What's That Smell?

By: Jim Champion/The Auto Guy Email
By: Jim Champion/The Auto Guy Email

Let’s take a look at some of the most common smells associated with your vehicle and what might be causing them.

A rotten egg smell is usually associated with the catalytic convertor in your exhaust. While it might be a problem with the catalytic convertor, it might also be a problem with the way your engine is running. Get this problem looked into immediately to try to avoid an expensive repair.

A burning plastic smell could be an electrical issue. A short circuit, bad connection or worn out electrical part could be the cause of this type of smell and it also should be investigated right away. But it’s not always an expensive repair. Sometimes it’s as simple as a plastic bag on the street that gets stuck to the exhaust and melts.

Burning oil smells usually indicate an oil leak somewhere on the engine. These leaks might be an easy fix such as replacing an oil pressure sending unit or it could be something more complicated such as a seal on the engine. In most cases, your mechanic is usually going to need to clean off the engine and possibly remove some parts to find out where the smelly leak is coming from.

Fuel smells should be taken very seriously. While it might be a minor problem with the emission system, it could also be an issue that could start a fire, such as a leaking fuel line. Get the vehicle to a mechanic immediately if you have a fuel smell.

If you smell kind of a sweet oily smell you probably have an antifreeze leak. There are a lot of possible sources such as the radiator, hoses or seals on the engine. Antifreeze keeps the engine cool, so look into this sort of smell right away to protect the life of the engine.

Burning rubber smells used to be a byproduct of spinning tires, but burning rubber smells with a vehicle are now different. Many times these smells are related to the serpentine belt or one of the accessories being driven by it. That sort of smelly problem can definitely lead to a breakdown so have it checked out right away.

Brake pads overheating smell nasty, like burned popcorn. While this smell could be caused by part of your brake system dragging because of a malfunction, it could be as simple as accidentally not releasing your parking brake all of the way.

People sometimes have a musty smell when they turn on their air conditioner and that’s because bacteria can form on the air conditioning parts that are inside the dashboard. There are do-it-yourself products out there that you can buy to spray into the duct work and that usually helps. There are also commercial products that can be applied at the shop that do an even better job of removing the musty smell in the dash.

Make sure you get your bad vehicle smells checked out because a breakdown on the road really stinks.


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