you use the device correctly.
You need to make sure that you do not ever cover the heater with anything. Space heaters can get quite hot and this could cause the fabric or cover to catch fire.
You should also ensure that the space heater isn’t too close to furniture, curtains, beds, chairs and other items in your home.
With these heaters generating a significant amount of heat, they can quickly cause fires when they are anywhere near anything flammable.
Lighting Running Over Wattage
Lights that use light bulbs can also be a fire risk when they run over wattage.
Each light bulb has a recommended range of wattage. The same applies to lighting fixtures. It is important to stick to this wattage recommendation.
If you exceed the recommended wattage range, then either your table light or lighting fixture can catch fire, or the light bulb will explode.
Signs Of An Electrical Fire
Apart from the possible odor, there is a great range of other signs that could indicate an electrical fire is either starting or at risk of starting in your home.
As all homes and wiring are different, it is important to say here that you may not notice all of these signs.
However, if you spot one or more of these signs of an electrical fire, then it is worth investigating, and contacting an electrician.
With the normal noise of the day, it may be difficult to hear but you may want to listen closely at night.
Take a flashlight and walk through the house listening for a consistent buzzing sound. You may notice that the volume of the sound is fainter in different parts of the house.
If you are not sure where the buzzing is coming from, then there is a possibility that it is an electrical fire behind any of your walls.
Lights Dimming Automatically
Dimming the lights can be very romantic but unless you have a dimmer switch installed in your home, the lights should not be dimming on their own.
If you notice that the bulb of one or more of your light fixtures is flickering, then this could be a sign that another appliance is drawing too much power.
This causes the electric circuit to drop the power in your light. It’s important that you find out which appliance is causing the fault, and repair it before plugging it in again.
Breakers Tripping More Often
Breakers, also known as fuse switches, trip when the circuit is overloaded. The breaker will then trip and cut out all power.
When you notice that your breaker trips more often, then this may be due to a power surge, a faulty appliance or a damaged part in the fuse box.
Although breakers do trip now and then, and this may not be a sign of a serious problem, it’s always worth finding out why the circuit suddenly got overloaded.
Electrical sparking in your fuse box, around outlets or the breaker panels is a clear sign that something is wrong with your electrical wiring.
You will need to contact an electrician immediately, as the sparks could cause an electrical fire almost instantly.
Although this could be caused by a malfunctioning appliance or another electrical fault, it’s best to ask an electrician to check.
Discolored Outlets And Switches
Typically, switches and power outlets are plain white. When there is a fault with your wiring or electric appliances and there is a fire smoldering, then you will notice that the outlets will turn a brownish or black color.
This means that there may already be a fire burning and it needs immediate attention.
Hot Outlets And Switch Plates
It’s not always large appliances that cause issues, but also smaller items, such as toasters or hair dryers, that may be a fire risk.
Their outlets should be cool to the touch, and if you notice that these are too hot, then this may be a sign of a faulty wire, which may start a fire.
What To Do If There Is An Electrical Fire
Although we have now seen many possible signs that you may spot when an electrical fire starts or is already under way, an electrical fire does not always have visual signs or odors.
However, if you notice an electrical fire in your workplace or your home, then here are the next essential steps that you need to take to keep everyone in the building safe.
Leave The Building
If you smell burning plastic or you spot any of the signs above, then it is essential that you exit your home or the building immediately.
Since the fire is behind the wall, and you do not know how far it has spread, you need to make sure that you and everyone else in the building instantly leave.
Contact The Emergency Services
Although offices and homes require the attention of an electrician in order to fix the electrical fault, nobody should enter the building when there is an imminent fire risk.
You should call the local fire department immediately and report what you noticed.
Make sure that you stay a good distance from the building and then dial 911. They will ask a number of different questions such as your address and what you have spotted.
They will then dispatch a team of firefighters who will be able to investigate the possible fire risk further.
They do have the equipment to carry out certain tests and check where the fire may be located.
The firefighters will then make sure that the fire is put out and that there is no danger coming from the wiring anymore.
Contact Your Electrician
After the firefighters have given their okay to enter the building safely again, you can contact your trusted electrician.
He will be able to take a look at the extent of the damage and advise on the best way to repair your wiring.
How To Prevent Electrical Fires
Luckily, it doesn’t have to get as far as calling the fire department to prevent any electrical fires.
Here are our handy tips and tricks on how to prevent an electrical fire in your home and office.
Check The Cords Of Your Appliances
Although electrical fires can start behind walls, sometimes the cords that we use regularly can pose a fire risk.
You should check the cords of all your appliances regularly. Check for any exposed or frayed wires.
Do not touch any exposed wires, and make sure that they are not accessible to anyone. Then contact your electrician to repair the wires or replace the appliance.
Don’t Overload Wattage
This may not always be obvious but you should find out how much power your electronics needs to run on.
Make sure that you do not overload the wattage and always stick to the recommendation.
If you overload the wattage range of an appliance, then this could trip the circuit and cause an electrical fire.
Call For Help Immediately
If you notice any signs of an electrical fire, no matter how great or small, you need to contact your fire department immediately.
It’s important to take the fire risk from electrical fires seriously. It's much better to be overly cautious since this approach could save lives.
If you are unsure, then you can also call your electrician, who will be able to give advice.
Update Your Electrical Wiring Regularly
You do not have to wait until you spot any signs of an electrical fire to upgrade or replace the wiring in your home.
As a rule of thumb, you should replace all the wiring after 20 years. While this can be costly, it is essential for the safety of you, your family and the property you live in.
Test Your GFCIs Monthly
The majority of modern homes have a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) installed. This may be in your basement, bathroom, garage or laundry room.
A GFCI will stop the power supply when it spots an overload in the electrical system of your home.
This helps to protect your devices and wiring from overheating, and therefore prevents the outbreak of fires.
You should test your GFCI regularly. You can do this by pushing the Test button on the device.
This will turn off the device. Now plug one of your appliances in and check if it is working.
It should not be working as the power has been shut off. Once you are done, you just unplug your appliance again and press the Reset button.
Since electrical fires do not always have obvious signs, such as an odor, they are not always easy to spot.
However, this does not mean that electrical fires are not dangerous. On the contrary, they can cause just as much harm as fires that you can see.
Make sure that you regularly check and update your wiring. It’s a good idea to ask an electrician to inspect the wiring in your home, and check that your appliances are all safe.
The majority of fires are caused by the incorrect use of electrical appliances, so it is vital that you know how to use your equipment and devices, such as space heaters, properly.