Are Baseboard Heaters Efficient?

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated October 7, 2021
heated kitchenette
Photo: Janine Lamontagne / Getty Images

Baseboard heaters are not always the most energy-efficient option on the market, but homeowners can increase their efficiency with a few adjustments

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If long, thin heaters line the perimeter of your room, you most likely have one of the most common heating systems in the country. Baseboard heaters are popular for a few reasons: they are comparatively inexpensive to install and can even solve the problem of how to heat a century-old home. But when it comes to their energy efficiency and effect on your heating bills, how do they stack up against the competition?

Are Baseboard Heaters Efficient?

On a technical level, yes, baseboard heaters are efficient in that they convert all incoming energy into heat. This specific system also typically warms your home in zones, meaning that you can control different rooms of your home with different thermostats—definitely a checkmark on the energy-efficient list.

However, where this heat goes and how it's contained in your home can change the story altogether. And despite its advantages with zoned heating, the Department of Energy still considers electric resistance heating to be one of the most expensive ways to heat your home.

So, the real question becomes, are baseboard heaters efficient compared to other options?

Comparing Electric and Hydronic Baseboard Heaters

To find your answer, let's take a closer look at the two main types of baseboard heaters—electric and hydronic. The science used for each type of baseboard heater differs, and with those differences come varying efficiencies.

Electric Baseboard Heaters

Upfront, electric baseboard heaters—sometimes called convection heaters—are less expensive to purchase and install than their hydronic counterparts. Here's how they work: an electric current directly heats metal coils inside of your baseboard heaters, a bit like a toaster oven. 

Through the power of convection, the system heats up cold air and sends it back out to fill the cool spaces of the room. This is why you'll likely see baseboard heaters beneath windows—the cold drafts assist in the convection process. Science!

The Good News

Electric heaters warm rooms quickly and are easy to adjust. So, if you have a home office in your finished basement that you use for a few hours a day, electric heaters are a quick way to heat up and cool down the room without wasting energy. To help boost efficiency, make sure you calculate the proper baseboard size and wattage for your rooms. 

The Bad News

As the temperature in your home rises and falls, your heaters will turn on and off more frequently than other systems. When the heater flips on, the room heats quickly, but when it switches off, it quickly falls, especially if you have an old, drafty home. 

This constant fluctuation may use more energy to consistently heat the room and leave you reaching for another throw blanket despite a high thermostat.

The Verdict

Electric baseboard heaters are less costly to install but likely come with a higher energy bill than hydronic baseboards due to their inability to maintain consistent heat. In fact, electric resistance heat tends to cost more than other major heat sources, such as propane, oil, natural gas, or a heat pump.

Hydronic Baseboard Heaters

These heaters work very similarly to electric systems but with an added special feature: liquid. Sealed pipes in your baseboard heaters fill with water or a heat-safe oil. Electrically heated coils then warm up the liquid and send it pouring through your system.

The Good News

Let's say your living room reaches the right cozy temperature, and your thermostat sends the signal to your system to switch off. Unlike electric baseboard heaters, the liquid will naturally retain heat much longer. In other words, you save on electric bills and don't have to feel like your home is constantly on a temperature roller coaster compared to electric baseboards.

The Bad News

It will take your home much longer to heat up with hydronic baseboards. You'll feel the effects of electric coils much faster, while the liquid will take some time to create and distribute heat around your room.

Hydronic heat is also not as easy to control as forced air or heat pumps. Once the room heats up, you can't simply turn down the thermostat and cool off your baseboards instantly.

The Verdict

Hands down, hydronic baseboards are more efficient than convection heaters. However, they can still waste energy, especially if your baseboard heaters have trouble distributing the heat evenly.

white empty room with baseboard heater
Photo: Studio Light and Shade/iStock/Getty Images Plus

How to Maximize Baseboard Heater Efficiency

Not all homes are equipped for complex ductwork or heat pumps. Baseboard heaters may be the most cost-effective and practical solution in older homes or homes with an addition that only needs occasional heat.

You can also increase your baseboard's efficiency by ensuring the rest of your home holds in the heat for longer. Here are a few tips for keeping your baseboard heat efficient throughout the chillier months.

Plan out Your Zones

If you opt for a zoned system for your baseboard heaters, use the setup to your advantage. You likely won't need the same temperature for your bedroom as you will for your kitchen, for example. Energy.gov recommends setting your thermostat to 68° F when you're awake and lowering it when you're away or sleeping.

Seal up the Drafts

A properly insulated home can save you up to 15% a year on energy costs. If your zoned heating system doesn't have to work as hard to maintain heat—especially electric baseboards—you can significantly lower your energy use.

Design Around Your Baseboards

Heat needs to flow directly from your baseboard heaters to the rest of your room. Without fans or vents, the heat depends on convection and natural airflow to distribute the heat. 

When furniture blocks the flow of air, it could take longer to heat the space—not to mention become a fire hazard if it's sitting too close. Be sure your furniture, drapes, and carpets are at least 12 inches away.

Keep Them Clean

There's no question why baseboard heaters end up prone to dust, grit, and a thick layer of kitty or dog fur. Create a regular schedule of dusting and vacuuming your heaters—particularly the coils of electric ones—to ensure efficiency. 

Heating systems like heat pumps and high-efficiency furnaces may be more efficient options depending on the age of your home and your local weather. Baseboard heaters, however, can be used to your advantage with the proper placement, thermostat habits, and home care.

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