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How Inefficient are Electric Baseboards? You might be shocked!

About 50% of all the homes in the U.S. heat with Natural Gas. The next most common source of heating (in about 35% of all U.S. homes) according to the last census is some sort of electric heat. ‘Resistance Baseboard Electric’ heat is a very common and tempting choice for people who need to build cheaply, or add a little heat to a newly finished or remodeled room, because the ‘upfront’ cost of the Electric Baseboard Units is so cheap compared to other heating systems. However, the U.S. Dept. of Energy says that Resistance Baseboard Heat actually turns out to be one of the most expensive ways to heat your home…both financially and in what we have to sacrifice and live with; for many different reasons1.

One reason is that most of the United States makes electricity with coal or oil. Unless you live in an area with relatively inexpensive energy like the Pacific NW, producing electricity is neither cheap nor efficient. Since about 42% of every home’s energy bill goes to heating, the expense of electric heating adds up quickly.

Another reason is that Electric Baseboard heating units are typically placed on exterior walls, and under windows. Heating an exterior wall automatically demands more energy because the heater is always ‘up against’ the cold outdoors and heat is lost regardless of the insulation.

It would be nice to be able to put the baseboard heaters on an interior wall so that transference wouldn’t occur, but if that were done, every room would feel even more ‘drafts’ than the units under the windows. That’s because when it comes to insulation value, windows have very little and actually act like a ‘‘cold air water-fall’. The cold glass cools the warmer room air next to the glass, and that cool air then drops like a rock to, and across the floor. If there is a baseboard heater waiting under the window, at least it will stop the ‘cold air water-fall’ somewhat when it is heating, but not very well.

When the baseboard heater is off, the ‘cold air water-fall’ on the big picture window, sliding glass door, or large bedroom window is pouring cold air full tilt, causing lots and lots of ‘cold drafts’. Even though the actual air temperature may be 70 or 71 degrees F, my wife ‘feels’ like the room is at about 68-degrees … and the heater gets bumped up just a tiny bit more…till the next bump.

Curtains and carpets often hamper electric baseboard heaters too. That nice, new, thick and warm looking carpet was shoved right up to and under the baseboard heater, which cut off the convection air circulation drastically. There needs to be a good, clear¾”minimum air clearance under the baseboard, or the air will not circulate, nor be drawn up through the heating unit and heat the room. When that happens the thermostat gets bumped up, and more energy is dumped into a baseboard unit that just traps the heat.

Nice thick curtains do help keep the warm air in and off the cold window, but if there is an electric baseboard heater under the window, the curtain must stop 4” to 8” above the tip of the heater. If the curtain hangs in front of the heater, it must hang a minimum of 3” out and away from the front of the unit.

Then of course, there is dust. Since Electric Baseboard Units circulate heated air by convection, not by radiant heating or a fan blowing air, it is a very slow and gentle airflow. Cobwebs and dust that collect on the tiny metal fins can restrict heating by more than 80%. The units must be kept clean or they will simply not work. It’s imperative that the front of the Electric Baseboard Units be removed and everything be thoroughly vacuumed to remove all the collected dust, cobwebs, Legos, etc. at least annually. If you have a cat or dog, the baseboards might need to be cleaned two or three times a year to keep them working reasonably well.

By now, you’re getting the picture about Electric Baseboard heating…and I’ve only begun to address some of the issues and drawbacks. There are a few ‘good’ things about this kind of heat. It is cheap to install, simple to operate, and there is separate room ‘zone’ control; but these benefits are few compared to the drawbacks. I think this type of heating system is a very poor choice and a bad investment of money, life and time.

If the heating system must be electric; then at the very least install a good quality Central Air Electric Furnace with a Sealed Duct System that has good air filtration to improve and protect the I.A.Q. (Indoor Air Quality) of the home. The best choice for all-electric heating/cooling in my estimation is a Heat Pump System, and if you are upgrading from Baseboard Electric, you can use a Ductless Heat Pump System. Conventional, good quality systems can ‘find’ heating when outside temperatures are quite cold. Our systems operate up to 80% of full capacity, even when it is 0 – degrees F. outside, and the exterior units can serve several wall mounted indoor units easily, so all the main rooms on a floor are taken care of.

There is an old saying about investing in important systems that we need and use in our homes year after year- “Pay once, Cry once.” We get what we pay for…and when we go cheap, we usually regret it and end up shedding more than a few tears. I think it’s best to just ‘bite the bullet’ and go with something you can enjoy and appreciate living with…that is economical year after year and environmentally responsible and friendly.

1) See current report: http://energy.gov/energysaver/home-heating-systems

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