Phantom Smells
September 16, 2011 4:11 PM   Subscribe

This morning my husband and I woke up to discover that seemingly overnight our house has begun to reek of what I can only describe as a strong burning hair smell. We haven't started using our heater or anything like that yet, and nothing has changed in our daily routine. Any suggestions on what might produce such an aroma?
posted by corn_bread to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any electric baseboard heaters? This it the time of year that they might be turning on and they probably have accumulated a layer of dust over the summer.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:14 PM on September 16, 2011

Your heater doesn't kick on automatically at a certain threshold? Like 55 degrees? Could that be possible?

What about a bathroom that has a heat fan? Would someone have flipped that on due to a colder-than usual morning?
posted by peep at 4:16 PM on September 16, 2011

A moth burning in a halogen light produces that smell.
posted by monotreme at 4:16 PM on September 16, 2011

Seconding some kind of heater that kicked on or worse a piece of wiring in some wall that is going bad and getting hot. Turn off everything in your house and see if the meter is still spinning (this means unplugging the fridge and everything). If you don't know the electrical meter has a small wheel that spins around. If it is you definately have a problem and get an electrician out there. The other problem chasing solution is to open up the house, turn off the power main at the breaker box (you will have one main breaker that will turn off ALL the power in the house-your clocks will blink) and leave it off for a while and see if the smell dissapates. If it does, hire an electrician to chase it down.
posted by bartonlong at 4:19 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is definitely not the heater turning on. Good suggestions so far. I'm going to start checking my lights and electricity.
posted by corn_bread at 4:21 PM on September 16, 2011

Possibly a small animal that met the wrong end of an electrical flow? Of course this would also imply loose wiring somewhere.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:25 PM on September 16, 2011

Maybe a plastic spatula or something similar fell down onto the heating coils in your dishwasher?
posted by belladonna at 4:29 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dryer lint smoldering in the dryer vent ducting?

Can you determine if it smells stronger in one part of the house than another?
posted by mosk at 4:31 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

How old is your house? How crappy could the wiring be? I'm not in any way an electrician, but my in-laws' house (built in the early 1900s) had a wiring issue a few years ago that started with a burning smell and ended (luckily) with a smokey closet. They called an electrician out who said they were very lucky things hadn't caught fire.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:31 PM on September 16, 2011

I smelled the same smell for days. My husband couldn't smell it. Turns out, it was a fried circuit board in our air conditioner. I hope you find whatever it is soon!
posted by JacksonandFinch at 5:09 PM on September 16, 2011

Yeah....the first thing I thought of was a fire in the wall. It's never happened to me, so I don't know if a burning smell is typical, but I know it's possible for bad wiring to start a smoulder in the wall that could turn into a full-blown fire without warning. Might be worth calling the fire department non-emergency number and asking them to come over and check. They usually have infrared cameras that can check for that.

There are plenty of other explanations, but in case it is a fire in the wall, I wouldn't ignore it.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:11 PM on September 16, 2011

I'd be super freaked about the wiring in the wall, but that has happened to me and it cost a good chunk of change to fix.
posted by TheBones at 5:41 PM on September 16, 2011

Any soldering irons or other resistance devices left on anywhere? Hot plates? Space heaters?

How long have you lived in the house? Do you know it well? We have some backup resistance heaters in our ducts and the first time they turned on they made a similar smell. We've since turned them off at the breaker as we have no use for them.

I might walk around to all my appliances, TV, fridge, dryer, etc, and anything else plugged into a wall and take a big whiff to see if I could pin down where the smell is coming from. Then I would walk around and feel all my outlets and switches, and feel if any of them are warmer than usual. Dimmers and other "different" switches especially.
posted by bondcliff at 5:57 PM on September 16, 2011

Have any clogged drains you've been using Drano (or similar) to unclog? I find that often smells like burning hair.
posted by geeky at 6:24 PM on September 16, 2011

Check the coils on your fridge for hair. A friend had that happen. Also check to make sure none of your surge protectors are getting wet from an AC or anything else.
posted by SuzySmith at 8:24 PM on September 16, 2011

An animal could have made a nest in your attic against a less-used ceiling light can.
posted by dhartung at 9:41 PM on September 16, 2011

If it could also be described as a fishy smell, then it is probably an outlet or light switch arcing. Our smell was nowhere near the outlet that was causing it. Our fire department came out, and used a thermal scope to look at the walls to find the source. Phone them. Any undetected burning smell should be traced.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 11:37 PM on September 16, 2011

Any chance that a skunk sprayed near your abode?
posted by futz at 5:48 AM on September 17, 2011

This is probably a stupid question, but if you go outside, do you still smell it? When my home is filled with the smell of burning hair, it's because my neighbor has dropped a load of dog fur into her wood stove to burn off.
posted by ErikaB at 7:15 AM on September 17, 2011

Some older houses used horse hair for insulation. could be bad wiring causing burning horse hair.
posted by PSB at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just to add - if you're thinking you might have loose wiring / arc-ing / dust / mice whatever and don't find a solution immediately - test your smoke detectors, replace all their batteries and maybe think about putting up a few more...
posted by cromagnon at 3:05 PM on September 17, 2011

Check your fridge's motor -- the first symptom of ours burning out was an odd smell permeating the house.
posted by telophase at 5:33 PM on September 17, 2011

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