The Problem With Baseboard Heat
By Megan Treacy
Table of contents
Baseboard heating vs. forced air heating
Baseboard heat is expensive
On the surface, baseboard heat seems to have many advantages. Baseboard heaters are cheap and easy to install. They allow “zoned-heat,” giving you more control over the temperature of each room. And they don’t require ducts.
But there’s one big problem with baseboard heating: it’s incredibly expensive to operate. That is, homes with baseboard heat have much higher utility bills than homes with heat pumps or other HVAC systems.
In fact, according to an analysis we did recently for our heat pump savings guide, homes that use baseboard heat and traditional air conditioning spend on average $1,300 more per year than homes with heat pumps.
In this guide we’ll go over how baseboard heat works, the pros and cons of baseboard heating, and how they compare to ductless mini-split heat pumps and other heating systems.
How does baseboard heat work?
Baseboard heating systems are a type of zone heating that allow you to control the temperature in individual rooms. The baseboard unit, which runs along the bottom of the wall, uses a metal heating element to generate and slowly release heat into the room where it’s placed.
Like other electric resistance heating systems, baseboard heaters convert 100% of the energy they use into heat (compared to natural gas furnaces that generally only convert 80% of their energy into heat).
With baseboard heating, there’s no need for furnaces, ducts, or blowers. The unit creates heat from electricity, gas or water, and it slowly rises from the floor to the ceiling to warm the room.
Types of baseboard heaters
Electric baseboard heat
Electric baseboard heaters are the most common type in America. The heating elements inside are made of electric coils that heat up much like the heating elements in a toaster. A switch on the unit turns it on or off.
Hydronic baseboard heat
Instead of electricity, hydronic baseboard heaters use liquid to heat the copper coils inside the unit. These units are connected to a central boiler in the home that’s heated by gas, oil, or electricity.
Water or oil is heated in the boiler and then runs through pipes to the baseboard heater. When the liquid cools, it returns to the boiler to be reheated.
Baseboard heating cost
Baseboard heaters generally cost about $500 per unit to install. So if you want to put them in 5 rooms, it will cost you $2,500.
But most of that $500 will go towards the labor of the installer you hire. Units only cost about $100 a piece. So you can bring that cost down significantly by installing the baseboards yourself. Here’s a good YouTube video on how to install baseboard heaters.
The average home in America is about 2,000 square feet and uses 35 million BTUs of energy for space heating. That’s the equivalent of about 10,000 kWh per year. So at an average price of $0.13 per kWh for electricity, that means baseboard heaters cost about $1,300 per year on average.
But if you live in a colder climate, you can expect that number to be much higher. For example, in the Northeast the average home uses about 50 million BTUs of energy for space heating, or roughly 15,000 kWh per year. And electricity costs about $0.20 per kWh there. So if you live in the Northeast, baseboard heaters cost about $3,000 per year.
Here’s a table showing how much it would cost the average homeowner to heat their home using baseboard by census region:
|Census region||Annual heating cost|
Pros of baseboard heat
Like any heating option, there are pros and cons of baseboard heat. First, let’s look at the pros.
Baseboard heaters give you a way to control the temperature in individual rooms without the use of smart home technology. Bedrooms and living spaces can have the heaters turned on when they’re occupied and off when they aren’t.
If one room runs cooler than the others and needs a boost, a baseboard heater can raise the temperature in that room without cranking up the heat elsewhere.
While it’s tempting to think that this makes them more energy efficient than other types of heating, that’s not the case. As we mentioned earlier, homes that use baseboard heaters and traditional air conditioning spend about $1,300 more per year than homes that use other ductless heating systems like mini-split heat pumps.
Baseboard heating systems are easier and cheaper to install than other types of heating because they don’t require ductwork. The units are mounted to the wall and hardwired into the house’s electrical lines.
Even hydronic baseboard heaters that require tubing to run inside the walls, floors or ceilings are less expensive to install than ductwork.
This can make baseboard heaters a great option if you just need to heat a single room — like an infrequently used guest room or bathroom.
One thing to note for electric baseboard heating: there are both 120 volt baseboard heaters and 240 volt baseboard heaters. 120 volt baseboards are easier to install because they don’t require additional electrical upgrades. You can just plug them into an outlet. 240 volt baseboard heaters on the other hand require their own dedicated 20 amp circuit and 12-gauge wire.
The Spruce has a great article on how to install a 240-Volt electric baseboard heater.
Secondary source of heat
If you live in a place with extremely cold winters and your home doesn’t have proper insulation, an electric heat pump may not be able to keep up with below freezing temperatures. Baseboard heaters are a good solution for those days when you need supplemental heat in the most used spaces in your home.
That backup source of heat will keep your heat pump from constantly running in vain.
Cons of baseboard heat
There are downsides to baseboard heating systems that can make them impractical and expensive.
Baseboard heating cost
As we mentioned above, baseboard heaters cost a lot more to operate than other heating systems like heat pumps. You can expect to spend about anywhere from $500-1,500 more per year to heat a home with baseboards than a more efficient system like a ductless mini-split heat pump.
The placement of baseboard heaters — near windows and exterior walls — also makes them inefficient. Each unit has a thermostat on the unit that controls how much it works to heat up the room. If the thermostat senses cold nearby, such as drafts from old windows, it’s going to work even harder trying to keep the room warm.
That constant battling of cold drafts amounts to high utility bills, especially during the coldest months of winter.
Electric baseboards get hot, which means you have to keep furniture and curtains at least six inches away from them to prevent fire.
You can’t use long drapes on windows that share a wall with a baseboard heater. You can’t have couches or beds up against those walls. All of this limits your interior design options and can make it difficult to place furniture in those rooms.
Electric baseboard heaters get very hot. They pose a fire risk if things are placed too close or on top of them. If you have young children in the house, they can also be a burn risk.
The heating elements are tucked inside the unit, but the cover itself also heats up. You have to watch children constantly to make sure they don’t touch them when they’re on.
Hydronic baseboard heaters do not pose the same level of risk as electric baseboard heaters. While they do get hot, it’s not hot enough to start a fire.
The heat generated by baseboard heaters is a very dry heat. People who use them often get dry skin, dry throats, dry eyes and bloody noses.
You can use a humidifier to add moisture to the air, but that requires more electricity and regular cleaning.
Baseboard heating vs. forced air heating
Forced air heating is one of the most common ways to heat your home. The system draws in cool air from inside your home, heats it, and then distributes it through your home using ducts and vents.
What makes baseboard heating better
Baseboard heating has some benefits compared to forced air heating.
- You can customize temperatures in each room by installing units where you need them.
- It runs quietly because there’s no fan constantly blowing.
- There’s no need for ductwork, so it’s easier and less expensive to install.
What makes forced air heating better
Forced air beats baseboard heating in some major ways.
- Forced air is more energy efficient than baseboard heating which amounts to lower energy bills.
- It’s less restrictive when it comes to furniture placement and design. There is no fire risk and no wall units to worry about.
- Baseboard heaters have to be cleaned regularly to operate at their maximum efficiency. Forced air requires less cleaning to function properly.
Baseboard heat vs. ductless mini-splits
If you’re looking to upgrade your heating system, but forced air isn’t an option because of the ductwork or cost, there’s another option: a ductless mini-split heat pump.
As the name suggests, a ductless heat pump doesn’t use ducts to connect the air handlers. Individual air handlers are connected to a compressor outside with copper conduit that runs through the wall.
What makes baseboards better
Baseboard heaters have one major advantage over ductless mini-splits: they’re cheaper to install upfront.
The average cost of installing electric baseboard heating is $800 per room, while the upfront cost of a ductless heat pump system is closer to $2,000 per room. If you’re only replacing the heating system in one zone of the house and a heat pump is too expensive, baseboards might make sense.
But the lower upfront cost of baseboard heat will come back to bite you in the form of higher utility bills. As mentioned above, the average homeowner will spend about $1,300 more per year using baseboards and traditional air conditioning than a mini-split heat pump (which heats and cools a home).
What makes ductless heat pumps better
If you have the money to invest in a heat pump, it has a lot of advantages, especially when it comes to energy savings.
Heat pumps are far more energy efficient than baseboard heating. The average household could save about $1,300 per year by using a heat pump system instead of baseboard heating and traditional air conditioning, with a payback time of seven years. That energy savings also means that your annual carbon emissions can be reduced by 7.6 metric tons per household by making the switch.
Heat pumps also act as air conditioners. A heat pump heats your home in the winter and cools it in the summer, without the need for a separate unit. So when you install mini-splits you get the benefit of a zoned-air conditioning system too.
In general, mini-splits are a much better option than baseboard heaters. They cost more upfront, but deliver benefits in the form of comfort and bill savings for years.
To learn more about mini-splits, check out our heat pump buyer’s guide. Or check out how much it would cost to install a heat pump here.