One question to ask when buying a home is what type of heating system the house has. Most houses have baseboard heaters, which are the long rectangular units along the floor, or forced air, which comes out of vents or ducts in the floor or ceiling.
There are pros and cons to both baseboard heating and forced air heating systems. Although it is costly to install, forced air is the preferable method of heating your home. It is energy-efficient (which saves you money on utility bills), effectively heats large spaces, and can be controlled with only one thermostat unlike baseboard heaters.
Replacing baseboard heaters with forced air can be expensive though, and for a less expensive alternative, consider ductless heat pumps (also known as mini splits) instead.
Baseboard heating works by radiating heat from small units that are placed along the baseboard of a room, usually below the windows. Baseboard heating is commonly found in older homes, as it doesn’t require ducts in the floors or walls. It is also less expensive to install than a forced air system.
However, baseboard heating comes with several drawbacks. No items can be placed directly in front of baseboard heaters without creating a fire hazard. The heaters additionally take up floor space in each room, limiting your design and furniture choices. Most of these units also have thermostats for each room, so to heat an entire house to a certain temperature, you need to adjust each one individually.
There are two main types of baseboard heating systems. Both types perform the same function using similar-looking units, but they differ in how they create heat.
Electric baseboard heaters work by heating the cold air in a room with electricity. When cold air sinks toward the floor it enters the heater, is heated by electricity, and re-enters the room through the vents as hot air. This process repeats until the air entering the heater has reached the desired temperature. Electronic baseboard heaters are quick to warm up, but don't retain heat for very long. These units are most often used as a supplement to a central heating system, as they can be costly to keep running (especially when heating a large space).
Also known as hot water baseboard heaters this type of system also uses electricity, but warms the room by heating water, or oil, inside the unit and radiating the hot air into the room. These units take longer to heat up, but are more efficient and therefore cost-effective than electric baseboard units, so they are often the sole heat source in older homes.
Forced air heating works by warming air and distributing it throughout the house using ducts. More specifically, cool air from every room in the house is delivered through ducts to a central heat source. That heat source may be an electric or gas furnace, or a gas or electric heat pump. Once the air is heated, the blower (a very strong fan) pushes the the warm air through different ducts and into each room.
Forced air heating is common in modern homes as it is energy efficient and more cost-effective to run than baseboard heaters. However, it is much more expensive to install than baseboard heaters and requires regular maintenance (including regularly changing the air filter, or else you might get mold).
Forced air only requires one thermostat, usually per floor, allowing you to regulate the temperature of large spaces, so it’s ideal if you’re looking to heat an entire house. It also uses the same ducts and vents as the air conditioning system, so it’s easy to use for both heating and cooling.
There is nothing inherently wrong with baseboard heating, but if you buy a house with this system you should be aware of the limitations that come with it. Baseboard heaters are best for small spaces, particularly if you live in an area where you don’t need air conditioning in the summer, since you can turn off the heaters for part of the year. If your home is located somewhere that experiences harsh winters though, baseboard heaters may not be ideal.
Buying a home with baseboard heating is ultimately up to your comfort level with the heaters. but keep in mind that it’s no longer the preferred method for modern home builds and new constructions, and may not help your home's value.
Many homeowners choose to replace baseboard heaters with forced air. By doing this, you incur the one-time installation cost, but save money over time on utility bills due to the efficiency of the forced air system.
In addition to installing vents, ducts, and a furnace (or heat pump), you will have to repair the areas where the baseboard heaters were. It's possible to find water damage, loose wires, and areas you need to patch behind the units.
Since forced air is more efficient and better equipped to heat entire homes, it’s a good idea to consider replacing your baseboard system as long as you’re open to the renovation process and cost.
Another alternative to baseboard heaters and forced air is getting a minisplit system, also called ductless heaters or, less commonly, as heat pumps. These units are installed on the walls just below the ceiling, along with a compressor outside the property.
Ductless air heating systems are much more energy efficient than baseboard heaters, and much cheaper to install than forced air systems, so they can be a good compromise, especially if you live in a smaller house. Another benefit is that this type of heating system also acts as an air conditioner, similar to forced air systems that run hot and cold air.
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