The complete guide to baseboard heaters

Written by the Square One team

Reviewed by George Baral

Updated June 24, 2024 | Published February 4, 2014

If you’ve ever lived in a condo or apartment, you’ve probably used a baseboard heater.

They are quiet and effective, and operate individually so you can save energy by warming only the rooms you’re using.

Thinking about installing new baseboard heaters? Or, wondering how to maintain the ones you’ve got? Keep reading for all the information you need.

A living room with an electric baseboard heater

What is a baseboard heater?

Baseboard heaters are long, narrow heaters that run along the bottom of walls. There are two common types of baseboard heater: electric and hydronic.

Electric baseboard heaters are simple and versatile. Inside the heater’s aluminum housing is a metal heating element. Electricity runs through the element, which generates heat. Around the element are fins that spread the heat throughout the room. Some units include a thermostat directly on the baseboard, while others are controlled by a wall-mounted thermostat.

Hydronic baseboard heaters generate heat by circulating hot water through the heater, which radiates warmth into the room. Many apartment or condo buildings have integrated hydronic systems, with hot water circulating through baseboard heaters in each unit. Hydronic systems tend to be more energy efficient than their electric counterparts. There are also oil-filled baseboard heaters, which operate on the same principal, with heated oil inside rather than water.

Baseboard heaters are almost always located on perimeter walls under windows, which helps counteract the cold air entering the home. Many baseboard heaters, especially electric ones, heat specific zones, with each unit having a separate thermostat. You can also get programmable thermostats, which will allow you to set the temperature to automatically drop when you’re not around — a great way to reduce energy costs.

Electric baseboard heaters make good supplementary heaters. If you have forced-air heating in your home but have colder rooms that need a bit of extra heat, electric baseboard heaters can efficiently provide a boost to that room only. You don’t need to make any difficult, expensive modifications to your existing heating system. You can also keep the heat turned down on your primary system, so you’re not wasting energy heating empty rooms.

When it comes to installation, baseboard heaters are usually permanently installed and integrated into the home’s systems. Electric baseboard heaters are usually hardwired. Most hydronic systems are more or less part of the plumbing, circulating water from the building’s water heater. But, you can also buy moveable, free-standing electrical units that you need to plug in to a power outlet.

One advantage of installing baseboard heaters in your home is that they’re almost completely silent. There’s no rumbling furnace in the basement nor droning circulation fans. Plus, baseboard heaters don’t need ductwork. If you’re adding extra heating to an older home, baseboard heating is often the simplest solution.

How do baseboard heaters work?

Within an electric baseboard heater, an electric current flows through the heating element. The electrical resistance of the element causes it to heat up as the electricity tries to flow through it.

Inside a hydronic baseboard heater, meanwhile, hot water flows through pipes within the unit. As the water moves through the heater, it radiates heat outward.

Baseboard heaters don’t have fans; their heat naturally spreads throughout the room.

Like any heating system, you control baseboard heaters with a thermostat, which is either on the unit itself or on the wall elsewhere in the room. Digital thermostats on the wall are the most accurate.

To operate a baseboard heater, set the desired temperature on the thermostat; the heater will turn on until the thermostat registers the target temperature. If the temperature later drops, the heater turns on again.

There should be a minimum clearance of 2 centimetres between the heater and the floor. This allows cool air to enter the heater from underneath and, once heated, flow out through the fins.

Draperies above the heater should have at least 30 centimetres of space between them and the unit. However, some manufacturers suggest 10–15 centimetres is enough. Keep in mind that draperies above heaters have resulted in home fires — it’s best to be on the safe side.

Don’t place furniture (especially fabric furniture) or other items too close to the front of the unit. Some experts say 15 centimetres of space is enough, while others recommend 25–30 centimetres.

In addition to being a fire hazard, furniture can restrict airflow. If your baseboard heater is close to the floor, even a high pile carpet can block airflow into the unit.

How to install baseboard heaters

It’s possible to install many baseboard heaters yourself, provided you have a little know-how. Electric baseboard heaters are relatively straightforward to install, provided you have a qualified electrician to do the wiring. Similarly, much of the work of installing a hydronic system is DIY-able. However, you will likely need to hire a professional to help with the planning and the plumbing, especially if you’re setting up a multi-zone system.

The baseboard heater installation process has two parts: installing the heater itself and connecting it to the source of heat (either electricity or hot water pipes).

Mounting the heater to the wall is possible for most people with some basic construction skills. The electrical or plumbing work, however, usually calls for a licensed professional. Depending on your local bylaws, you might also need to secure a permit before starting the installation.

Here’s the rough outline of how to install a baseboard heater:

Step 1: Measure

You’ll be mounting the heater to the wall, so the first step is to find the studs in the wall on which you’re installing it. Use a stud finder and mark the stud locations with a pencil. If there’s baseboard moulding in the room, you’ll need to carve a chunk of it away to make space for the heater. Measure the length of your baseboard heater and mark that length on the baseboard.

If you’re installing a hydronic heater, you’ll also need to measure, mark, and drill holes for risers and connecting pipes. If the pipes need to run past a door or other obstruction, you’ll need to plan for the pipes to drop underneath the floor and come back up on the other side.

You’ll need to have a complete plan for the plumbing before you start work.

Step 2: Cut

First, you can cut away the baseboard from where your heater will go. If your baseboard is soft or thin, you can hack it away by scoring cut marks with a knife, then finishing the job with a chisel. Otherwise, use an oscillating cutting tool if you’re comfortable with power tools. You can also remove the whole board, cut it as needed, and re-install the sections that the heater won’t cover.

Step 3: Connect

You’ll likely need to bring in some outside help to wire an electric baseboard heater or to install the plumbing for a hydronic heater. If you’re qualified, you probably already know how to do this without reading.

Electric baseboard heaters need dedicated circuits, so you’ll need to add a circuit to your breaker box (but make sure it stays shut off for now). Then, run wire to the heater and the thermostat (if you have a wall-mounted thermostat). Finally, connect the wire to the heater itself. There should be an electrical panel on the heater that you can access by removing a screw and lifting the cover. Under this cover, you’ll find the wires that need to be connected to the power supply and thermostat.

To connect a hydronic system to the hot water, you’ll need to have a hot water line running from the water heater, to a pump, then to the heater system, and then back. It is strongly recommended to hire a professional to do the plumbing for a baseboard heater.

Step 4: Mount

Once the wiring or plumbing is in place, you can mount the heater to the wall. Normally, you do this by putting screws through the back panel of the heater and into the wall studs. You might have to pre-drill holes in the back of the heater to match where your studs are.

Replacing a baseboard heater

Like any device, baseboard heaters eventually wear down and need replacement.

Electric baseboard heaters

If you have electric baseboard heaters, replacement is relatively straightforward. Fortunately, straight replacement shouldn’t require too much expensive electrical work. Nevertheless, if you’re not comfortable working with electrical wires, don’t hesitate to hire a professional.

It’s important to note that electric baseboard heaters may be 120- or 240-volt models. You need to ensure that your new heaters are compatible with the existing wiring; if your old heaters were 120-volt models while your new ones are 240, you may need to upgrade the circuit breaker. Again, if you’re even remotely unsure, consult an electrician.

  1. Once you have your new heaters ready, shut off the existing heaters — completely — and wait for it to cool down. Shut off the circuit breaker connected to the unit(s), and tape over the switch to notify others not to switch it back on. Before continuing, use a voltage tester to ensure there’s no power to the units.
  2. Once you’ve confirmed that the power’s off, remove the old heaters from the wall. Pop off the front panels, and you should be able to find the screws mounting the unit to the wall. Loosen the screws to unfasten it from the wall.
  3. With the unit detached from the wall, find out where it’s connected to the electrical wires — almost always at either end of the unit. You should find two hot wires (carrying the electricity, connected with wire nuts) and a third wire for grounding. Disconnect them all. The unit should now be totally free of the wall.
  4. Set the new unit in place next to where you’ll mount it. Open the electrical box and locate the two wires inside. Wire the new unit in the same manner as the one you just disconnected: black to black, white to white. Connect the grounding wire to the grounding screw on the new unit. Replace the cover.
  5. Mount the new unit on the wall. You should be able to use the same screw anchors the old unit was attached to.

Hydronic baseboard heaters

Unfortunately, replacing hydronic baseboard heaters isn’t as straightforward as electrical ones. You’ll need some plumbing skill, which means it’s a task best left to professionals. You’ll need to cut the water supply, drain the boiler (if you have one), and wait for the system to cool. For that reason, replacing hydronic system is definitely a summer project.

Once that’s done, many of the supply pipes will need to be cut to remove the old system. Then, you’ll need to attach the new system to the same pipes.

If you’re replacing the hydronic system with an entirely different system, the removal is a little more straightforward — you can simply rip everything out once they system’s drained and cooled.

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Installation and operating costs

Installation costs

The installation costs for electronic baseboard heaters are typically between $400 and $800 per unit, including materials and labour. Hydronic systems, meanwhile, cost between $500 and $1600, though complex plumbing or large, multi-zone systems can cost much more.

Hiring an electrician typically costs $65–130 per hour. Hiring a plumber generally costs $100 per hour or more. If you need to do a lot of electrical or plumbing work (which is probable) you’ll likely want to hire a contractor for the project. Your contractor would be able to help with any necessary permits as well.

Operating costs

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

With electric heaters, 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. Hydronic heaters are more energy efficient, but it’s more difficult to estimate the operating costs. Since a hydronic system uses hot water from the home’s existing plumbing system, the operating cost depends on the water heater. It will require more energy while running a hydronic system, but likely not as much as would an electrical baseboard heater.

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. 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.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

If the heat stops, or there’s too little heat coming out of the unit, there are several possible reasons why:

  • The thermostat is turned too low. Adjust your thermostat to the desired temperature and see if the heat comes on. Remember: there should be a separate thermostat for each heating unit.
  • A circuit breaker has been tripped. Most electric baseboard heaters are wired into the home, as opposed to being plugged in. They should also have a dedicated circuit. If the circuit breaker has tripped, reset it. If it continues to trip, call in a professional. There could be a problem with the wiring.
  • Furniture or drapery is blocking the heater. Make sure there is a space of few inches in front of the heater, and several inches above.
  • A buildup of dust is causing the unit to operate inefficiently. This can also cause a burning smell. Turn off the unit and vacuum the fins. You can also wipe the housing with a damp cloth.
  • Carpet may be blocking the bottom of the heater. There needs to be sufficient clearance under the heater to allow cool air to flow in.

If all else fails, call a certified technician. There could be a defect in the thermostat or in the unit itself. Dealing with electricity is dangerous, as is messing around with hot water pipes. If it seems there is something wrong, call a professional.

Baseboard heater routine maintenance

At least once a year, vacuum your baseboard heaters to remove as much dust as possible. If dust builds up, it will prevent the heater from operating as efficiently as it could.

If you notice a dusty burning smell (you know the one) when you turn on the heater, it could be a sign that you need to remove some dust from the units.

Here’s the step-by-step breakdown for cleaning your baseboard heaters:

Step 1

Move anything near the baseboard heater away so you have clear access to the unit. Make sure any vents or outlets are free of any obstructions before you start cleaning.

Step 2

If the unit is electrical, make sure there is no power going it before cleaning. This means you either turn off and unplug the self-contained unit or shut the power off at the electrical panel. If it’s a hydronic unit, shut off the thermostat and wait for the unit to cool.

Step 3

Mix a water solution and any type of household cleaner or detergent in a bucket until it’s mildly frothy. Soak a soft cloth in the solution, wring it out well, and then wipe down the front of the baseboard heater.

Step 4

Remove the front panel from the baseboard heating unit, if possible, and wipe this part down front and back. Then wipe between the fins or vents.

Step 5

Attach a brush attachment to your vacuum cleaner and vacuum up any remaining dust or debris within the face of the baseboard heater.

Additional maintenance for hydronic baseboard heaters

Hydronic systems are more complex, and accordingly require a little extra maintenance.

The best way to ensure your hydronic system is taken care of is to hire a qualified technician to do some annual maintenance. That includes purging air from the system, purging debris and stagnant water, adjusting water chemistry if necessary, and doing a general system inspection.

What will your home insurance company want to know?

Your home insurance provider will want to know what type of heat you have in your home, and when it was last updated.

Electric baseboard heaters, properly installed and maintained, are quite safe. Hydronic systems have water pipes running throughout the home, increasing the number of places that an expensive water leak could spring up. Nevertheless, they are not a particularly high-risk heating system if taken care of.

The main insurance concern with baseboard heating will be the age. Whether electric or hydronic, systems older than about 50 years may draw additional scrutiny from home insurance providers.

If your heaters stop working in the middle of a Canadian winter, you could end up with frozen and burst water pipes.

But you can rest easy (and so can your insurer) if you are careful that nothing is blocking your baseboard heaters, you clean them regularly, and you replace them once they’ve passed their life expectancy. You can have worry-free, comfortable heat for decades with properly maintained baseboard heaters.

Commonly asked questions

How do you clean baseboard heaters?

To clean your baseboard heater, start by turning your thermostat down to zero to shut off the device completely. Wait until its elements completely cool down.

Next, remove any large, visible debris from it by hand.

Lastly, simply use your vacuum’s soft brush attachments to suck up any crumbs, dirt or other materials that may have drifted in over time. If you’ve got time to spare, you can finish off the project by wiping down your heater’s surface with a damp cloth, leaving it dust-free and good as new.

See the maintenance section above for instructions on deep cleaning.

Can you paint baseboard heaters?

You can absolutely paint baseboard heaters. Better yet, you can use standard paint without fear of any harsh smells wafting through your apartment. Even if there is some unpleasant odour the first time you turn it on, it should dwindle quickly as the paint settles onto the surface of the heater.

Before painting, sand off any rust that has accrued with time and coat the appliance with a thin layer of metal conditioner. Use anti-rust paint to prevent further spoilage of the materials.

As an alternative, consider latex-based paint. It’s more elastic than oil-based metal paint and more easily bears expansion and contraction from the heating/cooling cycle. But beware: lighter-coloured latex paints are prone to yellowing in warm conditions and thus may end up spoiling your desired look in a few seasons’ time.

What is the life expectancy of a baseboard heater?

Electric baseboard heaters have an average life expectancy of about 20 years. With good maintenance, they can last even longer.

Hydronic baseboard heaters, meanwhile, can also last 10–20 years. However, there’s more variability in hydronic systems because of the presence of water. As long as steps are taken to limit corrosion, hydronic heaters can last a long time, too.

Can you hang curtains above baseboard heaters?

You can safely hang curtains above a baseboard heater, provided that there is at least 30 centimetres of clearance between the curtains and the heater.

Want to learn more? Visit our Getting to Know Your Home resource centre for the complete rundown on all your home's systems and features. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.

About the expert: George Baral

George Baral has an MBA and a masters' degree in chemistry. He spent almost 35 years inspecting and evaluating heating and air conditioning systems before retiring. He obtained a California general contractor's license to start a company focusing on energy-efficient construction, became certified as a LEED AP and earned a NATE (North American Technical Excellence) certification, which provides advanced training for HVAC technicians.


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