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Getting to know electric baseboard heaters

If you’ve ever lived in an apartment or condo, you’ve probably used electric baseboard heaters. They are silent, and can quickly warm up a room. One of the benefits of these heaters is that they can be operated individually so you can warm only the rooms you’re using, thus saving on heating expense.

Also, if you have forced air heating in your home, but have a couple of 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 main system, so you’re not wasting energy heating empty rooms, and turn on the electric baseboard heater to be toasty warm in the room you’re using.

What is an electric baseboard heater?

Electric baseboard heaters are usually located along the floor, beneath a window. Inside an aluminium housing or cabinet, there is a metal cable containing a heating element. Around the cable are “fins” designed to help radiate the heat throughout the room. There will be a thermostat either on the wall or right on the unit itself.

These heaters are almost always located on perimeter walls under a window and help to counteract any cold air that may be entering the home through the window. Electric baseboard heaters are designed to 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 improve efficiency and automatically go lower at night or when you’re away at work during the day.

When it comes to installation, electric baseboard heaters can either be permanently installed and hardwired into your electrical system, or they can be free-standing units that need to be plugged in to a power source.

One advantage of installing baseboard heaters in your home is that they function almost silently, especially when compared to a forced air system which uses a fan. Also, no ductwork is required. So if you are adding extra heating to an older home, this could be a very simple solution. If you’re looking to purchase electric baseboard heaters for your home, Dimplex and Stelpro are popular options.

How does it work?

An electric current flows through the heating element located in the electric baseboard heater. There is no fan, so heat is naturally radiated into the room. As mentioned, a thermostat allows you to control the temperature. Digital thermostats on the wall are the most accurate. Set the desired temperature and the heater will turn on until that temperature is reached. If the temperature drops, the heater turns on again.

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

Most manufacturers advise that draperies should hang no closer than 12 inches above the unit. Others say as low as 4 to 6 inches. Keep in mind that draperies, if hung too close to the heater, have resulted in home fires. Also, you don’t want to place furniture, especially fabric furniture, or other items too close in front of the unit. Some experts say 6 inches, while others advise 10 to 12 inches. If your baseboard heater is very close to the floor, even a high pile carpet can block the flow of air into the unit.

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. To compare, 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 are careful about how you use your heaters, and to make sure they are operating as efficiently as possible.

Some steps recommended by BC Hydro are:

  • 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. You don’t want frozen water pipes.
  • Choose the lowest temperature. For every degree above 20C, you’ll pay an extra 5%. If you turn the heat down to 16C, 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 16C at, say 10:00 pm, if that’s when you normally go to bed, and have it go up to 21C 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.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

If the heat goes out or an insufficient amount of heat is being produced, there could be many reasons:

  • 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. 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, or you may have too many appliances operating at once.
  • 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 outside 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. Anytime you’re dealing with electricity, it could be dangerous, so if it seems there is something wrong, be sure to call a professional.

What can you do to maintain your electric baseboard heater?

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. According to eHow, there are just a few simple steps involved in cleaning an electric baseboard heater:

  • Step 1: Move away anything near the electric baseboard heater 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: Make sure there is no power going to the unit prior to cleaning. This means you either turn off and unplug the self-contained unit, or shut the power off at the electrical panel.
  • Step 3: Mix together a solution of water with any type of household cleanser or detergent, in a bucket, so it is 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.

What is the life expectancy?

Most experts seem to agree that electric baseboard heaters have an average life expectancy of about 20 years. However, as with most things, they could 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, there are many factors that affect these numbers, such as climate, intensity of use, and maintenance.

What will your home insurance company want to know?

Your 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, there will be concerns. If the heaters stop working in the middle of a Canadian winter, we could be looking at 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 have them replaced once they’ve passed their life expectancy. You can have worry-free, comfortable heat for decades with properly maintained electric baseboard heaters. If you have any other questions, you can always contact Square One at 1.855.331.6933 for more information.

Other commonly asked questions

  • What are Hydronic Baseboard Heaters? While most of the baseboard heaters you’ll find in the average home work through electrical currents running through an element, which in turn radiates warmth throughout your home, there is another method that operates in a similar but decidedly different manner.

    Referred to as hydronic baseboard heaters, this option substitutes out the standard electrical currents and replaces them with a self-contained, circulating transfer fluid. This method can take slightly longer to reach full warmth, but such drawbacks are countered by longer heat retention, higher energy savings and a lower degree of temperature variation.
  • How do you clean electric baseboard heaters? Cleaning Electric baseboard heaters can seem like a stressful job. After all, who wants to cram their hands into a tight, hot space and risk burning themselves on enclosed wires? But it’s a necessary task as well, especially since many of these items have exposed sections which could lead to pet fur, dust mites and other clutter getting lodged inside and putting you at risk of fire.

    The good news, however, is that the process is relatively painless. Start by turning your thermostat down to zero in order to shut off the device completely, and wait an adequate amount of time for its elements to completely cool down. Next, you’ll want to remove any obvious, 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.
  • Can you paint electric baseboard heaters? 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 bad odour the first time you turn it on, it should dwindle fairly quickly as the paint settles on to the surface of the heater.

    Before painting, you’ll want to sand off any rust that has accrued with time and coat the appliance with a thin layer of metal conditioner. Be sure that you use an anti-rust paint to prevent further spoilage of the materials.

    You can also consider using a latex-based paint as an alternative, which has more elasticity than oil-based metal paint and will thus more easily bear any expansion and contraction that the heating and cooling cycle causes. Beware, however, that lighter-colored latex paints are also more prone to yellowing in warm conditions, and thus may end up spoiling your desired look in a few seasons’ time.
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