Baseboard heaters are popular in old and new homes alike, and here’s why: they’re relatively simple to install in retrofit situations and in new construction because there are no bulky ducts to run through walls, under floors, or above ceilings.
These systems are quiet and clean. They don’t blow dust throughout the house, a common nuisance with most forced-air systems, and baseboard heaters can be used as the main heating source for your home, as an affordable way to supplement an existing heating system, or to provide heat to a newly added room or particularly cold corner of the house.
Forced-air heat, which is found in many modern homes, consists of a furnace that blows heated air through a series of sheet metal ducts. The ducts, in turn, are branched out to each room and then connected to registers or vents placed typically in the floor or low on the walls. This is a fast and efficient way to warm a home, but the ductwork is time consuming and expensive to fabricate and install, and it takes up a huge amount of space, especially in basements, crawl spaces and attics. And if the ducts aren’t properly sealed and insulated—and maintained—they can leak heated air into unwanted spaces.
The problem of running ducts for a forced-air system is compounded in an older home. In homes built prior to about 1960, the interior walls and ceilings would likely be built with plaster and lath, which is much more difficult, messy, and expensive to cut into in order to run the ductwork. That’s why baseboard heaters are often a better option for upgrading the heating system in older homes.
There are two basic types of baseboard heaters: electric and hydronic. Here are all the pros and cons of each type.
Electric Baseboard Heaters
Electric baseboard heaters warm quickly and operate without a furnace, boiler, or other central mechanical system. They can be hardwired into a home's main electrical panel or for simpler installations there are plug-in models that run off a standard wall outlet.
Here’s how a typical electric baseboard heater produces heat: Once its thermostat clicks on, the unit draws cool air from close to the floor and pulls it over heated metal fins that have an electrified cable running through it. The cable heats the air then a small fan pushes the warm air out into the room. Some electric heaters have individual thermostats mounted right on their front panels; others can be wired into a standard wall-mounted thermostat.
The obvious drawback to electric baseboard heaters is that they’re expensive to operate. In fact, electricity is ordinarily the most expensive way to produce heat, so these systems are best suited for small spaces or regions that don’t experience extremely frigid winters.
An alternative to electric baseboards for heating small rooms is to use a portable space heater. They’re affordable, feature simple plug-in use, and can be moved from room to room, as necessary. Again, you wouldn’t be able to heat an entire home with a space heater, but it’s a viable option for warming up smaller spaces.
Hydronic Baseboard Heaters
Hydronic heating systems employ a boiler to produce hot water, which is then circulated through a series of copper pipes. The pipes run through metal baseboard heaters that are positioned against the wall and along the floor in each room. (Baseboard heaters are usually placed directly below windows, which are often the coldest spots in the room.)
Inside the metal heater, the copper pipe is covered with aluminum fins, which absorb heat from the hot pipe and then radiate warm air into the room. Hydronic baseboard heat is an efficient, quiet, and relatively affordable way to heat a home.
And, as mentioned earlier, these systems are simpler to install in both old and new construction because they doesn’t require installing large ducts. However, to ensure the heat flows freely out into the room, it’s important to remove the front panel and vacuum any accumulated dust from the aluminum fins at least once per year.
Another advantage of hydronic baseboard heat is that, depending on the size of your home and family, you may not need to have a separate water heater; the boiler produces both room heat and domestic hot water for showering, dishwashing, laundry, and bathing. And the boiler can also be used to produce hot water for a hydronic radiant-heat system, which pumps hot water through a series of tubes beneath the finished flooring.
There are a few downsides to baseboard heaters. First, because they run along the floor, you can’t always put furniture exactly where you’d like to. Plopping a large sofa up against the heater would definitely obstruct the heat flow into the room. The heater covers are metal, which can dent and rust. And, to some homeowners, baseboard heaters aren’t particularly attractive. Plus, they interrupt the decorative wood baseboard moldings that run around the perimeter of the room.
Regardless of which type of heat you choose for your home, the very best way to ensure you are getting the most out of your heating system is to winterize your home to make it as energy efficient as possible.
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