There are some smells you do want in your home, such as the aroma of freshly baked cookies or the scent of a burning candle, and there are some smells most people typically do not want in their homes, like the distinct odor of gasoline or the smell of rotten eggs. In some cases, an unpleasant odor can serve as a warning sign that something is up or needs attention. A musty odor, for example, can often indicate mold.

If you think you are smelling oil, it is a good idea to have a certified and trained technician from SMO Energy visit your home and check out the situation as soon as possible. While you might not be in immediate danger, the scent of oil can indicate that your heating system needs repair.

What Does Oil Smell Like?

Your home’s furnace and oil tank might produce a range of smells at different times. Some are not anything to worry about, while others can point to a leak or another issue with the functioning of your heating system. Knowing what to keep a nose out for will help you decide the next steps to take.

Breaking Down Furnace Smells

Heating oil typically has a distinct smell, similar to gasoline or other petroleum products. Depending on the strength of the odor, you might think that your home smells similar to a mechanic’s shop. Along with the smell of oil, your home’s heating system might produce a range of other scents to let you know that something is amiss: 

  • Burning dust: Dust can build up in the ductwork of your heating system over time and on the furnace itself. When you turn on the heater for the first time at the start of the season, you might detect a burning smell as the heat from the furnace burns up the accumulated dust. Usually, the smell is not anything to worry about and will clear up on its own after a few hours. If you smell burning dust for more than a day, call in a technician to take a look. Better yet, have your heating system cleaned and tuned-up before you need to start using it again.
  • Smoke: The smell of smoke can mean a few things and is usually cause for immediate action. If your heating system is smoking, turn it off right away. To be on the safe side, take everyone out of the home, then call a technician to come to investigate. Smoke can indicate a blockage in the chimney or that the fuel isn’t combusting properly.
  • Dirty socks: Your furnace should not smell like the bottom of a laundry hamper, but if it does, that can be a sign that it is in need of a cleaning. Bacteria can build up on the coils of the heating system, producing a strong, unpleasant scent when the system runs. Thorough cleaning by a technician should help to eliminate the smell.
  • Musty odor: Condensation in the heating system can make it produce a musty smell when you turn it on again. If the smell dissipates quickly, it usually is not a cause for concern. If you notice a musty odor that lingers for a few days, however, there might be some mold buildup in the system. A technician should come out to take a look and clean the furnace if necessary.
  • No odor: No odor is not necessarily a sign that all is well with your heating system. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a dangerous gas that happens to be odorless. Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home, on every level and inside each bedroom, so that you can easily detect high levels of CO. If an alarm goes off, leave your house and call 911 right way.

What About the Scent of Rotten Eggs?

You have probably heard that a heating system will produce a scent similar to rotten eggs if there is a leak or another issue. That is true, but only for some types of fuel. Natural gas and propane gas do smell like sulfur or rotten eggs, but the odor is not the natural smell of those products. Instead, it is produced by a chemical called mercaptan. Gas companies add mercaptan to the fuel to make it easy to detect a leak. 

If you pick up the scent of rotten eggs in your home and you do not use natural gas or propane gas at all, it might be your nose playing tricks on you, or there might be rotting food nearby. If your home uses heating oil for central heating and propane gas for other reasons, though, such as water heating or for a gas fireplace, take the smell seriously. Get everyone out of the house and call 911. Do not go back into the home until you get the all-clear to do so. 

My House Definitely Smells Like Oil. What Does This Mean?

Your nose is picking up the distinct scent of heating oil. Before you become too alarmed, remember that the smell of oil is not always a cause for concern. Here is how to tell what it means.

What Causes an Oil Smell?

Several things can make your home smell like oil:

  • The system has not been used for a while: Just as you might smell burning dust when turning your furnace back on for the first time, you might notice a slight scent of oil when you use your furnace again at the start of the season. If the smell fades fast, it is usually not a problem. 
  • The filter is clogged: In addition to making your system work less efficiently, a clogged filter can also can cause the system to produce a detectable oil smell. Replacing the filter is often enough to fix the issue.
  • There is a leak in the oil tank: If the oil tank has a leak and oil is seeping out, you will be able to smell it. The location of the tank and the severity of the leak can influence the strength of the smell. If the tank is indoors, you might notice a stronger smell compared to if the tank is situated outside.
  • The oil tank was recently refilled: It is common to notice a slight smell after your tank has been filled up. The smell could be from a small amount of oil that spilled out during the refill, or it could just be some errant fumes escaping before the lid was put back on.
  • Your heating system is malfunctioning: The smell of oil can be a sign that something is wrong with your furnace. It could be that the system is not fully combusting the fuel or that there is a crack in the oil burner. In any case, having a trained technician inspect your system is a good idea.

Is an Oil Smell in the House Dangerous?

The smell of oil at home does not necessarily mean you and your family are at risk of serious harm. Heating oil is less toxic to people compared to other commonly used petroleum products, such as gasoline. If you smell oil at home, you do not necessarily need to evacuate immediately. However, if you notice signs of irritation from the oil smell, such as dizziness, nausea or a headache, you should leave the area. 

Turn off the system and open up windows and doors to increase ventilation. Call SMO Energy to have a technician come out to investigate your heating system and oil tank. It is also a good idea to call 911 and have someone from the local fire department check out the situation.

How to Detect an Oil Tank Leak

Although the smell of oil can be a sign of a leak in your oil tank, it is not the only way to detect a leak. There are a few other signs to keep an eye out for as well. For example, if your tank is located outdoors, you might notice that any grass or vegetation around it looks dry or dead. If the tank is indoors, you might see a dark area on the floor underneath the leak.

Another sign of a leak is if your home starts needing heating fuel refills more frequently, even if your habits have not changed and the weather has been similar to years past. If you suspect leaking oil, contact a technician immediately.

How Do You Get Rid of an Oil Smell in the House?

The first thing to do if you want to get rid of the smell of oil in the home is to find the source of the problem. Once that is corrected, the scent might dissipate on its own. Opening windows increases ventilation and can help disperse the smell.

If you can trace the smell to a leak inside your home, your tank and system need immediate attention. Call a technician to have someone come and inspect your tank. 

Once any issues with your oil tank and heating system have been resolved, you might want to deep clean your home, shampooing the carpets and washing the walls, to be extra thorough, after taking care of the leak.

What Are the Risks of an Oil Leak?

Natural gas has a flammability range between 5 and 15%, which means it can combust when there is more than 5% gas in a gas-air mixture and less than 15% gas in the mixture. Propane has a similar flammability range. Since it does not take much gas in the air to cause combustion, a gas leak is usually a greater immediate cause for concern compared to an oil leak.

That said, an oil leak is still a cause for concern. Leaking oil can cause damage to the environment as well as to property. There are also some health risks associated with prolonged exposure to oil, such as damage to the kidneys or liver. Usually, the exposure to oil needs to be ongoing and undetected for significant health issues to develop. If you do suspect that your oil tank is leaking, the sooner the tank is replaced, the better.

What to Do If a Heating System Has an Oil Leak

If your oil tank is leaking, most likely the best option will be to replace the tank with a new one. There are also steps to take to contain the spilled oil, especially if the tank is outside.

In Maryland, you should call 911, your oil provider and the Department of the Environment to report the spill. If there is a local environmental agency in your county, you should also contact them to let them know about the spill. 

While not all homeowners insurance policies cover oil leaks, if yours does, now is the time to reach out to your insurer and to start the claims process. It is also a good idea to connect with your insurance company if you are not sure whether or not oil leaks are covered under your policy. Also, contact SMO Energy, especially if you have an oil tank protection service agreement with us.

Can You Repair a Leaking Oil Tank?

SMO Energy Can Replace Your Oil Tank

If you are concerned about the smell of oil in or around your home or if you have noticed other signs of a leak in your oil tank, the sooner you take action, the better. The process of cleaning and containing an oil spill in Maryland can be long and involved, not to mention expensive. 

Along with HVAC repairs and fuel delivery, SMO Energy offers oil tank replacement to our customers in Southern Maryland. Contact us today to learn more about replacing your oil tank and to schedule a consultation with a certified and trained technician.