Baseboard Heating: Safe and Comfortable

Oct 14, 2001

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The Bottom Line Baseboard heating can be one of the best heating systems around if it's used properly and installed in geographical areas where it makes economic sense.

There are two major types of baseboard heating that consumers may encounter: Electric baseboard (EBB) and hot-water baseboard (HWBB). Both can provide excellent comfort if properly installed and used.

Electric Baseboard

Electric baseboard heaters are often retrofitted to older houses that had an obsolete or unserviceable heating system that could not be cost-effectively maintained. This is where problems with electric baseboard heating usually originate. Electric heating consumes large amounts of power to deliver a given quantity of heat. A 1,200 square foot home with good to excellent insulation, average glass area, and average ceiling height, will need approximately 12,000 watts of total heating power if electric baseboard heating is used. That's a lot of power -- the same as 120 standard 100 watt light bulbs.

And this is for a well-insulated home. In an older home with leaky windows and little or no insulation, this wattage figure could easily double. Now the heat demand goes to 24,000 watts. If a heating system that consumes 24,000 watts runs for half of the hours during a month -- as it easily could in a cold month -- the total electricity consumption for the month will be a whopping 8,640 kilowatt hours. At the national average electric rate of around 8 cents per kilowatt hour, that means an electric bill right around $700 -- and that doesn't include the other electricity the household will use during that month.

So what does all of this mean? It means that before you install electric baseboard heating or buy a house that has it, check the electric rates in your area and, if it's an existing house, have the electric company give you examples of past winter bills. If your electric rates are below the national average, as they are in many places, electric baseboard can be a very good heat source. This is true in much of the South, where heating demands are lower and electricity is generally not that expensive, in the Pacific Northwest, where electricity tends to be inexpensive (on average the cheapest in the nation), and in parts of the Midwest, where I live.

I installed electric baseboard in my old house's upstairs because it had no heat vents from the main furnace. It works very well, providing comfortable, even heat. And since the electricity here goes for under six cents per kilowatt hour, operational costs are reasonable. In a places such as New England, where electric power sells for a dime or more a kilowatt hour, this would not be the case.

If you do have electric baseboard heat already you can do some things to make it work better and more efficiently. First, do not place big pieces of furniture directly in front of the heaters. This hampers airflow and makes the heaters run more than they should have to. With a heat source that has the potential to be this expensive, you do not want to do anything to make it run more than necessary.

Also, take advantage of the fact that with baseboard heat you have excellent zone control. When not using a room, close the door to it and turn the heat in that room down to 60 or so. (Do not go way below 60 however because then the room will be too much colder than the rest of the house and you will feel drafts as warm air from other areas travels to the cold room, and cold air migrates out into warm areas.)

Consider purchasing automated thermostats for your baseboard heaters. You cannot use the same ones as for a central heating system because most baseboard heaters use line voltage thermostats, meaning that the full voltage of the heater goes through each thermostat. This is a simpler system than the 24 volt thermostat circuit that controls central heating systems. However, unless you're experienced at working with electricity, do not attempt this thermostat retrofit yourself -- most baseboard heaters operate on 240 volts and a shock could cause serious injury or death.

Installed by an electrician, these line voltage automated thermostats can help you save energy by automatically regulating the temperatures of different rooms to suit the occupancy patterns of your family.

Keep heaters clean and free of debris. Anything blocking the airflow makes them less efficient.

If you're going to fit electric baseboard heat to an old house, consider upgrading your insulation, installing storm windows, or taking other steps to reduce the amount of heat needed. Electric heating in any form tends to be the most expensive on a per-btu basis, so you want to reduce your demand for heat as much as you can.

In the area of safety, electric baseboard heating has few equals. Surface temperatures are low, reducing fire risk. No fan is needed to pull air over the coil, which means that there is nothing to fail and cause the unit to overheat. Above all, there is no flame and therefore no chance of carbon monoxide building up from an improperly functioning system.

Finally, consider one important fact about electric baseboard heating: This is a heating system with essentially no maintenance costs. If a heater goes out (which rarely occurs until they are quite old), the single heater can be replaced by an electrician for a very reasonable price. The units themselves rarely cost more than $50 to $75. Replacing a furnace, on the other hand, can cost thousands. This, combined with the lack of a need for yearly cleanings, system tune-ups, and similar, electric baseboard heating can be economically beneficial even if its operating costs are somewhat higher than other systems.

Hot Water Baseboard

Hot water baseboard heat is a totally different animal than electric baseboard. While the baseboard panels look like those used for electric units, this is where the similarities end. The heat for a hot water baseboard system is provided by a water heating furnace (sometimes called a boiler, although this is not technically correct since it does not raise the temperature of the water to its boiling point). A pump then circulates the heated water through the baseboard units in the rooms of the home.

The biggest problem with hot water baseboard is "thermal inertia." This means that when you first turn the system on, the water has to be heated, and then it has to circulate to each baseboard unit,and then it has to warm each room by convection. This means you can't set the thermostat down to 55 when you go to work in the morning and then back up to 70 when you get home and expect to be toasty warm within 10 minutes.

In fact, if you want to use a setback thermostat with hot water baseboard, you should actually drop the temperature roughly an hour before you plan to leave, and then have it raise the temperature an hour or so before you get home. This will give the system time to raise the temperature to the desired level.

Hot water baseboard heating systems tend to be comparatively inexpensive to operate because water is a more effective heat transfer medium than air. If the "boiler" is 80 or 85 percent efficient, you get essentially all of this heat actually delivered to the rooms of your home.

They are, however, very expensive to install and can be a bear to maintain when they get old. Leaks can develop, deposits can form in the lines, and other maladies can occur which necessitate frequent and costly service calls. Plus, there is the constant worry that if you're ever away from home and the power fails -- rendering the system inoperative -- and the temperature drops below freezing in the house, those hot water lines are going to start breaking and cause a staggering amount of damage to the home and its contents.

The heat from these systems is very comfortable if they are used properly because it is continuous. Instead of a forced air furnace which comes on with a blast of heat and then shuts off, there is a constant flow of warm air which surrounds the room in even heat. Also, hot water baseboard systems do not stir up dust the way forced air systems can, so this can be an advantage for allergy sufferers.

Aside from the aforementioned maintenance issues, the biggest disadvantage of hot water baseboard heating is that there is no ability to add central air conditioning to it. Circulating cold water through the baseboard units won't work because cold air does not move as easily as warm air, and there would be little or no cooling effect. This does not have to be big disadvantage if you either do not need air conditioning or if you have no objection to window units (which are in some cases actually more efficient these days than central units).

In summary, baseboard heating can provide comfortable and effective heating. The key lies in using it effectively and installing it in areas where it is economically feasible.

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