How does a hot water baseboard heating system work?

How Does Electric Baseboard Heat Work?

Once installed in your home or other space, the electric baseboard heating system works by way of cables, which warm up the air and push it out of the unit. Simultaneously, cold air enters the unit from below to get warmed up, and the cycle continues. Once the air that enters the baseboard is the desired temperature set by the thermostat, typically the unit will switch off.

A couple key benefits of electric baseboard include:

  • Heats from the floor up, meaning that there is a more even distribution of the temperature in the room since heat rises.
  • A baseboard system keeps floors warm since it starts at the bottom (your feet will stay warm!).

Some systems even feature a draft-barrier type up-flow air outlet, which is perfect for installing under a drafty window or less insulated section of the room. In this type of air outlet, a shield is created between the glass of the window and the inside air, which helps the unit keep functioning at optimal capacity.

The Best Time to Use This Type of Heat

Electric baseboard heat can be a great pick for certain individual spaces but is not necessarily the best option for all setups. For example, this option should not be used to heat an entire home, as the cost of running each individual unit in every room would quickly add up.

Here are a few scenarios where this could be a good solution:

  • Rooms that tend to get colder than others or perhaps aren’t used as often as the main rooms in the home
  • Spaces such as new additions, sunrooms, attics, and extra bathrooms in homes
  • Offices and bathrooms in commercial buildings


Pros of Baseboard Heat

Although not as common as other home heating options, baseboard heaters are still easy to find, especially in older homes. What are the electric baseboard heating pros?

1. It’s Quiet

We’ve all heard it — you’re visiting a friend with an electric heat pump and “woosh!” The heater turns on and starts to blast the house’s occupants with warm air. If you’re near the furnace when this happens or the blower isn’t in great shape, it can be loud enough to disrupt a conversation or make sleep more difficult. Baseboard heat isn’t like this. You’d be hard-pressed to notice when baseboard heaters turn on and off. Other than a few pops and clicks as the heating element begins to warm up, there’s no noise coming from baseboard heaters.

2. Zone Heating

Zone heating allows families to set different temperatures in different areas of the home. Today it’s often presented as a digital feature allowing you to designate different parts of your home to be heated and cooled at certain preset temperatures without being influenced by temperatures in other areas of the house. Electric baseboard heaters have offered this option for years because each baseboard unit has its own thermostat.

If you want your bedroom to stay a cool 67 degrees, but you don’t want to freeze while you’re watching television, then you can set it to 70 in your living space. Or, if your child is away at college most of the winter, you can turn off the unit in their room and then flip it back on when they come home for the weekend.

3. Simple Installation

In homes where it might be difficult to install new ductwork or the cost is too high, baseboard heat can be a more economical alternative. Because there is no ductwork involved in electric baseboard heating, it’s easier — and cheaper — to install than other types of heating.

4. Secondary Source of Heat

When winter temperatures take a dive, electric heat pumps often can’t keep up. In areas prone to extreme winter temperatures, baseboard heaters make a great secondary — or backup — source of heat. Why? Heat pumps weren’t designed to handle the bitter cold of winter. When it’s too cold for a heat pump to operate as it should, flip on the baseboard heaters in rooms where a little extra heat is needed. Besides keeping the house warmer, this keeps the heat pump from running constantly, trying — and failing — to keep up.

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.

Installation and operating costs

Installation costs

The installation costs for baseboard heaters are typically between $400 and $800 per unit, including materials and labour.

Baseboard heater units cost anywhere from $50 to $150. Hiring an electrician to do the electrical work costs between $65 and $130 per hour.

Operational costs

The operating costs of baseboard heaters, meanwhile, depend on your local utility rates.

You can estimate the cost if you know how many watts your heater pulls, and how much you typically pay for electricity per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

Here’s an example:

Start with your heater’s wattage. Let’s say it’s 1,000 watts (W), which is 1 kilowatt (kW). This would be a small heater.

If you run your 1 kW heater for 1 hour, you’ve used 1 kWh of electricity. If you run it for 24 hours, you’ve used 24 kWh. If you do that every day for a 30-day month, you’ll have used 720 kWh.

If you pay 10 cents per kWh for your electricity, this will cost you $72 for the month.

Obviously, you don’t expect your heater to run 24/7, but you get the idea.

Using electricity to heat your home can be expensive.

According to BC Hydro, if you use electricity to heat your home, the cost will make up approximately 44% of your electric bill. By comparison, your kitchen appliances will make up about 12% and lighting about 9%. Therefore, the best way to save money on your electricity is to make sure you operate your heaters as efficiently as possible.

BC Hydro recommends these steps to save electricity:

  • Lower the heat when you can. If you’re not using a room, turn the heat down in that room. Don’t turn it completely off, though; you don’t want frozen water pipes.
  • Choose the lowest temperature. For every degree above 20 °C, you’ll pay an extra 5%. If you turn the heat down to 16 °C, you can save up to 10% on your electric bill.
  • Use programmable thermostats. This way you have heat only when you need it. You don’t have to worry about remembering to turn it down when you go to bed or leave for work. Program it to go down to 16 °C at bedtime, and have it go up to 20 °C again when you get up in the morning.
  • Remove any obstructions. Electric baseboard heaters work best when there is a good airflow around them. Move furniture and draperies away to improve efficiency and prevent fires.
  • Clean the heaters. At least once a year, vacuum the heaters to remove as much as dust as possible.

Installing Baseboard Heaters

The simplicity of installing a baseboard heater will depend on which kind you want. Installing hydronic heaters will take a little more work, especially if you don’t already have a boiler. You’ll have to find a place for the boiler, most likely in the basement if you have one, and then run pipes through the walls to each of the heater units. Unfortunately, the heaters can’t just piggyback on your existing water lines, but you can run the pipes parallel to the ones you already have to save time. Once the pipes have been laid, installing the actual heater is pretty easy. All you have to do is line up the input and output pipes inside the heater with the pipes in the wall, and then the heater itself can just be screwed into studs. We recommend having a professional install the whole system for you, but if you’re a confident DIY pro, make sure you decide where to place the heaters before running the pipes through the wall so you know the studs will be in the right place to hold the unit.

Installing an electric baseboard heater is much easier but might still require professional help. The heaters come in both 120 and 240-volt models, but we recommend the 240v version because of its increased energy efficiency. Once the heater has been attached to the wall, you can just wire the heater’s junction box directly to a 20-amp circuit on your breaker. Note that if you’re not experienced and 100% confident in your ability to work with electrical wiring, you absolutely shouldn’t attempt this by yourself. A licensed electrician can take care of the wiring for you relatively inexpensively. Many electric baseboard heaters come with built-in thermostats so you can control the temperature, but if you have multiple units, you can also wire them directly into a standard central thermostat controller.

Baseboard Heaters vs Ducted HVAC

A standard ducted HVAC system, often referred to as central air heating, is by far the most common way to heat a home, especially for newly constructed houses that can have the ducts built right in. These systems often have both heat pumps to raise the temperature in your house and air conditioners to lower it. For the purposes of this comparison, however, we’ll just focus on the heating elements for now.

Ducted HVAC systems can heat air in a few different ways. They can use a furnace inside your home to generate heat, they can use a boiler to create heat like a hydronic baseboard, or they can use a combination air conditioner/heat pump to bring either hot or cold air inside the house as needed. However, they all distribute heat in pretty much the same way. After the heat has been generated, either by a furnace or by passing air from outside across a heating element like a compressor, a blower fan will force the warm air through the ducts and out of vents placed throughout your home. These systems are usually controlled by a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the temperature has dipped too low, it turns the central heating on until it’s warmed back up.

The biggest advantage that baseboard heating has over a central air system is the cost of installation. Forced air requires ductwork to be installed all throughout your home to work, otherwise, it won’t be able to distribute the warm air. A baseboard heater only needs to have single units installed in the rooms you need to warm, and a boiler is cheaper than a furnace. Baseboard heaters also work silently, unlike central air systems that have loud blower fans. Hot water baseboard heaters are also frequently more energy efficient than furnaces or heat pumps, although new technologies like active solar heating are making ducted systems more efficient. Finally, air that’s been warmed by a furnace is often dryer than the warm air created by convection heaters, which can create static electricity and make things worse for people who already suffer from dry skin.

Let Summers and Zims Repair or Replace Your Baseboard Heater

If you need to replace your baseboard heater in the Lancaster, Chester or Delaware County in Pennsylvania, consider a ductless split system. When comparing ductless vs. baseboard heating, a ductless split system efficiently provides both warm and cold air for your home. We specialize in repairing and replacing baseboard heaters or any heating system. Contact us online to schedule an appointment or ask us questions about our services. You can also call us at 610-593-5129.

Convection Baseboard Heaters

Convection baseboard heaters are the most common. They range in size from 24 to 96 inches long. Much like a toaster, convection baseboard heaters have electrical coils inside that heat up. A thermostat located on the heater or on the wall controls how much heat the heater will produce before it shuts off automatically.

Convection baseboard heaters are fairly inexpensive, simple to operate, easy to install if you can do electrical work, and produce enough heat to heat up an average-sized room.

The only real downside of convection baseboard heaters is that they are not very energy efficient. Convection baseboard heaters cool down rapidly after they shut off, thereby requiring more energy to heat up again. Depending on the size and number of heaters, operating them for any length of time can get expensive.

Questions Answers

Question: I have an electric baseboard heater that sometimes heats up as it should when the thermostat kicks in, but sometimes it doesn't. The thermostat kicks on when it should, but the heater rarely heats up anymore except occasionally. It works fine for a while; then it stops working again. At no time does it trip the circuit breaker though. What is the problem?

Answer: Make sure all electrical connections are good. If that doesn't solve the problem, use a multi-meter to find the faulty part.

Question: My baseboard heater turns on but is only warm and does not heat up. What could the problem be?

Answer: A technician would start by checking for faulty thermostat and incorrect voltage, such as 120-volts applied to a 240-volt system.

Question: Why do I have to turn my heater dial 3/4 to the highest temp just to turn on?

Answer: Inspect the thermostat.

Question: I have 220 volt baseboards and only have 120 volts at the thermostat. What can be wrong? I verified the circuit breaker and have 220v.

Answer: You have a break in one leg of the power supply somewhere between the circuit breaker lugs and the thermostat. Visually inspect the wire, looking for burnt or damaged sheathing. If nothing obvious stands out, remove the circuit breaker. Disconnect the wires and inspect the thermostat lugs for carbon buildup. If the circuit breaker passed, check the wire set's continuity. It is easy to do this if you twist all three wires in the wire set together at the circuit breaker's panel box, then test for continuity at the thermostat using the ground wire as the control wire. If one power wire does not show continuity, you likely need to replace the wire set.

Question: I have three baseboard heaters on one 240V circuit (bathroom and two bedrooms). The second bedroom heater only works when the master bedroom thermostat is turned on. What could be the problem?

Answer: It sounds like the second bedroom receives power from the load side of the master's thermostat instead of directly from the circuit breaker. This would make the second baseboard heater dependent on the master thermostat.

Question: I had a power outage and now my electric baseboard heaters will not turn on. I changed the heater and thermostat. What can cause this?

Answer: You have an electrical fault somewhere. It could be anything from a tripped circuit breaker to a short in the heater coil. A technician would use a voltmeter and test everything, starting at the circuit breaker. Otherwise you end up changing parts needlessly.

Question: I have a new baseboard heater, thermostat and 20 amp breaker. My problem is, why won't the baseboard heater get hot with the thermostat? If I hook it up without the thermostat, the heater gets hot. But when I hook up a thermostat with the power line going to the top two wires and then the bottom two wires going out to my baseboard heater, the heater will not get hot.

Answer: Assuming you wired the thermostat according to the manufacturer's instructions, it appears you have a faulty thermostat.

Question: I have an electric baseboard heater that when turned off keeps heating, could it need a new thermostat or is it something else?

Answer: It does sound like a faulty thermostat. Voltage should not pass through a thermostat set to the OFF position.

Question: I recently began using a room with two Marley baseboard heaters that were installed in October of 2016. Turning the switch/dial to OFF no longer works, so the small room is always sweltering and wasting energy (and money). I am not handy, so I have no idea what to do. Can you offer any guidance?

Answer: You should contact the contractor that installed the heater, then ask about the warranty and perhaps a service call.

Question: Duplex built 1957- when the baseboard heater is OFF it will come on when it's cold in the unit. Is that normal? If it's OFF it should stay OFF right or wrong?

Answer: Yes it should stay off.

Question: I have a line voltage thermostat that doesn’t turn on, but I have the correct voltage at thermostat and baseboard heater. I brought the thermostat back home to inspect, and it worked perfectly. If I have correct voltage and thermostat worked on another circuit what could it possibly be?

Answer: Turn off the electricity to the system and perform a continuity test. I would start at the thermostat—disconnect the wires on the thermostat's load side and test for continuity across the entire heater. If it fails, repeat this across every individual part until you find the fault. This test should include the wires. If the system has the proper voltage and continuity, it will turn on.

Question: I have taken the baseboard heaters out, but I would like to remove the thermostat from the wall but I don't know how to tell if the wire is hot or not. How would I go about testing if a wire is hot?

Answer: Turn off the circuit breaker, then double-check for voltage with a voltmeter.

© 2014 Bert Holopaw

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