Water Heater Smells Like It’s Burning: What to Do Next

When your water heater smells like it’s burning, it can be a concerning and potentially hazardous issue. Water heaters are essential appliances in our homes and are expected to deliver hot water for daily activities non-stop.

However, like any complex system, they can encounter problems that, if not addressed promptly, can lead to discomfort, safety risks, and costly repairs.

Water heater with burnt area around the vent

One of the first indications of a problem is an unusual smell, such as burning or like stinky rotten egg, indicating that something is wrong and potentially dangerous.

This guide will help you understand the possible causes of the burning smell from a water heater, how to troubleshoot and resolve the issue, and preventive measures to ensure your water heating unit operates safely and efficiently.

Understanding the Cause of the Burning Smell in Water Heaters

Electrical Issues

Electrical problems are one of the primary causes when your water heater smells like it’s burning.

Faulty wiring can result in overheating of the heating elements and thermostats, as found in electric water heaters, producing a burning smell as they malfunction.

Loose connections within the electrical system can cause arcing, generating heat and potentially leading to a fire hazard.

Sediment Buildup

Sediment buildup within the water heater tank is another common cause. Minerals and debris in the water supply can accumulate at the bottom of the tank, forming a layer of sediment. When the heating element contacts this sediment, it can overheat, producing a problem.

Plastic Components

Plastic components within the water heater can also be a source of burning smells. If any plastic parts, such as the dip tube or other internal components, start to melt or burn, they will emit a noticeable odor. This can occur due to excessive heat or contact with hot surfaces.

Additionally, plastic components or items located on top of the gas unit can melt or burn due to the high temperature of the exhaust gases, further contributing to the odor.

Identifying and replacing these damaged parts is crucial to resolving the issue and preventing further damage.

Pilot Light and Gas Burner

For gas water heaters, issues with the pilot light or burner can also cause a burning smell.

If the pilot light is not functioning correctly, it can result in incomplete combustion, leading to this odor. Similarly, a dirty or misaligned burner may not burn fuel efficiently, causing soot or unburned gas to produce such a smell.

Dirty or Damaged Ducts

Problems inside the ducts, such as blockages, dirt accumulation, or damage, can prevent proper ventilation, causing gas fumes to accumulate. High temperatures can cause particles or debris inside dirty ducts to burn, adding to the smell.

Proper ventilation is essential to ensure that any gas fumes are safely expelled, reducing the risk of ignition or health hazards.

Initial Troubleshooting Steps

Safety Precautions

Before beginning any troubleshooting, it’s crucial to prioritize safety. Turn off the power supply to the water heater to eliminate the risk of electrical shock or fire. If you have a gas water heater, turn off the gas supply to prevent potential leaks or explosions. Additionally, ensure the area is well-ventilated to avoid inhaling any harmful fumes that might be present.

Visual Inspection

Conduct a thorough visual inspection of the water heater. Look for any visible signs of damage, such as burnt or melted components, scorch marks, or loose wires. Pay close attention to the heating elements, wiring connections, and any plastic parts that may have been affected by heat. Identifying visible issues can provide immediate clues about the source of the burning smell.

Smell Identification

Different types of smells can indicate different issues. If there was a fire near electrical parts this often resembles the scent of burning plastic or rubber, which can point to wiring or component problems. A smell similar to burning dust or debris might suggest sediment buildup inside the tank.

If you notice a sulfur or rotten egg smell, it usually indicates a gas leak, as utility companies add a sulfur-like odorant to natural gas for easy detection. This odor can also come from bacteria reacting with the anode rod inside the water heater, especially in systems using well water.

Understanding and differentiating these odors can help you pinpoint the underlying cause more accurately and direct your troubleshooting efforts effectively.

Detailed Investigation and Solutions

Electrical Component Check

Start by inspecting the electrical components of the water heater. Check the wiring and connections for any signs of damage, wear, or overheating. Loose or frayed wires can cause electrical arcing, leading to a burning smell.

Use a multimeter to test the heating elements and thermostats to ensure they are functioning correctly. If any components are found to be faulty, replace them with new ones. Make sure all connections are secure and insulated properly to prevent future issues.

Sediment Removal

If sediment buildup is suspected, drain and flush the water heater tank to remove the accumulated minerals and debris.

Turn off the power and water supply, then attach a hose to the drain valve and let the water flow out until it runs clear.

This process helps eliminate the sediment layer at the bottom of the tank, improving efficiency and preventing overheating.

Plastic Component Issues

Identify any plastic components within the water heater that might be melting or burning.

Common parts to check include the dip tube, anode rod, and other internal fittings. If these parts show signs of heat damage, they need to be replaced.

Ensure that replacement parts are compatible with your water heater model and are installed correctly to avoid further issues.

Pilot Light and Gas Burner Checks

For gas water heaters, inspect the pilot light and burner for any malfunctions.

A malfunctioning pilot light can lead to incomplete combustion, resulting in a burning odor. Clean the burner and ensure it is free from debris or obstructions.

Check for gas leaks by applying a soapy water solution to the gas lines and connections; bubbles will form if there is a leak. Address any leaks immediately by tightening connections or replacing faulty parts.

Inspect the Venting System

Ensure the water heater is properly ventilated to allow gas fumes and exhaust gases to escape safely through the draft hood and ducts.

Additionally, inspect the ducts for any kinks, damage, or obstructions that could impede ventilation.

Proper ventilation is crucial to prevent the accumulation of dangerous fumes and maintain a safe environment.

When to Call a Technician

Knowing when to call a technician is crucial for ensuring the safety and efficiency of your water heater. If the burning smell persists despite your initial troubleshooting efforts, or if you encounter complex electrical or gas issues that you are not confident in handling, it’s time to call a professional.

Additionally, if you detect any gas leaks, unusual noises, or inconsistent water temperatures, seeking professional assistance is essential to prevent potential hazards and costly damage.

Preventive Measures

Implementing preventive measures is essential to maintain the safety and efficiency of your water heater, thereby extending its lifespan and preventing issues like burning smells.

Regular maintenance plays a key role in this. Start with routine inspections to check for any signs of wear, black spots, burns, corrosion, or damage. Annual professional servicing is highly recommended, as technicians can identify and fix minor issues before they turn into major problems.

One effective preventive measure is managing water temperature settings. Keeping the thermostat at a moderate level, typically around 120°F (49°C), can prevent overheating, which reduces stress on the heating elements and minimizes the risk of sediment buildup.

Regularly draining and flushing the tank is another crucial step. This process removes accumulated sediment and debris, preventing the heating element from burning out due to contact with mineral deposits.

Additionally, it is important to inspect and replace the anode rod periodically. The anode rod attracts corrosive elements in the water, protecting the tank from rust. Over time, it degrades and needs replacement to continue providing this protection.

Ensuring proper ventilation for gas water heaters is also vital to prevent gas buildup and ensure efficient combustion.


When your water heater smells like it’s burning, understanding the common causes—such as electrical issues, sediment buildup, melting plastic components, and gas heater malfunctions—can help you accurately diagnose and address the problem. Initial troubleshooting steps, including safety precautions, visual inspections, and smell identification, lay the groundwork for a more detailed investigation and effective solutions.

Conducting thorough checks on electrical components, removing sediment, inspecting plastic parts, and addressing gas-specific issues can resolve the burning smell and prevent future occurrences. Knowing when to call a technician is also vital; professional assistance ensures that complex problems are handled safely and effectively.

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