Water Heater Smells Like Burning

Water Heater Smells Like Burning

Water Heater Smells Like BurningDoes your water heater smell like it’s burning?

A burning smell from your water heater is often a sign of one of the components overheating or failing. When dirt, dust, insulation, or plastic comes in contact with the hot parts of your water heater, you may experience a burning smell.

Do not ignore these smells as they indicate a potential fire risk with your water heater, but fortunately, most of them are easy to fix with a little bit of knowledge and some basic tools. So if you’ve followed a burning odor back to your water heater, check out this guide to learn the cause and how to fix it.

5 Reasons Your Water Heater Smells Like Burning

1. Water Heater Smells Like: Burning Rubber or Plastic

If you smell burning rubber or burning plastic, turn off the power source at the breaker before trying to pinpoint the smell.

If the electrical contacts on the thermostat mounted outside the water heater are overheating, the plastic parts around the switch may overheat and burn.

Additionally, the insulative coating on the wires could be overheating and burning. If the insulation is old or not packed properly, it could cause the wiring to come into contact with heating elements and overheat.

Solution: If you can pinpoint the cause of the burning smell, you can try to replace the insulation or adjust the plastic pieces so they don’t overheat. If you can’t locate or fix the problem yourself, contact a local plumber.

2. Water Heater Smells Like: Electrical Burning

If your water heater emits an electrical burning smell, this indicates that something electrical is starting to overload.

Two common components in electric water heaters can fail and cause an electrical burning smell.

Overheated Electrical Contacts. A hot wiring smell or electrical fire smell indicates that you need to check your wiring for arcing. After years of operation, the electrical contacts can erode and cause a higher resistance. When this happens, the contacts can heat up and arc, resulting in heat generating at the contacts instead of the fire rod. In this scenario, the heated contacts emit an electrical burning smell.

Fire Rod Failure. Over time, fire rods can crack and short out. As a result, the excess current from the short can cause the wiring and thermostat to heat up and emit an electrical burning smell.

Solution: Both of these issues will require a trained plumber to repair. It may even make sense to replace your water heater instead of repairing it.

3. Water Heater Smells Like: Burning Dust

Over time, your water heater can accumulate dust and other debris, and when it runs, the dust and other debris can burn up, causing a burning dust smell.

Solution: Clean your water heater regularly and wipe off the dust and other debris that accumulate over time to resolve this issue.

4. Water Heater Smells Like: Gas

Chances are, if you have a gas water heater and smell gas, you have a gas leak.

Solution: Immediately turn off the gas, air out your home, and call a plumber or your gas company to check for and fix the leaks. If you don’t know how to turn off the gas, you’ll want to evacuate your home and call the fire department for help, as the gas could ignite and cause a fire.

5. Water Heater Smells Like: Rotten Eggs or Sulfur

If your water heater smells like rotten eggs or sulfur, you most likely need to replace your sacrificial anode rod. These metal rods “sacrifice” themselves to rust and corrode first, preventing the water heater tank from rusting.

Solution: Replacing an anode rod will most likely require a trained plumber. It may even make sense to replace your water heater instead of repairing it.

Can Hot Water Heaters Cause a Fire?

Yes. Your water heater can cause a fire or even explode in your home. According to the National Fire Protection Association, water heaters account for roughly 10% of all home fires that involve heating equipment.


There are three common reasons a water heater will cause fires. These include:

Overheating: As stated above, the plastic parts or insulation can overheat and catch on fire.

Gas leaks: If you have a gas water heater and it has a gas leak, the ignition flame can ignite the gas and cause an explosion.

High water pressure: Pressure builds inside the tank as water is heated. A properly functioning water heater will shut off or release the pressure through a safety valve. However, if these safety mechanisms fail, the pressure can increase to an unstable amount, causing the tank to explode.

11 Replies to “Water Heater Smells Like Burning”

  1. retired electrician
    just had one catch on fire in my attic space 🙁
    reason was, imho………lot of water tanks are internally wired with 14 gage wire
    then they are wired from the panel to the hw heater with 12 gage wire on a 20 amp breaker
    #14 is only good for 15 amps. but can draw 20 amps from the panel

    this tank leaked and rusted off the bracket that holds the upper
    thermostat onto the hw tank.
    so now the stat is not reading the water temp but the air temp and keeps
    calling for heat and doesn’t shut .off and wires in the hw tank get pretty hot, and can draw more current than they are rated for because they are fed from a 20 amp breaker in the panel.
    so smoke gets in your eyes………
    10% of house fires are from electric hw tanks.

  2. The following article regarding the smelling of the water heater pipes is very informational and descriptive. I have a Conventional Storage Tank Water Heater. For a couple of weeks, I have been facing an issue of Smelly water and noise coming out vigorously.

  3. You mentioned that if our water heater smells like gas, we might have a gas leak. My water heater has smelled like this for a week or so. I am going to look for a plumber to help me service it.

  4. It really helped when you stated that electrical smells from a water heater are reasons to get a plumber to check the unit. While relaxing in my living room, I smelled something similar to a blown fuse coming from my utility room. When I asked if anyone was using the water heater, I found out my wife was using some hot water for a spa bath and might have overused it. This might have caused one of the fire rods to give out, so I’ll definitely take your advice and get a water heater repair service to see if they can fix it.

    1. I have burnt smell coming from the tops of my gas water heater. It is freezing so I have the faucet running…would this be the problem?

  5. I just replaced the upper thermostat and heater coil in my hot water heater but still getting a burnt smell from the top of my hot water heater?

  6. Another reason for smelling burning from your water heater: a squirrel managed to get down our chimney (probably seeking shelter and warmth on a cold day). Smoke spread throughout the whole house. Our wonderful plumber was able to clean out remnant fur and bones from the chamber.

  7. I smell burnt candles in the hot water is that normal? I stay in an apartment and the water heater separate from our suites and once the hot water was turned on it smelled like burnt candles

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