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Baseboard Heaters: Problems & Solutions

The Basics of Electric Baseboard Heaters

Electric baseboard heaters offer a convenient and efficient way to heat your home. They can help counteract the loss  of heat from windows, and are great for zonal heating, since you can turn them on and off depending on which room you're using.

The compact, low-profile design of baseboard heaters allow them to remain conveniently out of the way. The broad, thin devices are usually wall mounted, although there are some portable free-standing options.

Baseboard heaters suck cold air in through their vents along the base. The cold air gets heated and rises to the top, then gets blown out from the top vents to heat the room. They're an excellent source of heat for a single room or small home, and the problems that arise are usually easy to fix.

We've compiled a list of common problems people have with their baseboard heaters, and offer solutions to prevent any panic from settling in. With proper usage and routine cleaning, your baseboard heater should last for many years with few problems.

Most solutions are simple enough, but if your baseboard heater is really acting up and you don't feel comfortable getting into the nitty gritty of your unit, call a professional right away.

Problem #1: My baseboard heaters aren't heating enough

Solution #1: Make sure you're using the right amount of power

Most rooms require 10 watts per square foot of space. So a 1500 watt heater can warm an area of 150 square feet. If your baseboard heater isn't filling the whole room with heat, consider adding additional units. You can connect the unit wirings to each other, making it relatively simple to install.

Also make sure that your supply voltage isn't less than the rating of the heater. Check the voltage of your heater and supply wires to make sure they match.

Solution #2: Check insulation and keep temperature up in unused rooms

It's important to have adequate insulation in a home heated by baseboard heaters. Poor insulation makes baseboard heaters work harder and longer than they need to-- cancelling out any efficient and cost advantages they offer. Make sure doors and windows are all weather stripped, and re-caulk where necessary.

Some people choose to heat one room at a time with baseboard heaters, and turn off their central system completely. If you have central heating that you normally use, it may be a good idea to lower your central thermostat instead of turning it off completely, since colder air from one room can seep into others, which will cause your baseboard heaters to work harder.

Solution #3: Clean your baseboard heater

Dust cuts down on a baseboard heater's efficiency. Turn off the power and wipe down the front of your baseboard heater with warm soapy water. The fins or vents should be vacuumed once a year prior to the heating season. Open baseboard heater louvers when you're using them to help dissipate heat easier, and close them when you're not, to prevent dust from building up.

Problem #2: I worry my electric baseboard heater isn't safe

Solution #1: Don't block airflow

Baseboard heaters are a safe heating source, as long as you don't leave items too close. Baseboard heaters are designed to sit1/2 inch above the floor or carpet to allow for proper airflow through the system. Many units have a safety thermal cut-off feature built-in to prevent overheating.

The heating elements are enclosed so you shouldn't get burned, but it's best to maintain at least a foot of clearance from the top and front of baseboard heaters. Don't place furniture any closer, and avoid having window drapes or blind cords touch the unit. Also make sure smaller items, like children's toys, aren't left nearby.

Solution #2: Buy a baseboard heater cover

A new baseboard heater will probably come with a cover, but if you have an older unit you can quickly renovate your heater to update its look and safety. Covers enclose the heated elements and help childproof your baseboard heaters.

Baseboard heater covers are easy and quick to install-- most simply slip over the electric baseboard heater. They stay on securely and can't be removed easily by young children.

Solution #3: Use an automated thermostat

An automated thermostat lets you maintain a consistent atmosphere in the room. Once you set your thermostat, the baseboard heater cycles on and off to maintain the temperature of the room, and there's less chance your units will overheat.

When buying baseboard heaters look at their specifications to see if they have safety features like an automatic high temperature shutoff, in case of accidental air blockage or tip-over.

Problem #3: The temperature of my baseboard heaters isn't consistent

Solution #1: Use an external thermostat

Many baseboard heaters come with a built-in thermostat, which aren't always the best at maintaining a constant temperature. If your baseboard heater output isn't matching its setting, consider installing an external wall mounted thermostat for your baseboard heater. Baseboard heaters must have their own thermostat, so they can't be connected to a central heating system, but they should not be overly expensive and can be worth the extra investment.

Solution #2: Vacuum out debris

Dust and debris can prevent electric baseboard heaters from working optimally, so make sure your unit is properly maintained and cleaned. It's easy for the fans to get clogged over time since baseboard heaters operate with a constant airflow. A unit will automatically turn off if it begins to overheat due to debris.

Also make sure the thin metal fins of your units aren't damaged or bent, which can affect heating efficiency.

Solution #3: Make sure the wiring is correct

A malfunctioning baseboard heater could be the result of a minor wiring error. If you believe this may be the problem, carefully check your wiring. It may be wired to the wrong voltage so double check the voltage of your heater and your supply wires. If the voltage is correct, it could be a shortage, so check for burn marks and other signs of damage.

Problem #4: There's something internally wrong with my baseboard heaters

Solution #1: Contact the manufacturer

When baseboard heaters are newly installed, they have an oily, smoky smell the first time you run them because of the residual lubricant left on the heating element from the manufacturing process. Make sure your room is well-vented, and wait about 30 minutes for the smell to go away. If it doesn't, contact the manufacturer to see if they have any suggestions on what further steps you should take.

Solution #2: Check the power and wiring

First check the circuit breaker to make sure it's not the problem. If the breaker starts off cool to the touch then turns hot just before it trips, there's probably a loose wire connection somewhere.

If the breaker trips immediately after turning the circuit breaker on but before turning the heater's thermostat on, there's an electrical short between the circuit breaker and the thermostat. Check the wires from the circuit breaker to the baseboard's thermostat, looking for wire burn marks, frayed areas, or other signs of damage. Check the thermostat for burn marks as well.

If the circuit breaker stays on but the heater doesn't warm up, the problem is the thermostat, the heating element or the limit switch. You can check each wire for a short with a multi-meter.

Solution #3: Call a professional.

Wiring can be dangerous, so if you suspect something is wrong, the best thing to do is call a professional to come check it out. Calling someone is the quickest, easiest and safest way to troubleshoot your baseboard heaters.

If you maintain your baseboard heaters regularly, and use them correctly, they should deliver consistent, efficient heat for decades before needing to be replaced.

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