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My parents live in a country house and they've got a bunch of space heaters of various designs. Some of them are:

  • Heating coil and a fan (hot air blower)
  • Oil-filled battery
  • Flat electric battery (no liquids inside)
  • Infrared lamp

Only the infrared type doesn't make the air smell weird (or at least not as much as the other types). Others noticeably make the air smell like it's burnt or something. And they're all not new, so they've had enough time to work through whatever extra factory residue was on them originally.

I've spent some time enjoying the heat from campfires, fireplaces, hot evening breezes near large bodies of water, and a nervous couple minutes near a clearly faulty heater which was about to short out and give off a thick cloud of smoke. Those are all smells distinctly different from that.

Why are (properly functioning) heaters making the air smell weird? What's in that smell?

  • In your infrared heater, does air move past its heating elements a all, or move through the unit? – Billy C. Sep 27 '17 at 11:33
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    Possibly Thermal ionization of the air, but since we can't smell what you do its hard to say. – Tyson Sep 27 '17 at 12:35
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    Or burning dust. Any heater with a exposed resistive heating coil is going to have that smell sometimes. – JPhi1618 Sep 27 '17 at 15:10
  • @BillyC. it's just a lamp behind a protective grate, no battery design. There's a metallic reflective "mirror" behind the lamp. It could be hot dust. I wonder how much air a passive battery heater moves compared to an infrared lamp. If the lamp doesn't create much convection, that would explain the lack of smell. – user1306322 Sep 28 '17 at 10:01
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When air contacts a sufficiently hot object, dust in the air burns, and in some cases, particles from he hot object are also ejected similar to how dry ice sublimates. Dust can also gather on the heating filament when not in use, and burn off immediately when plugged in.

An infrared lamp with a sealed glass bulb contains the hottest point (the filament of the bulb) within a sealed glass enclosure, eliminating filament loss. Radiant heaters are also the least likely to stir currents of air over he heater.

For those two reasons, an infrared heater is least likely to produce a noticeable smell.

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