man holding his nose because of fishy smell from air conditioner

A fishy smell from your air conditioner is not just unpleasant; it’s potentially dangerous. Unexplained fishy odors can indicate serious electrical issues within your home. When heated or burned, a chemical in the plastic coating on electrical wires emits a fishy or urine-like odor.

Though the odor may travel through the HVAC system’s vents, the electrical issue might not be within the HVAC system. The smell from an overheated electrical outlet, switch, circuit breaker, or extension cord can be drawn through the system’s intake vent and diffused through the house’s ducts and vents. On the other hand, the odor could stem from an electrical issue within the air conditioner or furnace.

Air conditioner odors are not uncommon. While most odors don’t indicate serious problems, they always reveal issues that need attention. Reasons for why your air conditioner smells range from a dirty air filter to a decomposing animal. Fishy smells, however, are deeply concerning because they can result from overheating electrical components, loose wires, and overloaded circuits.

An Electrical Component May Be Overheating

Electrical wires in light fixtures, ceiling fans, switches, outlets, and appliances can overheat, though they shouldn’t. Damaged wires or surges from a faulty breaker can cause the plastic coatings on your electrical components’ wires to overheat, melt, and emit fishy odors. A smell that comes and goes usually indicates an issue with a component, fixture, or appliance that turns on and off.

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There Are Loose Electrical Wires and Overloaded Circuits.

Loose electrical wires and connections in light sockets, switches, outlets, and junction boxes can melt plastic wire coatings and spark fires. Wires can naturally become loose over time or loosen due to improper installation. Wires can also sustain damage from excessive movement and animals who chew on them. Light switches, outlets, and other recently installed or worked-on components are most likely places for loose wiring issues.

The circuits in outdated electrical systems in old houses can become overloaded from running too many large appliances at once. Old circuit breaker boxes should be updated to prevent electrical issues and fires.

What to Do if You Have a Fish Smell In the House

A fish smell in the house is a potential electrical issue and fire hazard, so it’s crucial to locate the smell’s source. Check garbage cans and disposals first. Next, try turning off the air conditioner and assessing the smell’s strength in each room. If the smell disappears when the air conditioner is off, the HVAC system or an electrical component near the system’s intake vent may be the source of the problem. If the smell persists after the air conditioner is off, turn off lights and unplug appliances and electrical equipment in each room to determine if the scent ceases. Immediately turn off the breaker connected to the source if it’s found.

If you can’t quickly determine the source of the fishy smell, it’s best to shut off all power to the home and immediately contact a licensed electrician or HVAC professional. Electrical issues can damage components and spark fires.


Odd, fishy odors should never be overlooked. An inexplicable fishy smell in your house might indicate electrical issues within your HVAC system or something else, such as a light switch. Damaged or loose wires in light fixtures, appliances, outlets, switches, or sockets commonly emit a fishy smell when they overheat and melt their plastic coatings.

Overheated wires, loose wires, and overloaded circuits are serious electrical issues that can lead to fires. Whether you locate the odor’s source or not, turn off the power until the problem is resolved by a professional electrician or HVAC technician to reduce the risk of fire and other serious issues.

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