Hugh Cairns: All about electric baseboard heaters

Using thermal imaging technology, it’s easy to see that the close proximity of the drapery is a fire safety hazard. (Photo: Hugh Cairns)

Electric baseboard heat is easy to control and requires little maintenance in order to provide clean, quiet, comfortable and draft-free heat. Electric baseboard heaters offer precision temperature control and heat distribution while being 100% energy efficient.

How electric baseboards work

Electric baseboard heaters are a type of electric resistor which works by converting electrical energy into heat, much the same way that electric stoves or ovens do. A thermostat is used to control the flow of electricity to a heating element located inside a long protective pipe inside the heater case. When the thermostat is set high enough, the heater is turned on, electricity flows through element causing it to heat up. The pipe has hundreds of metal fins attached to it in order to help disburse the heat generated by the element. Cold air is pulled through the bottom of the heater case where it is heated as it escapes through the top of the case. This creates a vacuum, pulling cool air towards the baseboard heater. This type of air flow is called convection current. Once the convection current is flowing, it spreads heat to the entire room.


Initial Cost

Electric baseboard installation comprises of installing the units at floor level to a wall with connection to the home’s electrical system. The baseboards themselves usually cost less than $100 each. In newly constructed structures, baseboard heating typically has the lowest initial cost compared to other systems, but can be expected to have higher operating cost. In comparison, central forced air residential heating systems are costly to install and can easily run $5000 or more for a high efficiency forced air furnace. In addition, forced air systems require distribution ductwork and exterior ventilation components.



How to calculate for electric baseboard heat requirements

Each room will need approximately 8 watts of electric baseboard heat per square foot of the room being heated. Rooms that are extra-large or poorly insulated may need additional capacity.  To heat a large room and increase your comfort, it is recommended to install multiple smaller units instead of a large one. With proper placement, this practice creates better convection air currents. For example, install two 1000 watt units rather than a single 2000 watt unit.

  • Measure and multiply the width and length of the room to determine its square footage.
  • Next, multiply the square footage of the room by 8. The result is the amount of wattage that you will need for the room.
  • Multiply the wattage by 3.1421 to determine the BTU rate per hour.
  • Shop for a baseboard heaters that match the total wattage and BTU rate for each room.


Electric baseboard placement

For best results, install the baseboard heater under a window, along an outside wall, or as close as possible to an outside door. They can also be placed in hard to heat areas and places where freezing can be problematic such as garages and crawlspaces

  • The electric baseboard heater may be placed directly on the floor and mounted to the wall
  • Keep hanging objects at least 12” away from the heater
  • The seam at the junction of the wall and floor behind the heater should be caulked to prevent dust from being drawn into the room. The heater should be set flush against the surface of the wall
  • Baseboard heaters may sit directly on any floor surface, including carpet, however do not allow carpet to block lower air intake

Note: Sole use of electric baseboard heating in log homes is not recommended because they are not efficient with log wall structures. Log homes often have large areas and cathedral ceilings which are best served by means other than electric baseboard heat.


Initial operation

The heater must be properly installed before it is used

Switch the power on at the electrical panel board

Upon initial start-up, the heater may emit a burning odor. This is not dangerous, and is due to a protective lubricant used during the manufacturing process. It typically dissipates within several hours.


Electric baseboard maintenance

Electric baseboard heaters are virtually maintenance-free. However, a certain amount of lint and dust will accumulate inside the unit and should be periodically cleaned. Follow these suggestions to maintain their efficiency before each heating season:

  • Test all units to make sure they are working
  • Ensure heaters are not physically damaged. Damaged units should be replaced.
  • Baseboard covers are required to assure proper heating of room air by convection
  • Check that heaters are properly secured and not loose
  • Vacuum dust collected inside and under the baseboard heaters. Use a soft bristle attachment that doesn’t have metal parts to clean the heater fins.
  • Move objects and furniture away to allow for better air circulation.
  • Ensure curtains and blinds do not drape over the electric baseboards

If you ever have a problem with a baseboard unit that concerns you, call a professional electrician.


Painting electric baseboards

Painting of electric baseboards is not necessary unless you want them to match room decor. Make sure you visit your local paint expert before you embark on this endeavor as heater covers are made of metal and are subjected to intense heat and temperature fluctuations. To achieve a good looking paint job it may be necessary to hire a professional with the correct equipment and expertise. In any event, make sure that the casework is painted and not the heating and electrical components.


Electric baseboard covers

To bring out the best in your home consider decorative baseboard covers. Many are designed with classic architectural details that maintain proper convection airflow. In addition to their eye appeal, some models offer superior child protection using perforated metal so that small fingers and flammable toys are prevented from touching the element.


Electric baseboard efficiency

If you want to keep your energy bills in check it pays to make sure you are using your baseboard heaters properly and that they are working efficiently.

Just like forced air heating, the key to efficient baseboard heating is unobstructed airflow – anything blocking the flow of air in and around the heater will decrease its efficiency. Make sure there is ample space around the unit to create convection. The biggest culprit for reduced airflow is poorly placed furniture such as beds and couches. Drapery can be problematic too. Besides weakened efficiency, drapes that are in close proximity to the heater can result in a fire safety hazard.

In my books, baseboard heating is most effective when the temperature setting is set at comfortable or near comfortable levels. Resist the temptation to crank up the thermostat higher than the temperature actually desired. Doing so only increases your energy bill, especially if you forget to turn the thermostat back down. The room you are wanting to heat will warm up at the same rate either to the desired temperature or the elevated one.

Hugh Cairns baseboard efficiency tip – Turning the thermostat down too far will only cause heat sources in adjacent spaces to work harder to heat the overall structure. Also, setting the temperature too low will likely cause excessive recovery times. Cold rooms have cold contents, heating them up with convection air can be a lengthy process.


Setting the temperature – Electric baseboard thermostats

Most electric baseboard applications have manual dial thermostats, however programmable thermostats are available.

Manual thermostats have to be physically re-set every time you want to change the temperature in a room, making it easy to forget to re-set them. Considering a small home has 10 thermostats, it’s not easy to juggle them to suit your best interests.

Hugh Cairns baseboard heating tip – Using programmable electric baseboard thermostats will assist you in balancing the heating needs of your home. Stabilizing the heat distribution will make the transition from room to room more consistent and comfortable. You may need patience; it can take several days of adjustments to balance the system.

Programmable thermostats offer cost effective features like setback settings and overrides. When using programmable thermostats you can customize the zone to match your needs. If there is a time during the day when the room or the home is unoccupied an extended periods of time, it makes sense to adjust the temperature during those periods. Programmable thermostats are more precise than manual thermostats and do a better job of keeping room temperature constant. By avoiding ups and downs in temperatures, and enjoying comfortable temperatures while the room is in use, you will feel more comfortable and you’ll save some energy.


Should I replace old electric baseboards?

The best reason to upgrade your old electric baseboards to new ones is improvements in safety. New models include an oversized high temperature limit switch that shuts the heater off when excessive operating temperatures are detected. The heating elements in newer models are improved, as well, improvements in case construction has increased convection patterns to direct heat away from walls. However, these changes won’t alter the fact that new or old electric heat baseboard heat is 100% efficient. If the electric elements are working, there would most likely be no benefit to replacing them.

Hugh Cairns’ baseboard replacement tip – Baseboard heaters convert 100 percent of their supplied electricity into heat. We can’t get better efficiency than that, but we can improve how the heat is used.

Electric baseboards with corroded, overheated connections or burnt-out elements should be replaced. Since the units primarily in any given home are of the same age, you should formulate a plan for a wholesale change-out or an upgrade to a ductless heat pump system. There really isn’t much to wear out with the old baseboard heating systems. There aren’t any moving parts.

You may decide to change them for aesthetic reasons. New electric baseboard heaters are much more attractive. There are several decorative upgrade kits available for refitting older units.



Removing old baseboard heaters

When you uninstall an electric baseboard it is mandatory to de-energize the electrical service and properly terminate each end of the branch wire at the panel and the heater. If you are not comfortable or knowledgeable to conduct this operation, it is time to step aside and call in a professional electrician to finish the job to code.


Replacing old electric baseboards with ductless heat pumps

The hot new thing in home heating is called the “ductless heat pump”.  Replacing baseboard electric heaters with a ductless heat pump can result in savings of 25 to 50 percent on the cost to heat. In addition they can be used as air conditioners in the summer. Payback on a system is estimated as ten years. As the name suggests, there’s no ductwork involved.  That saves money on installation. 

Hugh Cairns’ conversion to ductless heat pump tip – Since ductless heat pumps can be added to one or several rooms at a time, it’s a system an owner can shift to gradually.

Ductless heat pumps have two main parts. The indoor fan unit mounts on the inside of an exterior wall and resembles an air conditioner. Refrigerant lines run through to the outside and connect to a box-siz ed compressor at grade level. Standard equipment in Asia and Europe, the system is catching on in the North American market.


Electric baseboard heaters vs. Electric fireplaces

Baseboard heaters and electric fireplaces can provide zoned heating room by room.

When they first arrived on the market, electric fireplaces looked pretty much unrealistic. Recently improvements in aesthetics have made them appear realistic and decorative. Some models are wall features and include remote controls.

For a small home, there are many advantages to using either of these; however, you would have to be smart about using them. Low in cost, usually under $100, baseboard heaters are a less expensive alternative as opposed to electric fireplaces that run anywhere from $200-1000. With either product it is important to size them properly for the room that they are to be used in.