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What to Do for Strange HVAC Smells

Know When You Should Call a Professional

HVAC, air conditioning
Is it your air conditioning?

We get asked a lot about unusual smells coming from HVAC systems. Sometimes the answer has to do with something completely unrelated to your equipment, like the tuna sandwich a toddler put into a vent (true story) or even a gassy pet! Nevertheless, sometimes these odors are problematic, beyond removing just a yucky part of an old lunch. Know what’s normal and what’s not, from the list below.

Faint, TEMPORARY burning smell

If you’re turning on your air conditioner for the first time this year, you can expect a faint burning smell to drift through the house when it powers on. Why? It’s about the dust that has gathered in the system during the months when it hasn’t been on, now burning off. The situation is nothing to worry about, and should dissipate within minutes.

Persistent burning smell or smoke

Obviously, if you are seeing smoke anywhere in or around your house and no one is barbecuing, it’s time to turn off the HVAC and call the fire department to check it out. Ditto if you smell fire, the smell of gunpowder or something burning. After all, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Furthermore, if that faint “dust burning” smell doesn’t go away after a few minutes of running your air conditioning for the first time in several months, turn off your system immediately, and call for an HVAC technician to come inspect it before using again. Frayed or chewed electrical wires are nothing to mess around with, and aside from fire risk, can also cause serious damage to your equipment.

Garbage Smell

Sadly, this may mean there’s an outside critter that has crawled inside your system during the winter and since passed away. While grisly, it happens here in the suburbs from time to time. An HVAC tech can help determine the cause of the smell and remove it. If it’s a persistent problem, this situation may also require a pest control company.

Locker Room Smell

Unless you have a teenager with questionable hygiene in the house leaving their bedroom door open, this could signal a humidity or moisture problem within your AC system. No one should be breathing mold or mildew.

Whether it’s fixing a leak or installing UV light sanitation equipment to eliminate bacteria and other irritants from your airflow, your HVAC professional can help. Don’t ignore it, as the problem will likely get worse instead of better without intervention.

For your own health and safety, don’t ignore persistent unpleasant smells that come from your HVAC system. Most will require only a simple fix to resolve, but left unattended could lead to something worse and more expensive.

And what to do with a stinky teen? They will grow out of it. Hopefully.


Get the HVAC experts families of the San Gabriel Valley trust for all their indoor comfort needs, since 1969. Call Air-Tro at (626) 357-3535.