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There is an electrical outlet in a room in my house giving off a strange smell. It smells kindof burnt? It happens almost immediately when something is plugged in/turned on and I promptly turn off/unplug every time so I don't know what might happen if left on/plugged in for an extended period of time (and the outlet is in my young daughter's bedroom so I'm not too inclined to find out). If something is plugged in and off (like a lamp in the off position), the smell does not happen. But if it's plugged in and turned on (lamp turned on or something like an alarm clock that has no on/off switch and is thus always "on"), the smell comes within about 30-60 seconds and is quite strong. We've tested this on a number of different things to conclude it's the outlet and not the thing being plugged in. My husband replaced the receptacle and cleaned the dust & debris out of the box, but the problem persists. He noted that there was no discoloration of the receptacle, wires, or the box, though there did appear to be some mild corrosion on the wires he believed to be the result of arcing. The thing was old, but otherwise appeared normal.

Any ideas what the problem could be and how we can fix it?

  • Is the box made of plastic or metal? – ThreePhaseEel Apr 22 '18 at 23:14
  • Also, are you using the backstabs or the side-screws to attach the wires to the receptacle, and are there wirenuts or splices in the box? – ThreePhaseEel Apr 22 '18 at 23:15
  • Box is plastic. Using backstabs on the receptacle. There are no wire nutes or splices in the box--just the one receptacle. – TheSmallestOne Apr 22 '18 at 23:34
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    replace the receptacle .... do not use the backstabs ... they are one of the worst inventions – jsotola Apr 23 '18 at 0:07
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You have vinyl curtains

These can have a smell like burnt plastic when heated by sunlight.

Here are some things to check:

  • If you can only smell it on sunny days
  • If you can smell it on sunny days with the power turned off
  • If you can only smell it in a room that is getting direct sunlight
  • If the smell is more prominent when the curtains are pulled down.

You should still check all outlets. Check for things like outlets that are warm to touch, outlets with blackened ends, and other indications of unsafe wiring. But if you can't find any wiring issues, stick your face in the curtains and give them a sniff.

There are a few methods for trying to clean them, but the issue should be harmless.

  • Damnit... This commenter is my husband and I hate to admit (on a public forum no less!) that he's right. One day I pulled down the vinyl shade and, while it was literally right under my nose the whole time, the smell revealed itself. The smell is worse when the sun is hitting it, but still there when in the shade. I short, husband gets his "1st Right Answer Ever" badge from his wife, but lose 100 reputation. You win some, you lose some... – TheSmallestOne Jun 8 '18 at 22:57
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If you've replaced the outlet and are still getting the burning smell, then there is a serious fault in the wiring that needs to be corrected before you use the outlet again.

Unfortunately, if the inside of the junction box and all the visible wiring looks good, then finding and repairing the fault could require tracing house wiring inside your walls, which usually means making holes in the walls1.

But before you go that far, look inside all the adjacent outlet boxes, even the ones on the other side of the wall2. Outlets are often chained together and when one doesn't work it can be a fault in that outlet box or in the previous one.

Be sure to call in professional help if you are not certain that you have found the problem.

Please let us know how this is resolved. Many posters come here to ask about a fatally dangerous condition and are never heard from again. It makes me wonder how many people I've killed with my advice.


  1. Or just keep using the outlet, and eventually the fire department will make the holes for you.
  2. I know, you said the smell is just around the one outlet, but check anyway.
  • OP's husband here. The smell actually is not coming from the outlet. We noticed that there is a correlation between the smell occurring and a device being plugged into a specific receptacle and the device being powered on (a lamp or basic alarm clock is enough). – Scribblemacher Apr 23 '18 at 18:47
  • @Scribblemacher: This means there is a good chance you won't need to rip out any walls. - The best way to proceed is to turn off the circuit breaker for the suspect outlet, then note which other outlets are also off. Open and inspect these for charring or melting. – A. I. Breveleri Apr 23 '18 at 19:52
  • This has devolved into all the outlets on this circuit (the line spans two bedrooms) being pulled out of the wall to be thoroughly inspected, cleaned, and tested in every way he knows how. The smell has traveled to the adjoining bedroom, but only in the morning when the alarm clock comes on and the original outlet which started all this madness has stopped producing the symptom. This is a condo we bought less than a month ago and I'm starting to think the damn place is haunted! – TheSmallestOne Apr 24 '18 at 23:54
  • FYI, see my answer. The issue was vinyl curtains that smelled when heated by sunlight. – Scribblemacher Jun 1 '18 at 22:44
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This is not an item to spend time on and off for troubleshooting. When you work on finding the source of this kind of issue you must stick with it, otherwise you could come home and find your place in flames.

If you feel you don't have the skills to do the "full" troubleshooting for this kind of issue I highly recommend to call the professionals immediately. Don't leave the home until they get there.

The next lull in troubleshooting may be too late. It may sound like I am trying to scare you. And I sort of am, but only for you to take immediate action. Otherwise you could be playing with fire.

Would like to wish you good luck with finding the problem, but it needs more than luck. This is a serious matter. Only skill will help you.

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