Reviewed by George Baral
Updated April 13, 2023
If you’ve ever lived in an apartment or condo, you’ve probably used electric baseboard heaters. They are silent, 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.
Electric baseboard heaters are long, narrow devices that run along the bottom of walls. 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.
Baseboard heaters are almost always located on perimeter walls under windows which helps counteract the cold air entering the home. Electric baseboard heaters heat specific zones, so there will be a separate thermostat for each unit. 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, too. If you have forced-air heating in your home but have colder rooms that need a bit of extra heat, electric baseboard heaters are a good option. You don’t need to make any difficult, expensive modifications to your existing heating system, and you’ve got extra heat right where you need it. You can keep the heat turned down on your primary system, so you’re not wasting energy heating empty rooms.
When it comes to installation, electric baseboard heaters are usually permanently installed and hardwired into the home’s electrical system. But, you can also buy moveable, free-standing units that need to be plugged 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 the simplest solution.
An electric current flows through the electric baseboard’s heating element. The electrical resistance of the heating element causes it to heat up as the electricity tries to flow through it. 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 that temperature is reached. If the temperature later drops, the heater turns on again.
There should be a minimum clearance of 3/4 inch 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 12 inches of space between them and the unit. However, some manufacturers suggest 4 to 6 inches is enough. Keep in mind that draperies above heaters have resulted in home fires — it’s best to be on the safe side.
Also, don’t place furniture (especially fabric furniture), or other items too close to the front of the unit. Some experts say 6 inches of space is enough, while others recommend 10 to 12 inches.
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.
The baseboard heater installation process has two parts: installing the heater itself and setting up the electrical wiring.
Mounting the heater to the wall is straightforward. The electrical work, however, usually calls for a licensed electrician. 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 an electric baseboard heater:
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.
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 your cut marks with a knife, then finishing the job with a chisel. Otherwise, you can 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.
This part should only be done by a qualified electrician with the requisite permits in place. If you’re qualified, you probably already know how to wire a baseboard heater. 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.
Once the wiring 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.
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.
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:
If the heat stops, or there’s too little heat coming out of the unit, there are several possible reasons why:
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, so if it seems there is something wrong, be sure to call a professional.
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At least once a year, vacuum your electric baseboard heaters to remove as much dust as possible. If dust builds up, it will prevent your heater from operating as efficiently as it could. You may notice a burning smell, and although the heater is heating up, it’s not warming the room efficiently. According to Hunker, there are just a few simple steps involved in cleaning an electric baseboard heater:
Move anything near the electric 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.
Make sure there is no power going to the unit before cleaning. This means you either turn off and unplug the self-contained unit or shut the power off at the electrical panel.
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.
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.
Attach a brush attachment to your vacuum cleaner and vacuum up any remaining dust or debris within the face of the baseboard heater.
Electric baseboard heaters have an average life expectancy of about 20 years. However, as with most things, they can last much longer with proper maintenance.
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has prepared a document that lists the average life expectancy of many things in your home, including electric baseboard heaters. Of course, many factors affect these numbers, such as climate, intensity of use, and maintenance.
Your home insurance company will want to know what type of heat you have in your home, and when it was last updated. If your house is 50 years old, and the electric baseboard heaters have never been replaced, insurance companies may be concerned.
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 electric baseboard heaters.
Most baseboard heaters you’ll find in the average home generate heat from electrical currents running through an element.
Alternatively, there are hydronic baseboard heaters. These generate heat by circulating a self-contained transfer fluid through the heating unit’s pipes. Hydronic baseboard heaters take slightly longer to reach full warmth. Still, longer heat retention, higher energy savings and less temperature variation make the drawback worthwhile.
To clean your electric 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.
You can absolutely paint electric 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.
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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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