10 things you might not know about electric baseboard heaters

Baseboard heater below a window
It may seem strange, but locating baseboard heaters under windows is often the most effective way to minimize drafts and distribute heat through a room.

Note: This story was updated on October 28, 2019.

Cut back on winter heating costs by using your system efficiently

Snow hit the Coquihalla Highway in late September, and while the Farmer's Almanac is predicting warmer than usual temperatures in Western Canada this winter, it's calling for a big chill in southern B.C. The only certainty is that, wherever you live in B.C., it's going to get colder and heating bills are going to rise.

If you rely mostly on electric baseboard heaters, they probably make up a big part of your annual electricity bill, as much as 50% or more for some homes in the winter months. We know of one BC Hydro writer whose January bills are usually three times higher than what he pays in August.

Make sure that your heaters work properly and operate efficiently, and that your home is set up for efficiency. That can go a long way in keeping costs down. To help you reduce the chances of unexpectedly high bills, here are 10 things you might not know about your baseboard heaters.

1. Baseboard heaters are often located under windows because it's more efficient that way

Windows are colder than the rest of the room, and can create unpleasant drafts, making you feel cold and uncomfortable. Dense cold air near the window sinks to the floor, but heat from a baseboard heater under the window will rise, counteracting the falling cool air as it's pushed into the room by that cold air. If you have ENERGY STAR® or other efficient windows, you might not notice these effects as much. Reducing drafts from your windows with window film and coverings such as blinds and curtains can help.

2. Heat rises – and so do your energy costs, for every degree above 20°C

Heating costs rise about 5% for every degree above 20°C (68°F) that you set your thermostats. If you're comfortable at cooler temperatures (especially if you're cooking or working around the house), you'll be able to save.

3. Cranking the thermostat doesn't warm up the room any faster

If you've ever returned home to a room that feels like the Arctic, it's pretty tempting to crank the thermostat up four or five degrees past where you normally set it. But it will still take the same length of time to warm up, and you'll just use more energy, because it keeps heating the room after you've passed your regular comfortable temperature.

4. Now that they're more widely available, you can get a smart thermostat that works with baseboard heaters

Some homeowners initially reported sub-par experiences trying to use some of the most popular Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats with their baseboard heaters. But BC Hydro has run trials in recent years as new versions specifically designed for baseboards have been released, and now offers rebates towards the following thermostats: Mysa Smart, Sinopé Line Voltage, Stelpro Maestro. These programmable thermostats are designed to allow users to adjust heating settings from other internet-connected devices, such as a laptop or smartphones.

5. Thick carpet or rugs can get in the way

You probably know that carpets and rugs can warm up a room and help keep your feet warm. But ensure that they're not impacting the efficiency of baseboard heaters. Although it may look like warm air is only coming out of the front of your heaters, the air is actually circulating all around. Your heaters should sit at least two centimetres (three-quarters of an inch) above the floor or carpet to allow the cooler air on the floor to flow under and through the electrical element. If your carpet is especially thick, trim it down around the base of your heaters.

6. Window coverings keep cool air out, but can block your heaters

The bottom of your drapes should end at least 10 centimetres (four inches) above your heaters or, if your drapes run floor-to-ceiling, at least three centimetres above the floor. Make sure you have at least five centimetres (two inches) between the back of the drapes and the front of your heaters. It's all about airflow; don't let flooring or window coverings block that flow anywhere around your heater.

Photo of a damaged baseboard heater
If any of your baseboard heaters are damaged like this one, replace it. For minor repairs, turn off current to your baseboard at the circuit breaker, and carefully realign and clean any bent fins.

7. If it's dusty, it's not working properly

An electric baseboard heater has an electrical heating element inside a metal pipe. When the heater is turned on, an electric current flows through the heating element. Although baseboard heaters will always turn electricity used into heat, dust and dirt on your heating system can block that heat from circulating through the room. You may end up running heaters longer because it's more difficult to release the heat that's generated, through dirty fins, into the room. At least once a year (usually in the fall, before using them for the first time), wipe down the surface of your heaters and vacuum the fins and housing to remove as much dust as possible. A brush attachment for your vacuum works well if you have one.

8. Programmable thermostats are more precise than the manual ones located on your heater.

Most heaters are controlled by a wall-mounted dial thermostat or a dial on the side of the baseboard itself. But they're less precise and harder to control than a programmable or digital model. Thermostats mounted directly on the heaters can be slower to respond to changes in room temperature, and can be wildly inaccurate because of where they're located. So for rooms where you're spending a lot of time (such as your living room), you should consider replacing that thermostat with a wall-mounted model; you'd need to work with a qualified electrician. For accurate readings, never install a thermostat directly above a baseboard heater, near a refrigerator or other large appliance, or where it will be in direct sunlight.

9. Pick sweet 16 (degrees) to maximize your savings

16°C (61°F) is too cold for most of us to stay comfortable when we're home, but what about when you're asleep and covered in blankets? Setting your baseboards to 16°C at night and when you're away (such as at work all day) can help you save up to 10% on your energy bills.

10. Baseboard heaters don't circulate air well

Baseboards do a great job of heating in "zones" – that is, heating the spaces that you need, compared to heating your entire home all the time. But since they don't have a forced air or fan system, don't rely on baseboard heating in one room to heat hallways or adjacent spaces, such as by leaving doors open. Instead, heat the space you need when you're using it. Resist the temptation to switch to reliance on portable electric heaters, which aren't as safe as baseboards because they can be tipped over.