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There are many different ways to keep your home warm during the winter, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. One common way to warm your house is by using baseboard heaters. Baseboard heating can be cheap and easy to install, which attracts homeowners looking for a way to beat the cold without spending a fortune on expensive HVAC installation costs. However, baseboard heaters come with disadvantages as well, so they’re not ideal for every home or living situation. In this blog post, we’ll talk a little bit about how baseboard heating works, go over some pros and cons for choosing it over the myriad of other heating systems available and finally talk about the process of installing and maintaining a baseboard heater. Everybody’s heating needs are different, so it’s important to understand the options before you make a decision.
How Does Baseboard Heating Work?
Before deciding on a baseboard heater, it’s a good idea to take a little dive into how they work. There are a couple of different types of baseboard heaters, and while each of them uses similar scientific principles to heat the air in your home, they have different methods and requirements to complete the system. Which kind of baseboard heater you choose will depend on a few factors, including the size of your home, how much energy efficiency matters to you, and whether or not you already have an HVAC system installed in your house.
Both kinds of baseboard heaters operate using a scientific principle called convection. You might remember this from science class in school, but just in case, convection is movement and energy transference based on the temperature in either liquid or air. If certain areas of a gas or liquid either heat or cool faster than their surroundings, this causes movement within the space. Air or liquid that has been heated will rise, and anything that’s been cooled will sink.
If we apply this process in a controlled and consistent way, then we can create convection cycles or currents. For example, think of a pot filled with water and placed on a stovetop. The stove heats the water from below, causing the water at the bottom of the pot to heat up and rise to the top. Once it reaches the top, it starts to cool again, sinking back down to the bottom and starting the whole process over again. This is a convection cycle, and convection heaters like baseboards work using similar methods. Cool air molecules float down into the heater, are warmed by the heating element, and then rise back out into the room.
Ancient heating systems like hearths, furnaces, and stoves all worked through convection cycles. Modern fireplaces and space heaters also use convection to warm the air, and so do baseboards heaters. While the methods have become significantly more advanced and technologically complicated, convection remains an easy and efficient way to distribute warm air throughout a room while displacing cold air at the same time.
Electric Baseboard Heaters
Electric baseboard heaters are the simplest kind of baseboards and operate similarly to most portable space heaters. You can also think of an electric baseboard heater as a big toaster. Have you ever put your hand in the air over a toaster and felt the heat coming off it? That’s convection heat, and electric baseboards work pretty much the exact same way.
An electric baseboard heater is a small unit that’s usually attached to the wall just under a window. As cold air molecules fall into the heater, they land among a line of electrically heated metal fins or coils, just like the inside of a toaster. The previously cold air is warmed by the fins and rises back out of the heater into the room. Why the window, you might ask? That’s because windows are always the coldest interior surfaces in any house. The colder air outside your home cools the glass panes of the window and causes warmth to escape through conduction. As the air loses heat through the window, it cools and falls directly into the heater, helping to continue the convection cycle.
All this scientific jargon is to say that electric baseboard heaters are a great way to warm up a room, especially if you’re losing heat through the window. However, they’re also notoriously inefficient and require a ton of electricity to run properly. Because of this, electric baseboards are generally used as a supplemental heat source for especially cold rooms, or if you want to keep a bedroom warm overnight without having to run the entire HVAC system. Because they can be costly to keep running, electric baseboards are rarely used as a primary heating system – think of them more as fixed space heaters to be used situationally.
Hydronic Baseboard Heaters
Hydronic baseboard heaters, also known as hot water baseboards, are more commonly used as a primary source of heat for your home. Hot water heaters also use convection to heat the air, but instead of using electrically heated fins, they use hot water that flows through tubes in the heater units. Heating water is much more efficient than keeping the metal fins hot, so hydronic baseboards are much more efficient and affordable to run. However, they do require a little more work to install and aren’t always the best for small spaces like certain apartments.
The thing that makes hydronic baseboards so efficient is also the same thing that makes them require more work and space to install. Rather than forcing each heating unit to draw electricity and heat their own water, hydronic baseboards utilize a boiler placed somewhere in your home. The boiler can heat a large amount of water much more efficiently, and that water flows through a series of pipes in your walls to reach the baseboard units. As cold air falls into the baseboard, it’s warmed by the hot water and rises back out of the unit. Because this process causes heat to transfer from the water to the air, cooling the water, the system is constantly cycling water back and forth between the boiler and the unit. With a consistent flow, this ensures that there’s always boiling hot water ready in the unit to heat the air outside.
While the heat transfer does cause the water to cool, it does so much more slowly than the metal fins inside an electric baseboard. This makes hydronic baseboards much more efficient than their electric counterparts. That’s why, if you’re thinking of using baseboard heaters as your primary heat source for the whole home, you’re much better off with a hydronic system. Hydronic baseboards require a little more maintenance to make sure the boiler and the pipes are all in good condition, but it’ll save you a significant amount of money on your monthly electricity bills.
Advantages of a Baseboard Heating System
Understanding how baseboard heaters work is all well and good, but what’s really important is seeing how they compare to other heating systems. There are a ton of different ways to heat your house, from traditional ducted HVAC systems to newer technologies like solar walls. Here’s a little information on how baseboards stack up against a couple of their most common competitors.
Baseboard Heaters vs Ducted HVAC
A standard ducted HVAC system, often referred to as central air heating, is by far the most common way to heat a home, especially for newly constructed houses that can have the ducts built right in. These systems often have both heat pumps to raise the temperature in your house and air conditioners to lower it. For the purposes of this comparison, however, we’ll just focus on the heating elements for now.
Ducted HVAC systems can heat air in a few different ways. They can use a furnace inside your home to generate heat, they can use a boiler to create heat like a hydronic baseboard, or they can use a combination air conditioner/heat pump to bring either hot or cold air inside the house as needed. However, they all distribute heat in pretty much the same way. After the heat has been generated, either by a furnace or by passing air from outside across a heating element like a compressor, a blower fan will force the warm air through the ducts and out of vents placed throughout your home. These systems are usually controlled by a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the temperature has dipped too low, it turns the central heating on until it’s warmed back up.
The biggest advantage that baseboard heating has over a central air system is the cost of installation. Forced air requires ductwork to be installed all throughout your home to work, otherwise, it won’t be able to distribute the warm air. A baseboard heater only needs to have single units installed in the rooms you need to warm, and a boiler is cheaper than a furnace. Baseboard heaters also work silently, unlike central air systems that have loud blower fans. Hot water baseboard heaters are also frequently more energy efficient than furnaces or heat pumps, although new technologies like active solar heating are making ducted systems more efficient. Finally, air that’s been warmed by a furnace is often dryer than the warm air created by convection heaters, which can create static electricity and make things worse for people who already suffer from dry skin.
Baseboard Heaters vs Radiators
Much like baseboard heaters, radiators make use of convection as they heat air. However, the actual dispersal uses a different method of heat transfer: thermal radiation. Radiators use water or steam that’s been heated by a boiler, just like baseboard heaters. Heat is then transferred from the water to the tall metal ridges or pipes of the radiator through convection and conduction. However, rather than releasing heated air directly into the room like a baseboard heater, the radiator just sits there and makes itself hotter and hotter until it creates thermal radiation. This is the same method of heat transfer you feel when you’re sitting by a fire. The radiation emitted by a hot object like a radiator or a fire heats up anything it touches, whether that’s you, your furniture, or anything else in the room. Fun fact: the sun’s rays are also an example of thermal radiation, just on a much larger scale.
In practical terms, there are only a few differences between baseboard heaters and radiators. They both heat only one room at a time and require a series of pipes connected to a boiler to work. However, radiators require a much larger surface area in order to create enough radiation to warm the whole room. This means they take up a lot more space than baseboard units, which are fairly compact. Older cast-iron or steam-powered radiators can also be extremely hot to the touch, which is dangerous if you have kids around. More modern floorboard and electric radiators are safe to touch but are less energy-efficient than the old school models.
Disadvantages of Baseboard Heating
You’ve seen some of the pros, but what about the cons? Like any heating system, baseboard heaters have plenty of both. Considering every factor is the best way to make sure that you’re picking the right way to heat your home. Here are a few of the biggest disadvantages involved with using a baseboard heating system:
- Costly to Operate – Electric baseboard heaters are extremely inefficient, making them expensive to run. While hydronic baseboards are much more efficient, they still fall short when compared to some heat pumps. If you’re willing to spend the money, modern solar heated ducted systems are significantly more efficient and less expensive to operate.
- Space Requirements – While baseboard heaters are smaller and less obtrusive than radiators, they can still be a bit of an eyesore, especially since they need to be placed in every room that you want to heat. Additionally, because they work best when placed directly underneath windows, they limit your options for curtains and drapes. Long curtains placed over a baseboard heater are a pretty serious fire hazard.
- Slow to Adjust – While baseboard heaters will warm the air in your home just as effectively as other systems, they will take a little bit longer to do so. This means you’ll have to be a little more patient, and you can’t turn the heaters on and off frequently throughout the day without wasting a lot of time and electricity. For this reason, baseboard heaters are best used with a central thermostat you can set and leave alone for the rest of the day.
Installing Baseboard Heaters
The simplicity of installing a baseboard heater will depend on which kind you want. Installing hydronic heaters will take a little more work, especially if you don’t already have a boiler. You’ll have to find a place for the boiler, most likely in the basement if you have one, and then run pipes through the walls to each of the heater units. Unfortunately, the heaters can’t just piggyback on your existing water lines, but you can run the pipes parallel to the ones you already have to save time. Once the pipes have been laid, installing the actual heater is pretty easy. All you have to do is line up the input and output pipes inside the heater with the pipes in the wall, and then the heater itself can just be screwed into studs. We recommend having a professional install the whole system for you, but if you’re a confident DIY pro, make sure you decide where to place the heaters before running the pipes through the wall so you know the studs will be in the right place to hold the unit.
Installing an electric baseboard heater is much easier but might still require professional help. The heaters come in both 120 and 240-volt models, but we recommend the 240v version because of its increased energy efficiency. Once the heater has been attached to the wall, you can just wire the heater’s junction box directly to a 20-amp circuit on your breaker. Note that if you’re not experienced and 100% confident in your ability to work with electrical wiring, you absolutely shouldn’t attempt this by yourself. A licensed electrician can take care of the wiring for you relatively inexpensively. Many electric baseboard heaters come with built-in thermostats so you can control the temperature, but if you have multiple units, you can also wire them directly into a standard central thermostat controller.
Maintaining a Baseboard Heater
Maintaining a baseboard heater is a lot easier than taking care of a ducted central air system, but there are still a few things you should try to do to make sure the whole thing keeps running smoothly. The most important part of maintaining baseboard heaters is to keep them clean. Dust and debris can easily fall into the heater and get stuck, which causes a minor fire hazard and also creates a nasty burning smell in the room. If you have kids and pets, you should probably check the heaters once a day for debris, since these messes can build up pretty quickly.
At the end of the cold-weather season, you should give your baseboard heater a thorough cleaning before turning it off for the summer. Clean and vacuum every unit in your house before leaving them alone. We also recommend buying a simple heater cover to make sure dust doesn’t collect on the heater while it’s not running. If you don’t have a cover, you’ll just have to vacuum the heaters again when the weather starts getting colder.
If you have a hydronic baseboard heater, you’ll also have to do a little extra maintenance. As the heating liquid cycles between the heaters and the boiler, air can get trapped in the pipes and interfere with the unit’s operation. For this reason, most hot water baseboard heaters are equipped with bleed valves. Periodically, you’ll have to open the bleed valve, let the air escape, and then replace any fluid that leaks out. Keep in mind that the escaping water will be extremely hot, so be careful when bleeding the system. If you don’t feel comfortable handling this by yourself, you can always hire someone to do it for you, but that would come with an extra cost. As long as you’re careful, the average homeowner should be able to take care of bleeding the system without a problem.
Costs of a Baseboard Heater
The actual heaters themselves are relatively inexpensive, between $50 and $200 for each unit. Electric heaters occupy the lower end of that spectrum, while hydronic baseboard heaters typically run $100 or more for each unit. However, when installing a hydronic heating system, the bulk of the cost will go towards buying and installing the boiler and related pipes. At the end of the day, the total cost of installing a full hydronic baseboard heating system will usually be between $6,000 and $8,000.
You also have to consider the cost of electricity when deciding on a heating system. While any HVAC system will come with pretty heavy power bills, electric baseboard heaters are especially inefficient. If you keep even a single electric baseboard heater running for about 12 hours a day, then the total monthly power cost will be over $400. For this reason, we recommend using electric baseboard heaters only as an auxiliary form of heating.
Call Your HVAC Company Today
If you’re interested in learning more about baseboard heaters, or you want to have one installed, you should get in touch with your local HVAC contractor. If you’re in Sonoma, Napa, or Marin counties in California, Valley Comfort Heating and Air is here to help. We have the experience you need to install any kind of heating system, whether it’s baseboard heaters, central air, or anything in between. You can contact us now through our website for a consultation or just give us a call at (707) 329-3182.