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aglie 10-18-2010 03:16 PM

Forced Air furnace: air has unpleasant smell
Hi everyone,

This is my first post. I am a tenant in a new apartment. My landlord has not been too helpful with this problem so I am trying to find out info on my own.

The apt is actually the ground floor of an older house with a forced air heating system. The furnace in the basement looks fairly new, however, as do some of the air ducts. The floor vents are older though and may go back to the 1940s when the house was built. The furnace is a Nortron Electric furnace and seems to be working properly except that the smell that it sends up through the floor vents is quite unpleasant. It has an "old ashtray" smell, as I call it. It may not actually be related at all to cigarettes, but that is roughly how I would characterize it anyway, like putting your face down in a filled ashtray.

This is the first time I have lived in a place with forced air heat, so maybe this is just the way it smells?? Is this what people put up with though?

One thing I have noticed: if I put my face right down on the vents when the furnace comes on, it starts blowing cool air before the hot air comes up. I understand why this is (it takes a moment for the furnace to start warming up the air from the intake vents) but the interesting thing is that the cool air does not have the bad smell. In other words, it doesn't seem to be a problem with the duct system needing to be cleaned or something like that. When air blows through the system without being heated, it doesn't smell. It is the process of heating the air by the furnace that seems to be where the problem arises.

Again, is it just me, or is there something wrong here? Any help would be greatly appreciated!


kok328 10-18-2010 03:45 PM

Probably just burning some dust that has settled onto the heat exchanger. This should go away within a few heat cycles. You could also repalce the air filter or make sure one is installed.

paul52446m 10-18-2010 06:01 PM

To add to KOK328 post, if the unit and ducts are new all this would have a oil coating on them. and that takes a while to burn off, and get rid of the smell.
But it could be just as he said, dust getting burned off. paul

aglie 10-20-2010 11:47 AM


Thanks for the advice. I wonder, however, how long it should take to burn off dust as I have been dealing with this smell for a month now. Also, the ducts are not brand new so I don't think it is a case of a new coating that is burning off. Any other possibilities?

My landlord has called a cleaning company to come and clean the ducts, but I worry that this is not going to solve the problem. He seems to be pretty clueless about how this kind of system works and what it takes to maintain and to repair it. I think I know more about it now than he does just based on a few weeks of internet research.


kok328 10-20-2010 01:20 PM

Like I said b4, if you don't have a filter installed, it won't go away anytime soon.
Check/replace the air filter.
No reason to get too upset, sounds like the landlord is at least willing to work with you and is having the ducts cleaned. Perhaps this will solve the problem. Give him a chance.

00Mike 10-24-2010 06:27 PM

I have a forced air heating unit that's more than 40 years old and it still works very well. The 1st use every Fall is always interesting but any odors go away after a few minutes. One time I found my cat in the heat exchanger when he fell down an open heating vent (still alive) and we had dead mice in the duct work once. The cold air is not uncommon. You might ask the landlord to have the heating unit itself checked. The unit should be checked once a year by an experienced technician. Filters are a must! I replace paper filters once a month in the winter and metal filters should be washed with the same frequency. My unit has 2 filters. Your technician should be able to show you where to look and how to replace them.

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