Burning Smell in the Fridge? Here’s What It Could Mean7 min read

Refrigerators have become indispensable appliances in modern homes due to their unparalleled convenience. However, a burning smell is alarming and at worst, very dangerous. 

A burning smell coming from your refrigerator can be caused by a faulty internal lightbulb or door switch, dusty condenser coils, an overheating compressor, or issues with other components. Turn off the fridge to investigate the source of the smell. If you can’t find the source, call a professional for help. 

Attempting to fix the issue yourself could be dangerous and cause further damage to the refrigerator. So, let’s look closer at the problem of a burning odor coming from your refrigerator and what you can do to solve it.

This article has been expert reviewed by Andy Fulenchek, a professional appliance repairman with over 10 years experience. He also owns Grace Appliance and this YouTube channel.

What Causes a Burning Smell in a Fridge?

A burning smell emanating from a refrigerator can cause great concern for many homeowners. This odor can indicate a variety of problems that range from a faulty refrigerator light to damaged vital components such as the compressor.

Refrigerator Burning Smell SignsPossible Cause
Burning smell when the fridge door is open too long. Refrigerator light bulb heats up and causes a burning smell.
Burning smell from the back or underneath the fridge, and fridge is dusty/dirty. Dusty condenser coils are causing a burning smell and should be cleaned.
Burning smell from under the fridge, buzzing/clicking noise and fridge too warmMalfunctioning compressor relays. Relays fail due to a faulty compressor.
Burning smell from underneath the fridge, high-pitched noise comes and goes. Faulty and overheating condenser fan or control boards inside the fridge.

The first step in troubleshooting a refrigerator with a burning smell is to unplug the appliance and inspect it for any visible signs of damage or malfunction. Check for any burnt wires, damaged components, or signs of overheating. If you see smoke or if the electrics are damaged, call a professional right away.

If an electrical or wiring issue is suspected, be sure to unplug the refrigerator from power before inspecting. Burned wires can be quite dangerous with live power still applied.

Andy Fulenchek

There are many possible causes of a burning smell coming from the refrigerator, including electrical failure. I have only listed the most common causes.

1. Burning Lightbulb 

The first possible cause of a burning smell in the refrigerator is the lightbulb. Most refrigerators have an internal lightbulb that illuminates when the door is open.

However, sometimes the switch (or a stuck relay on the control board) will fail to cause the lightbulb to stay on and occasionally homeowners will leave the fridge door open for too long causing the light to overheat. 

Refrigerator Light

Common signs of a burning lightbulb include a hot shelf near the light source, melting plastic housing, and melting food wrappers. You’ll also notice the smell coming from inside the fridge rather than from any external components. 

Note: this is going to be an issue primarily with incandescent bulbs. LED lighting does not have this issue as the bulb does not produce much heat.

I remember back in 2005 LG had a big issue with their fridges, where a design defect caused the light to remain illuminated after the door was closed. There was even a class action lawsuit against them. 

A lingering internal light can also burn through its plastic case and occasionally if something drips onto the light casing this can also cause a burning smell. 

If you suspect this is the case, here are some instructions to follow: 

  1. Ensure you’re not leaving the fridge door open for too long. Regular incandescent bulbs can omit a burning odor if on for too long. 
  2. Clean the plastic housing around the internal light to ensure nothing has dripped onto it. 
  3. Make sure the light is actually turning off when the door is closed. Most refrigerators have a switch that controls light function – try pressing that to see if the light actually turns off or video record the door closing with your phone. If this is the cause you should first check door alignment. Faulty door alignment may cause the light to stay on. This is where a phone inside the fridge when you shut the door (recording) works well. Otherwise, you’ll need to replace the switch or bulb socket, or
  4. Consider replacing the bulb with an LED light, as they produce less heat. 

Hopefully, your fix is this easy but if not move on to the other possible causes. 

2. A dirty or clogged condenser coil

Refrigerator condenser coils dissipate heat from the refrigerator’s cooling system. In rare cases, condenser coils run hot during operation and if they are dirty or clogged, a burning smell may be produced.  

Condenser Coil Location Fridge
The condenser coils are normally located at the bottom right to the rear of the fridge.

This can impede airflow and cause the refrigerator to overheat when it becomes dirty or clogged (normally by dust or pet hair). If you notice any buildup on the condenser coil, it can be cleaned using a soft-bristled brush or vacuum cleaner.

Here’s how to clean your condenser coils:

  1. Move the refrigerator away from the wall. 
  2. Make sure the refrigerator is unplugged. 
  3. Remove the back panel. 
  4. Access to the condenser coil. Use a vacuum to clean it. You won’t be able to get to every surface but remove as much dust as possible. 

Hopefully simply cleaning your condenser coils fixes the burning smell, but if not move on to the next potential cause. 

3. An overheating Compressor

A malfunctioning compressor is one of the most common causes of a burning smell in a fridge. The compressor is responsible for circulating refrigerant through the refrigerator’s cooling system. 

Refrigerator Compressor
Refrigerator compressors normally look something like this. They are located underneath and to the rear of the fridge.

A compressor will not turn itself off if it is unable to reach the temperature set by the thermostat, and this can lead to the motor working harder and becoming louder than usual. 

When the compressor fails, the relays may burn if overworked and can produce a burning odor. Check for any unusual sounds or vibrations from the compressor, and also check if the compressor is hot to the touch. 

There are a few things I’d recommend you do at home (always make sure the appliance is unplugged before working on it): 

  1. Ensure your condenser coils are not covered in dust as this prevents air from circulating, and can cause the condenser to overwork. Carefully clear any dust with a vacuum. 
  2. Once any dust is cleared, try spinning the fan. If it spins freely after clearing dust, the issue may have been resolved.
  3. Ensure your fridge isn’t in a very hot/sunny area of the home as this can cause your compressor to overwork. 

If you’ve tried the above and suspect the compressor is still malfunctioning, I’d recommend contacting a professional for help. It could be a number of issues including a faulty auto-defrost system, start relay problems, or a faulty compressor.

A typical compressor repair costs a lot…

To replace a compressor will typically be in the $800+ range.  A compressor, evaporator, condenser & filter dryer is normally around $1200+/-. 

Failed relays might be closer to $200.

Andy Fulenchek

4. A Faulty Evaporator Fan Motor

Another potential culprit for the burning smell could be a faulty fan motor. The fan motor is critical in circulating cold air throughout the refrigerator.  

It can lead to heat buildup and a burning odor if it fails or malfunctions. In this case, the fan motor may need to be repaired or replaced by a professional.

Check for any unusual sounds or vibrations from the fan motor and inspect it for any visible signs of damage or malfunction. Another way to test your evaporator fan is by going into the freezer… press and hold the switch on the door for a minute. The freezer light should turn off and the evaporator fan should kick on. If it does, you’ll be able to hear the electric motor humming and the fan spinning.

The problem may be with the fan, and it could either be a faulty fan or perhaps its not getting voltage. You should then confirm voltage with a meter before replacing the fan motor.

For french door refrigerators especially, fan motor repairs can often be closer to $300 or more. 

Older style top mount freezers may be closer to the $200 mark.

Andy Fulenchek

Can a Fridge Catch Fire?

There have been concerns regarding the safety of refrigerators, particularly whether they can catch on fire. In general, refrigerators are not considered to be a significant fire hazard.

However, there have been some instances where refrigerators have caught on fire, which can happen for various reasons.

A Faulty Electrical Component

A faulty electrical component is one of the most common causes of a fridge catching fire. Electrical issues can arise for various reasons, such as overloading, short circuits, or damaged wiring. 

These issues can sometimes cause the fridge’s electrical components to overheat and catch on fire. However, fortunately the control boards are often located inside metal containers or tightly sealed plastic boxes which helps restrict incoming air in the event of a fire.

A Refrigerant Leak

Refrigerants are used in refrigerators to keep the temperature low. However, if there is a leak in the refrigerant system, it can cause a fire. The refrigerant can ignite if it comes into contact with any electrical component or heat source, leading to a fire.

This can be true in newer refrigerators which use R600 (i.e. iso-butane) where there has been a leak in the sealed system. Typically the leak would be at the evaporator inside the freezer section and a spark from a fan motor turning on (for example) may cause the refrigerant to ignite.

Andy Fulenchek

Tips to Prevent Your Fridge From Catching on Fire

It is important to keep the fridge clean and well-maintained. Make sure to clean the coils regularly and check for any signs of damage.

It is crucial to have a smoke detector installed near the kitchen area, where the fridge is typically located. Smoke detectors can alert you to potential fires and provide enough time to evacuate the house.

Have your fridge serviced regularly by a qualified technician. A technician can identify any potential issues with the fridge and make any necessary repairs or replacements.

What Other Smells Should You Watch Out For?

While burning smells are often the most concerning, there are other smells that one should look out for in a refrigerator.

A Sour or Rancid Odor

A sour or rancid odor is one of the most familiar smells from a fridge. This smell is often a result of spoiled food. 

If food is left in the fridge for too long, it can go bad and emit a sour or rancid odor. Therefore, it is important to regularly check food expiration dates and dispose of spoiled items promptly.

A Moldy or Musty Odor

Another smell that may indicate a problem with the fridge is a moldy or musty odor. This smell can be caused by mold growth inside the fridge, or on the evaporation/drip pan under the fridge.

It is crucial to regularly clean the fridge, including the shelves, drawers, and walls, to prevent mold growth. If the moldy or musty smell persists, it may be necessary to call a technician to inspect the fridge and make any necessary repairs.

A Foul or Rotting Odor

A foul or rotting odor is another smell that may arise from a refrigerator. This odor is often a result of a spill or leak that has gone unnoticed. If liquid spills inside the fridge, it can seep into crevices and corners, leading to a foul or rotting smell. 

It is essential to immediately clean up any spills or leaks and regularly clean the fridge to prevent this smell from developing.

A Metallic or Chemical Smell

A metallic or chemical smell is another smell that may indicate a problem with the fridge. This smell can be caused by a refrigerant leak, which can harm your health if left unchecked. 

If you notice a metallic or chemical smell, it is essential to call a technician to inspect the fridge and make any necessary repairs.

When to Call a Professional

If you notice any unusual smells coming from your fridge, it is essential to address the issue promptly. For example, call a professional immediately if you notice a burning or metallic smell. 

If you notice a moldy or musty smell or a foul or rotting smell, you should call a professional to inspect the fridge and prevent any health hazards. A professional can help identify the issue and provide the necessary repairs or cleaning to ensure your fridge runs smoothly and safely.

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Hi, I'm Ed, and I run BuildFanatic! I enjoy providing the best possible information on a range of home improvement topics.

Andy Fulenchek
Owner at Grace Appliance | Website | + posts

Andy is a professional appliance repairman and business owner with years of hands-on experience. He co-authors and reviews appliance articles, ensuring accuracy and top-notch information for readers.

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