Electric baseboard heaters are increasingly proving a practical and efficient heating solution in new and old homes. The heaters are straightforward to install, practically maintenance-free, and operate silently without rousing dust inside the room.
If you’re thinking about supplemental heating and feel that the often noisy forced-air heaters wouldn’t be a good fit for that specific area of the home, you should strongly consider baseboard heaters.
Never heard about baseboard heaters before? No problem. The following guide explains everything you need to know about baseboard heating.
What is Baseboard Heating?
Baseboard heaters are long narrow devices that typically run along the bottom of window walls. Nearly all the heaters come with an aluminum housing.
Inside the housing is a metal heating element that generates heat when an electric current is passed through it. The element is surrounded by fins that radiate heat through the room.
The baseboard heaters’ strategic location allows them to counteract the cold air that enters the home through the windows.
Nearly all baseboard heaters include a built-in thermostat to help regulate temperatures. In cases where there’s no built-in thermostat, you’re required to install one separately, usually on the wall.
The heaters are permanently installed and hardwired to the home’s electrical system. However, a few movable models exist that plug into a power outlet. These plug-and-play models are usually of a lower wattage compared to hardwired options.
How Do Baseboard Heaters Work?
It’s a pretty straightforward process. When you switch on the electric baseboard heater, an electric current passes through the heating element. Heating elements are high-resistance materials that produce heat when substantial electricity is passed through them.
Baseboard heaters don’t have fans to blow the heat outside the heater and throughout the room. Instead, they use two things – aluminum blades to help distribute the heat evenly out of the heater and natural convection to disperse the heat throughout the room.
The convection process is particularly crucial as it helps keep cold drafts at bay. Warm air is lighter than cold air. Therefore, warm air will always rise and, when this happens, cold air drops to the floor level to take the vacated space.
This is what happens when you have a baseboard heater next to the window. Hot air from the baseboard heater will rise, allowing cold air coming into the home via the windows to fall to the floor level, at which point the baseboard heater “sucks” the cold air in, heats it, then releases it at the other end. It all happens naturally until the desired indoor temperature is reached.
This “desired temperature” is what you set on the thermostat. It’s critical that you control the baseboard heater via a thermostat. Otherwise, there’s a risk of under or overheating. Wall-mounted thermostats tend to be more accurate than built-in thermostats.
When the set temperature is reached, the thermostat instructs the heater to shut off until the temperatures fall below the setting. At this point, the thermostat instructs the heater to resume operation. This on-off operation is what helps keep your room at the ideal temperatures.
The heater is installed at least ¾ inches off the floor to allow cold air to enter at the bottom. However, make sure that the draperies are several feet away to prevent home fires. We recommend at least 12 inches, though some manufacturers say a 4-inch clearance is sufficient.
Furniture and other items around the heater may also obstruct heat flow, thus compromising heating efficiency. Therefore, you want to maintain at least a 12-inch clearance. Again, some manufacturers say that a 4-inch clearance is more than sufficient.
Pros and Cons of Baseboard Heaters
Most people who invest in baseboard heaters look at them as the perfect solution to zonal heating. However, these heaters offer many other benefits, despite a few drawbacks.
Baseboard Heater Pros
The following are some of the key benefits of electric baseboard heaters over traditional space heating solutions.
- Perfect for “difficult to heat” rooms
Certain areas around the home are notoriously tricky to keep warm. The basement ad interior garage are two examples that quickly come to mind. These areas are very drafty. Worse still, they are rarely served by the central heating system.
Baseboard heaters are excellent for these spaces. As long as the baseboard heater is installed at the point at which drafts usually enter the room, it helps warm up all the cold air. This way, the impact of cold drafts is significantly minimized.
- Excellent for zonal heating
Principally, zonal heating is all about removing cold spots in the room by ensuring that heat reaches every corner of the home.
Unfortunately, the central heater alone cannot eliminate cold spots. Areas around the windows, specifically, tend to experience frequent drafts that can leave people sitting around those areas feeling colder than those in the rest of the home.
Baseboard heaters are the perfect solution for those cold spots. Since these units arrive with their own thermostats, you can adjust the temperature in those colder zones up or down as necessary to ensure that any drafts are dealt with right there.
- Perfect for supplemental heating
Aside from cold drafts around the windows and in the basement, another major heating problem, especially in older homes, is an overworked central heater. First off, the central heater loses its efficiency and power with age.
Secondly, sometimes even a perfectly fine central heater can be overwhelmed. This is especially true in colder winters when temperatures drop 30+ below zero degrees. In both cases, you need supplemental heating.
Baseboard heaters are an excellent choice for secondary heating for two reasons. First, they are controlled independently. You can even leave it off once normalcy returns. Secondly, they heat up fast and generates plenty of heat.
- Available in portable or permanent installations
While permanently-installed models are more common, portable baseboard heaters exist, offering homeowners and especially renters affordable supplementary and zonal heating solutions. These mobile models conveniently plug into the standard home power outlet and can be positioned in any area of the home to provide additional heat.
The best portable baseboard heaters are equipped with overheating controls featuring built-in sensors that cut power supply to the heater if overheating is detected.
- Ease of maintenance
Another major advantage of baseboard heaters is low maintenance. These heaters are virtually maintenance-free. Unlike fossil fuel heaters that require regular cleaning and repairs to prevent leaks and fires, the baseboard heater only requires periodic wipe-downs to clean off the dust. A solution of water and any type of household cleaner should do.
Periodic vacuuming is also recommended. But this is only necessary immediately before and immediately after the heating season.
- Very low noise output
Finally, home heating is often associated with the buzzing noises of blowing fans and moving parts. Fan-forced heaters are a major culprit here. The heaters make lots of noise, rendering them unusable in areas where quiet is needed, such as reading rooms and home offices. Indeed, you’ll find a few rated as high as 60 decibels.
Baseboard heaters are some of the quietest space heaters. Why? Because the baseboard heater is fan-free. Secondly, it has no moving parts. For these reasons, a baseboard heater is an excellent candidate for noise-free applications.
Baseboard Heater Cons
However, despite the many advantages, baseboard heaters aren’t faultless. The following are a few potential challenges to keep in mind;
We’ve mentioned that portable baseboard heaters feature controls to shut off the unit in case of overheating. There are two things you want to keep in mind, nonetheless.
First, as with all human-made machines, the auto-shutoff feature can fail. When this happens, there’s a significant danger. You’ll need the thermostat to help prevent excessive heat production.
Secondly, overheating isn’t limited to the elements inside the baseboard. The metal housing too can become hot, posing a danger to children and pets. So, stay alert.
- Expensive to run
It’s also worth noting that baseboard heaters aren’t cheap to run. Although very efficient, they consume substantial amounts of electricity. If you were to leave a 1,000-watt baseboard heater running the whole day, it would cost you at least $30. A 2,000-watt model would cost you double.
One of the most cost-effective supplemental heating solutions, a similarly rated heat pump, costs less than $8 to run for 24 hours.
- They work best as secondary heaters
Though some are powerful, even generating over 5,000 watts per hour, the baseboard heater rarely works alone as the primary heat source for two reasons.
First, as we’ve mentioned repeatedly, the baseboard heater is typically installed on the window wall just above the floor. This installation style means that the heater encounters a lot of cold air. Therefore, the heat rarely gets to the other end of the room.
Secondly, purely convective heaters, in general, rarely work well as primary heaters. They need a strong convective motion, sort of like a wind, inside the house to thoroughly disperse the heat throughout the room. This “wind” isn’t always available.
Types of Baseboard Heating
There are two broad categories of baseboard heaters – electric baseboard heaters and hydronic baseboard heaters.
Electric Baseboard Heaters
When you hear people talking about baseboard heaters, they are often talking about electric convective heaters.
These heaters draw cool air from the bottom and pull it over hot metal fins. The now-heated air is then released at the top of the baseboard and rises toward the ceiling while colder air takes its place at the floor level and enters the heaters the heater. The process goes on and on until the desired temperature is reached.
Hydronic Baseboard Heaters
Hydronic baseboard heaters are slightly different. As the name suggests, they employ water to complete the heating process. A boiler located somewhere within the house boils water, and the hot water circulates through a series of copper pipes. These pipes run through metal baseboard heaters positioned along the wall or floor.
Inside the metal baseboard, the copper pipes are covered with aluminum fins. As the pipes radiate heat from the water inside, the fins absorb it and transfer it into the home.
A comparison of Electric vs. Hydronic Baseboard Heaters
Both electric and hydronic baseboard heaters are efficient ways to introduce supplemental heat to your home. But, they vary in a few ways. If you’re trying to choose between the two, the following comparisons should help;
- Heat retention – winner; hydronic models
Ideally, you want a heating system that retains heat for the longest time possible, as this reduces eventual operating costs. Hydronic baseboard heaters are much better at heat retention. Electric models don’t store heat at all. The heat is gone as soon as the heater is turned off. By contrast, the water inside hydronic baseboard heaters retains a lot of heat.
- Time to heat up – winner: electric models
The time between hitting the switch and feeling the heat is another significant concern for many people. Typically, you want a heater that gets your entire room warm almost instantly. Purely electric baseboard heaters are a better choice if this is one of your primary needs. The heat is pretty much instant. Hydronic models, by comparison, take several minutes to warm the water.
- Cost efficiency – winner; hydronic models
Baseboard heaters cycle ON and OFF to keep the room at the selected thermostat setting. During the OFF cycle, the heater doesn’t draw electric power. Hydronic baseboard heaters, thanks to the greater heat retention capacity, have longer OFF cycles, meaning less electricity drawn from your lines overall. By comparison, purely electric heaters need to be on almost always to maintain the desired temperatures.
- Maintenance – winner; electric models
Every consumer wants an appliance that’s easy to maintain. Purely electric baseboard heaters are practically maintenance-free. All you need is the occasional wipe-down and periodic vacuuming. Meanwhile, hydronic baseboard heaters require that you keep the boiler, check the water pipes for corrosion, and take measures to prevent leaks. That’s not light work. You may even need a yearly professional inspection – which costs money.
- Durability – electric models
Finally, both hydronic and purely electric baseboard heaters are impressively durable. Nearly all models can last at least a decade. However, electric models tend to last even longer, with top-of-the-line models lasting 20+ years. The hydronic baseboard heater’s durability is partly impacted by calcium deposits and natural corrosion in the copper pipes.
How to Install a Baseboard Heater
Installing the baseboard heater is a two-part process. First, you need to install the baseboard heater itself. Then, you also need to set up the wiring.
Part 1: Installing the baseboard heater
To install the baseboard heater, proceed as follows;
- Measure the size of the room you want to heat. This is as easy as multiplying the length by width. You need about 10 watts per square foot.
- Check the insulation of the room. A drafty room needs an even larger heater to compensate for the lost heat.
- Check whether you have single or double-pane windows. Single-pane windows lose heat faster, thus require more heating.
- If you’re using a wall-mounted thermostat, this is the time to install it. The unit is mounted at least 60 inches off the floor. Make sure there’s a two-wire circuit running through it.
- Use a stud finder to find the studs on the wall where you’ll be mounting the baseboard heater. Make the locations with a pencil. If there’s a baseboard molding in your room, you’ll need to carve a chunk of it away to make room for the heater.
- It’s time for wiring. This part is best handled by a licensed professional. But, if you’re confident in your DIY skills, great. The exact steps are discussed below.
- Mount the baseboard heater to the wall by putting screws through the heater’s back panel and fastening them onto the wall studs. Often, you’ll have pre-drilled holes in the back of the heater for this purpose.
Part 2: Electrical Wiring
To wire the baseboard heater, proceed as follows;
- Make holes in the wall through which you’ll pass electric wires
- Unscrew the baseboard heater and run the supply wires through it. Use nut bolts to tighten the wires.
- Make sure that the supply wires are connected to similar-colored wires inside the baseboard heater.
- Don’t forget about the ground wire. Make sure to connect it to the supply end too.
- Screw the baseboard back up and proceed with the rest of the installation process.
Installation and Operation Costs
The standard baseboard heater costs in the region of $400 to $800 to purchase and install. The heater alone will set you back $50-$150 while the installation process costs between $65 and $130 per hour depending on several factors, such as where you live and the type of baseboard heater.
It’s usually a 2-3-hour job, though the process can take longer depending on factors such as the wiring workload. For instance, sometimes, the electrician needs to create a new breaker circuit. This can prolong the installation process.
Once the baseboard heater is up and running, operation costs depend on the unit’s wattage and your local utility rates. Nevertheless, you can easily estimate how much you’re likely to spend.
Assuming that you’re buying a 1,000-watt heater (1kW), you’d consume 1kWh of electricity every hour. If you run the heater for 12 hours every day, you’d use 12 kWh/day. Over a month, this translates to 360kWh.
Currently, the average electricity rate in the US is 13.19 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Therefore, you’d pay 12 x $0.1319 = $1.58/day or $47.48/month.
Baseboard Heaters vs. Other Space Heaters
While shopping, you must never forget that baseboard heaters aren’t the only space heating solution. While they are some of the most efficient options, other solutions may better suit certain circumstances. Consider the following comparisons;
Baseboard Heater vs. Forced Air Heaters
Forced-air space heaters are by far the most common space heating solution. The heaters primarily run on electricity, though a few use other fuels. They are mainly characterized by a fan or blower system built into the heater that helps direct cold air into the heater and blow warm air throughout the room.
Compared to baseboard heaters, forced-air heaters distribute warmth more evenly. The strong blowing action also means the heat is more likely to reach a longer distance.
This makes forced-air heaters the much better choice for whole-room heating. Forced-air heaters are also generally more affordable than comparable baseboard heaters.
On the flip side, forced-air heaters are relatively noisy. The blowing action generates lots of noise. The fan action also rouses dust, debris, and other solid particles in the home, thus creating dusty indoor air that may be problematic if you have asthma or allergies. Baseboard heaters save you from these two issues – they are quiet and don’t rouse dust.
Baseboard Heaters vs. Space Heaters
Baseboard heaters also qualify as space heaters. But they aren’t the traditional space heating solution you may be looking for because they are primarily made for zonal heating. In contrast, space heaters are traditionally made for full-room heating.
Another area the baseboard heater differs from the traditional space heater is size. The average conventional space heater is much more potent than the standard baseboard heater. This makes baseboard heaters ideal for smaller rooms or specific zones within a room, whereas the space heater can serve an entire room.
Baseboard heaters, however, are quieter and less of a burn risk compared to traditional space heaters. The baseboard heater also takes up very little space as it installs along the wall.
Baseboard Heaters vs. Infrared Heaters
Finally, many people also compare the baseboard heater to infrared heaters. There are several distinctions between the two. For one, infrared heaters rely on electromagnetic radiation (light) to warm up your rooms. The light is what produces the heat. Baseboard heaters, meanwhile, produce heat directly from the resistance wires.
Secondly, the heat from infrared heaters travels in a straight line and reaches people via radiation. Baseboard heaters are convective heaters that rely on circular air motion to transfer heat.
Above all, infrared heaters are much more efficient. The warmth lasts much longer in your room, which is the complete opposite of baseboard heaters, whose warmth is gone as soon as the unit goes off.
How to Make Baseboard Heaters More Efficient
Baseboard heaters are naturally very efficient. Although they consume considerable amounts of electricity, they convert almost all the power into useful heat. You take even further steps to lower your energy usage by following the steps below;
- Lower the heat when you can: If you’re not using the room, turn the heater down. You don’t want to turn it off entirely as that would create new problems. But keep the setting down.
- Choose the lowest temperature possible: Even during peak heating season, keep in mind that for every degree above 20°C, your energy bill increases by 5%. So, keeping the setting down even a few degrees pays off big time.
- Consider a programmable thermostat: A key advantage of programmable thermostats is that you can set it to go off automatically when you’re not at home and switch back on when you arrive home. Consider keeping it at 16°C when you go to bed.
- Remove any obstructions: With baseboard heaters, obstacles between the heater and the rest of the home can cost you a lot. You may even find yourself turning up the thermostat when it’s a piece of furniture blocking the heat.
- Clean the heater regularly: At least once a week during the heating season, wipe the unit with a solution of water and any household cleanser. Use a soft cloth. Additionally, make sure to vacuum the unit at least once a year.
Common Baseboard Heater Problems (and Solutions)
You may occasionally run into challenges while using the baseboard heater. Fortunately, there’s nothing to stress over.
Not Getting Enough Heat?
If you’re not getting enough heat or not getting any heat at all from your baseboard heater, it could be one of the following issues;
- The thermostat setting is wrong
The most likely cause of insufficient heat is a low thermostat. If the thermostat is set at a low temperature, your home will feel colder than you’d desire. The straightforward solution here is to adjust the thermostat setting to reflect your heating needs.
- The circuit breaker has tripped
Circuit breakers can trip to protect you and your home (including the heating appliances) from power surges. All you need to do is turn it back ON and switch on the heater. If the breaker trips again, there could be a problem with the wiring. Call a professional electrician.
- Something is impeding airflow
If there’s something large such as a cabinet or sofa between the heater and the rest of the home, the flow of warm air can be impeded. A quick solution here is to ensure sufficient clearance all around the heater, including at the bottom. There must be enough space between the carpet and the bottom of the heater.
- Dust build-up
The build-up of dust inside the heater may also cause efficiency issues as the dust may block the intake of cold air and the release of warm air from the heater. Another sign of dust build-up is a burning smell. Turn off the unit and use a vacuum cleaner to blow out the dust.
Baseboard Heater Noises
Aside from heating issues, the baseboard can also begin to make unusual and sometimes deafening noises. Here’s what you need to know about baseboard heater noises;
- Pinging noises
If your baseboard heater is making pinging noises, the metal fins inside the unit are likely rubbing against each other. This is usually an indicator that the fins are bent or crushed. When the fins expand due to the heat inside the unit, they may rub against each other, producing pinging sounds.
Ideally, you want to have the fins straightened by an HVAC professional. But, as you wait, you can cut small pieces of paper wax and slide them between the fins where the fins touch the baseboard. It helps minimize the noise.
- Knocking sounds
Knocking sounds from inside the baseboard heater is often caused by the expansion of pipes when hot water enters the piping system. This is especially true in hydronic baseboard heaters that rely on water for space heating. The hot water from the boiler will cause the copper pipes to stretch. The expanded pipes may rub against the floor, causing knocking sounds.
Wax paper may help in this situation too. Place the wax paper pieces between the pipe and the wood to help muffle the sound.
- Banging sounds
A banging sound from a baseboard heater frequently originates from the boiler. It results from the air in the system and a zone valve that closes too quickly. The zone valve closes when the circulator is running. This causes pressure to bounce against air inside the system and forces the valve to slightly open again, resulting in a banging sound.
To deal with the sounds, make sure the pressure gauge on the boiler reads 12-20 PSI. If the pressure is outside this range, call your HVAC contractor immediately.
- Hammering sounds
Hammering noises are also common in hydronic baseboard heaters and sound like the pipes are being hit with a hammer. Overly high temperatures cause it.
If you experience this problem, the first step is to check your temperature gauge. If the temperature is greater than 220 degrees Fahrenheit, shut off the boiler and call your heating technician right away to diagnose the problem.
Baseboard Heater Safety
Baseboard heaters are inherently safer than other heater types. However, caution is still essential to prevent any accidents. The following safety tips are recommended;
- Ensure sufficient clearance: The housing of the baseboard heater can get very hot. Moreover, the warm air coming out of the unit can also get very hot. This can result in preventable fires if flammable items, such as furniture and clothes, are too close to the heater.
- Have one thermostat per room: Never install more than one thermostat per room. It creates unnecessary confusion that could result in preventable incidences. If there are multiple thermostats, it’s even possible to lose track of some of the thermostats.
- Never set the thermostat too high: This especially applies to hydronic baseboard heaters. Since the units take a bit of time to warm up the room, you may be tempted to raise the thermostat too high to hurry the heating process. Don’t make this mistake.
- Be extra careful with children: Baseboard heaters become very hot during peak heating, posing a massive burn risk. To this end, you need to make sure that children don’t get too close. Keep their toys a safe distance too.
Baseboard heating is an amazing way to add supplemental heat to your home. The heaters feature built-in or wall-mounted thermostats for easy temperature control and don’t take up much floor space.
Also, they are easy to maintain and virtually silent. If you’re in the market for a zonal heater and want to try something different, you should strongly consider getting one.