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(707) 539-4533 |  Sonoma Napa and Marin Counties

The weather in the Bay Area can be pretty wild, especially during the stormy months. Rain, wind, and sudden cold snaps can turn even the sunniest week into a miserable few days if you’re unprepared. That’s why any long-term resident will tell you how important it is to have an adequate heating system for your home – after all, plenty of them learned that the hard way!

When it comes to heating your Bay Area home, you have a few different options available to you. The most common is a forced air HVAC system, the same kind you’ll see in most houses in the US. However, baseboard heating is also a popular choice, especially for anyone living in a smaller house or apartment building. The amount of information out there on these two types of heaters can be a little overwhelming, particularly if you’re not sure where to start, so we put together this quick and easy guide so you can make an informed decision without putting yourself through days of research.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Baseboard Heating

Baseboard heaters are a great alternative to standard forced-air heating. As the name suggests, these heaters are placed low on the wall, right by the floor along your baseboard, and most commonly underneath a window. They work through convection: cold air falls from the window, enters the top of the heater through a vent, and is warmed inside the unit. As the air heats up, it rises back up out of the unit, causing the cycle to start over again. Here’s everything you need to know about baseboard heaters:


Energy Efficiency

There are two different types of baseboard heaters: electric and hydronic. Electric units are a little bit like big toasters. The heater draws electricity into the unit and lets it flow directly into a series of metal fins or coils until the metal is red-hot. As cold air falls into the unit, it’s warmed up by the hot coils, starting the convection cycle. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of electricity to keep the fins that hot throughout the day, so electric baseboard heaters aren’t the most energy-efficient option out there. That’s especially true in larger homes, since each baseboard unit can really only heat a single room, requiring you to install several throughout your house.

Hydronic baseboard heaters are a little more complicated. Each hydronic baseboard unit is connected to thin pipes that run through the walls. Boiling hot water or oil flows through the pipes and into the heater, radiating heat into the room. Since hydronic heaters only require enough electricity to keep the water moving through the pipes, they’re much more energy-efficient than their electric cousins. However, they still need to stay on all day to keep the house warm, and their heating power is also limited to a small area. If energy efficiency is an important priority for you, then baseboard heating might not be your best option.


Installation and Maintenance

This category is really where baseboard heaters shine, especially the electric ones. The heating units themselves are pretty inexpensive and all you have to do is attach them to the wall and have them wired into your electrical system. If you live in a small home, you could pick up some inexpensive electric heaters and have them installed throughout the house for easily under $1,000. When you compare that to the cost of installing a full forced air system, the difference is pretty clear – those can cost at least ten times as much, often more. Baseboard heaters also require very little maintenance, making them easy to take care of.

The hydronic units are a little more complicated to install since you’ll need to run the pipes through the walls. They also require you to have a boiler somewhere on the property – no boiler, no hot water. If you already have a boiler installed, hydronic baseboard heaters are easily inexpensive enough for anyone to afford. If you don’t have a boiler, the installation cost for hydronic units starts to approach the cost of installing a furnace or other forced-air heater. You’ll have to get in touch with an HVAC professional to really weigh your options and find out which system will be the most cost-efficient for the specifics of your situation.


Comfort and Air Quality

When comparing the comfort of a baseboard heating system to central air, the answer is going to come down to preference. Baseboard heaters do have a few advantages in this arena, however. The first is that they’re quiet and can continue to run all day and night silently without disturbing anyone. The heat radiated by baseboard heaters is also much more even than forced air. Some homeowners prefer steady heat radiated into the room to blasts of hot air coming from the vents.

One major comfort advantage of baseboard heating is the ability to control the temperature in each room independently. Because each heating unit can only heat up a small section of your home, you can tweak the temperature settings based on where in the house you are. For example, you can increase the heat in the basement without having to turn up the heat in the rest of the house or leave the heat on in your bedroom while switching the other units off for the night. This is called zoning, and it’s a lot more complicated in forced air systems than in baseboard ones.

HVAC 101 Everything you need to know


Advantages and Disadvantages of Forced Air Heating

Forced air is the most common type of HVAC system in the US and, chances are, you’re already fairly familiar with the core concept. A heating unit like a furnace or heat pump is connected to the thermostat in your home. When the temperature dips too low, the heater switches on and produces warm air that is distributed to every room in the house through a series of ducts. In many cases, a furnace will be paired with an air conditioner that uses the same ductwork to cool down the house during the warmer months. Here’s a little information on central air heating:


Energy Efficiency

This is probably the biggest advantage that a forced air system has over baseboard heating. The cost of running even a hydronic baseboard system all winter is easily twice what you’ll pay for a natural gas-burning furnace, and heat pumps are even more efficient. While there are a few heaters that can boast higher energy efficiency, like ductless mini-splits, central air heating is the standard for a reason and can heat a house of any size for relatively little electricity every month.

The running cost of a forced air system will also depend on how you’re generating the heat. The cost of natural gas can fluctuate, but it’s generally fairly inexpensive in North America. An electric furnace, on the other hand, works similarly to an electric baseboard heater and will therefore have a larger effect on your monthly power bill. By far the most energy-efficient forced air units are heat pumps, which use a working fluid to transfer heat from the air outside into your house. As an added bonus, you can reverse the flow of working fluid during the summer to transform the heat pump into an air conditioner, saving you the cost of a new AC unit.


Installation and Maintenance

Installation and maintenance costs for a forced air system are definitely where we see the biggest disadvantages. Furnaces are pretty expensive, and replacing one is certainly going to make a dent in your finances. If you’re looking for something a little less pricey, an electric furnace is going to be significantly cheaper than a natural gas one, but you’re still looking at a total cost of $5,000 or more. If you don’t already have ductwork installed, that number can balloon up to $25,000 easily, so be prepared to break the bank a little if you want to put in a whole new system.

Maintenance of a forced air system is also more expensive than baseboards. We highly recommend having your furnace or heat pump serviced by a professional at least once a year to make sure that everything is running smoothly. Regular maintenance appointments can extend the lifespan of your HVAC unit and reduce the potential for high repair bills, but you’ll probably still have to get a few things fixed over the next couple of decades.
HVAC 101 Everything you need to know

Comfort and Air Quality

One advantage of a forced air system is that it actually cleans the air as it warms your house. Furnaces and heat pumps don’t pull any air in from outside, they just recycle the same air from your home over and over. Every time air passes through your HVAC system, an air filter pulls contaminants out, improving the quality of the air whenever you’re running the furnace. However, you have to make sure you stay up to date on maintaining the system, especially the ductwork. If dust or mold is allowed to build up inside the ducts, the HVAC system will blow those contaminants into every room of the house. We recommend having your ducts cleaned every several years to prevent this.

In terms of comfort, there are a few tradeoffs. While forced air systems are extremely effective, they do make a lot of noise that can be distracting for anyone living in the house. They also require a lot more work and attention than baseboard heaters, and some homeowners would prefer not to deal with the maintenance schedules that a forced air system demands.


Choosing the Right Heating System for Your Home

Picking the right heating system is one of the most important things you can do as a homeowner. Installing a new heat source is a significant investment and many of these units will last for 10 or 20 years, so you need to make sure you’re considering all the options and making the best decision for you. We recommend getting in touch with a trusted HVAC contractor before you finalize any choices, just so you’re confident that you have all the information available. Contractors also offer home visits so they can look over the specifics of your house to help you pick the right system.


Factors to Consider

Here are a few things you can keep in mind while you’re trying to find the right heating system for you:

  • Installation Budget – Buying and installing a heating system can come with a wide range of price tags, from about $500 all the way up to $30,000 or more. When you’re thinking about installing a new system, the very first thing you should do is figure out what your budget is, even if it’s just a broad estimate.
  • Power Budget – Oftentimes, buying a less expensive heating unit will mean dealing with higher power bills each month. Do a little research into the cost of electricity, natural gas, and other fuel sources so you can do the math and figure out whether that electric furnace is worth it or if you should spring for the gas one.
  • Home Size – The size of your home also makes a pretty big difference when figuring out which system is best. As a general rule, baseboard heaters are more well-suited for smaller homes, while homeowners living in large houses should probably go for a forced air system.


Expert Advice and Installation

The smartest thing you can do when making an HVAC-related decision is to get some professional help. HVAC contractors know everything there is about heating houses, and they’re more than willing to give you expert advice every step of the way, as well as handle the actual installation.

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Valley Comfort Heating & Air has been serving customers in the Bay Area for years and we’re happy to help you out in any way we can. Feel free to get in touch with us on our website here, visit our physical location in Santa Rosa, or give us a call today at (707) 539-4533.