How Do Hot Water Baseboard Heaters Work

Types of Baseboard Heating Systems

Electric Baseboard Heating

Technically speaking, electricity plays a role in all baseboard heating systems, but there are some that run exclusively on electricity. You can put these in every room of the house if you want, but it’s far more customary for an electric baseboard to provide supplemental heat for individual rooms on an as-needed basis. One common usage is for baseboard heat to run in a bedroom overnight, while the whole-house heating system can be put on a budget-friendly low setting.

Photo: istockphoto.com

Photo: istockphoto.com

Did you ever wonder why baseboard units typically appear beneath windows? In a word, the answer is: science. Baseboard heating works through convection. As cold air falls from the window, it enters the baseboard unit through a vent. Within the baseboard, the air is warmed by a series of metal fins that have been heated through electricity. The warm air then rises from the baseboard, and the pattern repeats itself, creating a circular flow known as a convection current.

Plug-in portable baseboard heaters exist, but the best baseboards are hardwired into the circuity of a home (with 120-volt or 240-volt supplies, either of which calls for the installation services of an electrician). Some electric baseboard heating units feature an integrated thermostat; others are set by an in-wall controller.

Though inexpensive to purchase, electric baseboards are somewhat infamously inefficient, meaning they can be costly to run for any prolonged period of time. It’s for this reason more than any other that homeowners typically choose not to rely on electric baseboard heating units as full-time solutions for the whole house.

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Photo: howtobuildahouseblog.com

Photo: howtobuildahouseblog.com

Hydronic Baseboard Heating

In a hydronic baseboard unit, the mechanics are similar but slightly different. Electricity still generates the system’s heat, but it does so indirectly. First, the electrical current warms up an enclosed fluid, either oil or water, and then that fluid radiates heat into the room where the unit has been installed.

Hydronic baseboard heating systems operate more efficiently than do electric units, because once the fluid has been warmed, it takes longer to cool down (the metal fins in an electrical baseboard, by comparison, cool down very quickly). That’s why if you come across a home in which baseboard heating is the one and only system of delivering heat, chances are high that it’s a cheaper-to-run hydronic system.

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What are the cons? In a whole-house hydronic system reliant on water circulated from the water heater, the lines can be disturbed by an intrusion of air. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: bleeding the pipes. Another drawback is that compared with electric baseboards, hydronic units take longer to heat up. For many homeowners, however, the efficiency of hydronic baseboards amply makes up for their slow start.

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Baseboard Heating Pros

While they are a good fit for many homeowners, it’s important to understand baseboard heating pros and cons before jumping in.

Since electric baseboard heating doesn’t require ductwork like forced-air systems, they can be good options for heating older homes that would otherwise need to be retrofitted.

They can also be an option for rooms in a home that need an extra source of heating — for example, in a bedroom overnight.

Pro 1: Quiet Operation

A benefit of baseboard heating is it operates quietly, unlike forced-air systems that periodically blast air. This is a big pro when installing in bedrooms. They won’t negatively affect your sleep schedule or keep you awake with loud noises.

Pro 2: Easy Installation

Baseboard heating offers a unique heating option to homeowners since installation doesn’t require ductwork.

So if you live in an older home that doesn’t have any fancy ducts, don’t fret. Baseboard heating can easily be installed without the use of ductwork, making the installation process fairly painless.

Pro 3: Low Installation Cost

Baseboard heating is less expensive to install than many other types of heating systems since they are so easy to install. So if you’re hoping to get heating in your home on a lower budget, then baseboard heating might be perfect for you.

Pro 4: Good Heating Source

Baseboard heating offers a good source of heating for a single room or a secondary source of heat for a large home space.

Pro 5: Easily Cleaned

Unlike a complicated HVAC system, baseboard heating can easily be cleaned with a vacuum. This is a task most homeowners can tackle on their own without second-guessing it. Additionally, baseboard heating systems typically require little additional maintenance to run optimally.

Pro 6: Longevity

You can expect your baseboard heating to last 20 years or more.

Cons of Baseboard Heat

Although there are some notable benefits to electric baseboard heaters, they aren’t considered the most efficient or practical heat source on the market today. Why is that?

1. Cost

Is baseboard heating expensive? In general, electric baseboard heaters use more electricity than an electric heat pump. This means higher electric bills, especially in the coldest winter months when they’re working overtime to keep your home warm. The placement of baseboard heaters — near windows and exterior walls — can also work against you. If the thermostat on the unit senses cold nearby, such as drafts from old windows, it’s going to work even harder trying to keep the room warm. Why? It responds to the temperature nearest the thermostat. This can increase your energy expenses even more.

Some homeowners can save some money by keeping the heaters off in rooms where they don’t spend much time, but depending on the size of your home and how many people live there, this may not be an option.

2. Interior Design

By design, baseboard heaters take up valuable wall space in every room. They’re under windows and along exterior walls to mitigate the cold that passes through these parts of the home. Inevitably, this means you’ll find a long baseboard heater right where you’d like to put the couch or bed or dresser. Because electric baseboard heaters get hot, you should keep furniture and curtains at least 6 inches away from them to prevent a fire. The placement of the units and the need to keep them unobstructed can severely limit where you can place furniture and what kind of curtains you can safely hang. Long drapes are a big “no” on windows above a baseboard heater!

3. Safety Hazard

Electric baseboard heaters can get really hot when they’re on. The heating element itself gets hot, but the heater covers also get incredibly hot as well. If you have young children who are prone to sticking their fingers where they don’t belong, this can be dangerous. Parents naturally look for ways to hide or block safety hazards in their homes, but unfortunately, because you can’t put items over or in front of the heaters, there’s really no way to block them from a curious child. Because of this, young children in homes with electric baseboard heaters require constant monitoring to ensure that they’re safe at all times.

4. Dry Heat

We’re often asked: is baseboard heat dry? Electric baseboard heaters are notorious for producing an incredibly dry heat. Residents of homes with baseboard heaters may experience dry skin, dry throats, bloody noses and dry eyes, especially if they’re prone to these problems to begin with. Sometimes homeowners use a humidifier to compensate for the dry air in their home, but that requires more electricity, and it can be a pain to keep them clean and filled with fresh water.

5. Require Regular Cleaning

Anytime the system is forced to work harder or longer means an increase in energy costs. To keep baseboard heaters operating at their maximum efficiency, you must clean them regularly. The good news is they aren’t difficult to clean — all you need is a vacuum — but if dust begins to collect on the system, it will have to work harder to produce enough heat.

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.

Now let’s take a look at the two most popular models of these baseboard heaters:

    1. Ceramic Baseboard Heaters:

To make sure that this model of baseboard heaters is as durable as it can possibly be, it is made from ceramic. In fact, ceramic is an extremely popular choice in the manufacturing of high-quality baseboard heaters. This is because such heaters do not wear out easily with time, and they also ensure unified heat dispersion. Also, you won’t have to worry about the leaks or any risk of explosion in ceramic made baseboard heaters.

2. Direct Vent Baseboard Heater:

Direct vent baseboard heaters usually use gas fired baseboard technology. While using such heaters, it is recommended that the temperature of the room must be reset to 15 degrees Celsius before turning the heater on after an extended period of not being used. This gas fired baseboard technology utilizes the gas lines running around the building. Each heater also has a small fluid pipe that penetrates the wall. This technology is more preferred where hydronic baseboard heaters are considered very expensive.

How Do Baseboard Heating Systems Work?

Even homeowners who’ve had electric baseboard heating for years often don’t understand how their home’s heating system works. So before you can understand the pros and cons of baseboard heating, take a few minutes to ask: what is baseboard heating and how does it work?

Electric baseboard heating systems — also known as electric resistance heating — is a form of zone heating that individually creates and controls the temperature in each room of your home. There are no furnaces, boilers, heating ducts, vents or blowers involved in distributing the heat. Each baseboard unit houses a heating element that generates heat and then slowly releases it into the room where it’s located.

The term “baseboard heat” refers to the heater’s location along the bottom of the wall. The idea behind this location is that heat naturally rises so, by starting out along the floor, the heat slowly rises into the area between the floor and ceiling where you spend most of your time.

The Different Types of Baseboard Heat

There are different types of baseboard heat out there, such as gas baseboard heat and hydronic baseboard heat. You might have heard this referred to as hot water baseboard heat. These heaters send hot water through a series of copper coils located in baseboard units around the home. The water can be heated through your home’s boiler system. However, in this post, we’re addressing traditional electric baseboard heat.

Typically baseboard heaters are installed under windows and on perimeter walls of the home. This allows them to counteract the cold air radiating off the window glass, as well as the areas where the home’s greatest heat loss tends to happen. Electric baseboards are individually controlled, meaning each unit — and therefore each room — has its own thermostat. This can be beneficial if your family has disagreements about how warm — or cold — to keep the house in the winter. It’s also helpful because you can turn the heat down in rooms you don’t use often or up in rooms that tend to get drafty.

But Is Baseboard Heat Efficient?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question because it depends on a variety of factors. The overall efficiency of a baseboard heating system depends on its age, its condition and where you live. In most climates, an electric heat pump will operate with more overall efficiency than electric baseboard heaters. In fact, homeowners should see an approximately 50% decrease in electricity use once electric baseboard heaters aren’t being used anymore. This means monthly savings on their energy bill.

Everyone wants a more efficient — and less expensive — way to heat their home. If you don’t want to convert your home to central heating and cooling, the ductless HVAC system — also called a mini-split system — is a great way to get a more efficient system at a more economical price.

Learn more about Mini Splits

We’ll get into the details of the ductless system later in this article. But to understand its benefits, you should first understand the pros and cons of baseboard heat.

Heating Baseboard Defects

  • Air-bound heating baseboards can prevent sections or entire loops of heating baseboards from getting hot. Details areat AIRBOUND HEAT SYSTEM REPAIRS
 Missing baseboard covers: the covers are required
  • Missing baseboard covers: the covers are required to assure proper heating of room air by convection. See RADIATOR BASEBOARD or CONVECTOR COVERS for tips on how to make or buy replacement covers for hot water heating baseboards
  • Missing baseboard end caps: same as above (photo above right)
 Damaged or dust-clogged heating baseboard fi
  • Damaged or dust-clogged heating baseboard fins – reduces air-flow and thus heating output. It’s easy to fix this problem by careful vacuuming of the heating baseboard fins using a crevice tool on your home vacuum cleaner.Watch out: be gentle or use a special brush attachment when vacuuming heating baseboard tubing and fins, or remove the baseboard covers if necessary.If you are heavy-handed with the vacuum cleaner you may bend and damage the fins covering the baseboard tubing, resulting in reduced heat output.
  • Inadequate clearance between the baseboard bottom and the floor surface – blocks entry of cool air into the baseboard
  • Leaky hot water baseboard connections, air bleeders, elbows.See LEAKS at BASEBOARD, CONVECTOR, RADIATOR for details.

  • Inadequate total linear feet of heating baseboard for the room size – inadequate heat output may leave the room too chilly on cold windy days.Solutions to inadequate hot water heating baseboard installations include increasing the hot water flow rate through the baseboard by changing the circulator pump to a higher output unit, increasing the water temperature flowing through the baseboard, increasing the diameter of piping between the heating boiler and the baseboard input and output ends, or changing the baseboard itself to a higher BTU output (per linear foot) model.Our photo (left) shows heating baseboard being installed in a Poughkeepsie, NY home. The linear feet in this room was held to a minimum for room design reasons, leading the builders (DF & Galow Homes) to select a higher-output baseboard design.Watch out: Unfortunately the installing Poughkeepsie plumber took some shortcuts and "saved money" by reducing the hot water piping feed and return piping from our design point of 3/4" diameter to his own preference for (easier and faster to install) 1/2" diameter piping. We may need to install a higher capacity output circulator pump at this home or perhaps we’ll need to install larger diameter supply and return piping. This installation remains under evaluation.
  • Unsafe electric heating baseboard installation details & clearances such as from curtains and electrical outlets or wires. See ELECTRIC BASEBOARD HEAT SAFETY

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