If you’ve ever lived in a mild climate, chances are you’ve seen rooms with baseboard heaters. These long, narrow heaters run along the bottom of the wall and can be controlled individually. Although not quite as popular as they once were, baseboard heaters still have their place even in colder climates.
How Baseboard Heating Works
Baseboard heaters come in two main forms:
Electric convention – This type of heater contains a heating element within a metal cable. It uses electricity to heat the heating element, which warms the air around it. The warm air then rises as colder room air falls into the heater due to the natural process of convection.
Hydronic (water) or oil – Hydronic baseboard heaters are either connected to a boiler by hot water pipes used to circulate water through them or self-contained units that heat water by themselves using electricity. Less commonly, you’ll find heaters that contain oil rather than water. These also require electricity and work in essentially the same way as portable, plug-in oil radiators.
Electric convection, hydronic and oil baseboard heaters all look largely the same from the outside and are installed in the same kinds of locations. They’re placed near the floor and under windows, so they’re closer to the coolest air in the room, which naturally falls.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
Baseboard heating is often used to supplement the home’s primary heating system, such as a forced-air furnace or hot-water radiators. These heaters are a practical way to warm up rooms that tend to be colder than the rest of the house as well as for additions, and finished attics or basements.
Because each heater can be controlled separately, you can supply more heat to a room that tends to be chilly without raising the thermostat for the whole house.
They’re simple and affordable to install because they don’t require ductwork. Depending on the design, though, each heater will need to be hard-wired into the house’s electrical system or connected to the radiator.
While ductless heat pumps offer similar advantages, baseboard heaters have one major additional benefit: they don’t stir up the air. They’re ideal if you have allergies or simply dislike the feeling of blowing air.
With no moving parts to break down, these heaters are highly reliable and can last for 20 years or longer. Maintenance is easy, too. You’ll only need to clean them periodically to remove dust buildup that could interfere with the heater’s performance.
Baseboard heaters are exceptionally quiet. They don’t use a motor or ductwork that can pop and bang as it reacts to temperature changes.
The biggest problem with baseboard heaters is that they’re rarely able to keep a room sufficiently warm. This is why they’re most often used for supplemental heating. To make matters worse, they don’t always produce heat consistently, which can lead to temperature swings. This is more common in units that use a built-in thermostat, so connecting the heater to a wall thermostat can help stabilize your temperatures.
Although modern baseboard heaters are designed to have low surface temperatures, they can still get hot to the touch. You’ll need to keep all flammable items, such as furniture, curtains and kids’ toys, at least 6 inches away from the heaters.
The Right Design for You
If you’re considering baseboard heating for your home, you’ll need to decide between electric convection, hydronic or oil. Each has its pros and cons, along with requirements for installation.
Electric convection models are the most common and cheapest type of baseboard heaters, and are easy to find in a wide range of sizes and colors. These heaters are highly reliable because, unlike hydronic and oil heaters, they don’t contain liquid that could leak if the heater is damaged.
Unfortunately, these are also the least energy efficient type of a heating method that’s not particularly energy efficient to begin with. Once turned off, the heating element inside quickly cools down, much like the element in an electric range.
With little lingering heat to maintain the temperature while the heater is off, you’ll end up with temperature fluctuations and a room that gets chilly fast. If you’re only looking for a little extra heat in a room you don’t use much, such as a guest room or sewing room, a baseboard heater is a practical option. Relying on these heaters for warmth every day, however, will get expensive fast.
Hydronic and Oil
Hydronic baseboard heaters are less common than their electric convection cousins, and up to four times more expensive. These heaters are often installed to provide supplemental heating in a home with hydronic radiant flooring because the boiler and pipes used to run the heaters are already in place.
If your home doesn’t use a boiler, self-contained baseboard heaters that use electricity to heat water or oil inside the unit are a more practical option.
The major benefit of hydronic and oil baseboard heaters over convection models is their greater energy efficiency and ability to maintain more consistent room temperatures. These heaters retain warmth effectively so when the heater is turned off, it gradually releases stored heat into the room, keeping the room warmer for longer.
On the downside, they take longer to heat up than electric convection heaters, meaning they take longer to warm up a cold room.
When your home needs some extra heat, but you’re not ready to upgrade your primary heating system just yet, baseboard heaters are one of the simplest ways to get the warmth you need. If you plan on using the heaters frequently, hydronic and oil models are the best investment. If you need heat only occasionally and don’t want to pay much for a heater, go with electric convection.