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Electrical Fire Smell: 5 Causes To Know

Charred electrical plug from an electrical fire.

An electrical fire smells like burning plastic or fish. If this happens, call an emergency electrician to identify the source of the problem or call 911 if there are signs of an active fire.

People want to feel safe in their homes and businesses, and most times, they are. But electrical fires are a surprisingly common threat — causing 13% of house fires and owning the largest share of property damage for a business.

An electrical fire is fairly easy to identify since there’s a distinct smell associated with it — smells like fish or burning plastic and rubber — can help you identify the source of the fire quickly, even before there are flames.

To prepare you in the event of an electrical fire, we’ll cover everything you need to know to protect your home or business from fire damage, including the early warning signs of an electrical fire, some prevention tips, and what to do if a fire does occur.

What Does an Electrical Fire Smell Like?

Electrical fires typically occur when there’s an issue with the electrical wiring in a building or as a result of a faulty or damaged appliance. Ungrounded outlets, overloaded circuits, and too many extension cords can also cause an electrical fire. We’ll start by covering the two most common and distinctive smells associated with an electrical fire and what they might mean.

 Two common electrical fire smells are burning plastic and the smell of fish.

Burning Plastic or Rubber

When electrical fires start in wiring, you’ll first notice the acrid, chemical smell of burning plastic and rubber as the wire insulation is the first thing to burn. The smell of burning plastic typically means the fire has accelerated. In such instances, call 911 immediately, especially if you can’t identify the cause of the electrical fire.

If you’ve identified the problem outlet or appliance and can safely unplug it, you should do so. You might be able to put out a small fire, but it’s best to call the fire department to ensure the fire is out completely and there are no lingering issues.

If the flames are close to the outlet or the wiring is exposed, evacuate the premises and leave it to the professionals. If you can access the circuit breaker box safely, turn off the breaker.

Fishy Scents

The unexplainable smell of fish might indicate that an electrical fire is beginning. As wiring insulation begins to melt — but isn’t quite burning yet — many people interpret the smell as fishy rather than rubber or plastic.

If you can’t identify where it’s coming from, turn off the circuit breakers and call an electrician for an emergency inspection to identify the source of the wiring problem.

Other Signs of an Electrical Fire

Beyond odd smells, there are other signs that indicate the risk of an electrical fire. If you notice any of these common signs, call an electrician to help remedy the situation before a fire starts.

Image shows 5 signs there’s a risk of an electrical fire.

1. Circuit Breaker Tripping

While a circuit breaker may occasionally trip when several appliances operate off the same circuit, if the breaker trips often or for no apparent reason, this may indicate an electrical issue.

A circuit breaker automatically shuts off electricity when it’s overloaded to prevent an electrical fire. However, if it keeps happening, it’s a serious sign that you have a wiring or circuit overload issue that needs to be addressed by an electrician. An experienced electrician will identify the appliance that is causing the issue and determine if you need to replace the electrical wiring for that circuit or throughout the building.

2. Lights Flickering or Buzzing Sound

Flickering lights are another signal that a building’s wiring may be inadequate or faulty. When lights flicker or if you hear a low buzzing sound when specific lights are turned on, this may indicate an overloaded circuit. This could be the result of an issue with the wiring for the circuit or the light itself. Either way, get it checked out by a licensed electrician as soon as possible.

3. Charred Outlets

Charred outlets mean that either a small electrical fire has already occurred or the outlet is too hot. Both are clear signs that the building is at risk of an electrical fire. A licensed electrician will be able to tell if the wiring to that outlet needs to be replaced.

4. Faulty Wiring

Any questionable wiring practices create the risk of an electrical fire. Exposed wires, ungrounded plugs, using the wrong type of wiring, or degrading insulation are all major red flags that can lead to an electrical fire.

5. Noticeable Sparks

Sometimes, when you plug something in, the outlet sparks — these occasional small sparks aren’t abnormal. However, for larger sparks that leave behind a burning smell, residue, or make noise, you should contact an electrician to check the outlet and ensure it’s safe to use.

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Tips for Preventing Electrical Fires

There are some preventative actions that reduce the risk of an electrical fire impacting a business or home. If you suspect that your home or business has any of these potential fire risks, consult an electrician to help. Mr. Electric is available 24/7 for emergency services.

Keep in mind that a fire can occur even if you take these precautions.

  • Regularly inspect wiring: Get an electrical inspection every three to five years to get ahead of any potential safety hazards.
  • Avoid overloading outlets: Ensure that all the appliances in a building are the proper voltage for an outlet, and never plug an extension cord into another extension cord.
  • Keep flammables away from outlets: Keep flammables such as cooking oils or fabric away from outlets in case sparks or heat occur.
  • Take advantage of surge protectors: Surge protectors shield devices from unexpected power surges from outlets. This protects devices and reduces electrical fire risk.
  • Unplug devices when not in use: When possible, unplug devices to avoid overheating.

FAQ About Electrical Fires

Is the Smell of an Electrical Fire Harmful?

The electrical fire smell is typically burning plastics, which release harmful chemicals as they’re melting. If an electrician has taken care of the issue, open windows to increase ventilation and leave the premises until the smell has dissipated.

What Could Cause an Electrical Burning Smell in a Business or House?

If there’s an electrical fire smell in a business or home, it means a fire has already started or one is likely to happen soon. Shut off the breakers if you can safely reach the panel and call an emergency electrician to confirm. If there are signs of a fire, call 911.

How Long Does It Take for an Electrical Fire To Start?

Electrical fires can start in practically no time under the right conditions. They can also develop slowly over time if the electrical systems degrade. This is why it’s important to take preventative measures and know the signs of risk so you can take action immediately.

Are There Warning Signs Before an Electrical Fire?

Yes. Some of the common warning signs before an electrical fire include:

  • The smell of fish or burning plastic
  • Flickering and dimming lights
  • Repeated circuit breaker trips
  • Charred outlets or light switches
  • Excessive sparks from outlets

Hire a Professional for Fire Damage Restoration

If you’ve experienced an electrical fire, turn to an experienced professional to handle the cleanup. Rainbow Restoration® offers smoke damage cleanup and fire restoration services to mitigate property damage. We’re here to help get your home or business up and running as soon as possible, offering everything you need to fight smoke damage or remediate water damage from fire suppression efforts. Call Rainbow Restoration today for emergency service.

This article is intended for general guidance only and may not be applicable to every situation. You are responsible for determining the proper course of action for your property, and Rainbow Restoration is not responsible for any damages that occur as a result of any advice or guidance derived from blog content. For the most accurate guidance, contact a Rainbow Restoration professional for a custom, on-site assessment.

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