Baseboard heating and forced air are two of the most popular heating choices in many homes. Heating spaces account for 45% of your monthly energy bills, so your choice between both of them will play a major role in determining how much you’ll pay to stay warm in the winter.
Baseboard heating is great for delivering consistent heat in a room, while forced air works best when heating the entire home. However, forced air heating will warm up a room faster. Installation costs favor baseboard heating, but forced air heating is more cost-efficient for large spaces.
This article will take a closer look at both types of heating, comparing them under various metrics to help you make the best decision. You’ll also see a buying guide and important tips to keep in mind with each one of them.
What Is Baseboard Heating?
As the name implies, baseboard heating is a heating system installed on the baseboards in a home. It supplies consistent heat from there. A thermostat controls the temperature. Baseboard heating can either be electric or hydronic. Electric baseboard heating effectively heats single rooms and office space, but it gets costly when you have to heat the entire home with it.
Hydronic baseboard heating, on the other hand, relies on hot water to heat your home. The water is heated up by a boiler system, which also distributes the hot water via a piping system to keep the room or the whole house warm. Since it takes a while for the water to heat up, hydronic baseboard heating generally takes longer than other heating options to warm up a house.
Baseboard heating’s consistency is one reason why it’s popular for residential areas where there’s no need for a lot of temperature fluctuations. Also, baseboard heating won’t get toxic as it doesn’t release carcinogenic gases or contribute to lowering the air quality of the space by circulating pollutants. Installation is also straightforward and generally affordable.
What Is Forced Air Heating?
Forced air heating systems are more elaborate heating solutions designed to deliver heat across larger spaces faster. The system relies on a furnace to heat up the air, and the hot air is forced into the home through the ducts and vents around the house.
HVAC air filters are also important in the setup as they are useful for keeping the air clean and fresh. Like baseboard heating, a thermostat controls the temperature. However, the consistency isn’t the same as you’ll get with baseboard heating because the system is designed to pump hot air through the ducts intermittently. Still, forced air heating systems will heat a home quicker than baseboard systems.
Energy Transfer Efficiency
If you’re looking for the most efficient energy heating option, hydronic baseboard heating is the better option. This is because a cubic inch of water will carry a lot more heat energy than a cubic inch of air. So, you’ll rack up fewer costs using hydronic baseboard heating when compared to forced air heating. Electric baseboard heating may be costlier depending on the size of the space.
Winner: Baseboard heating (hydronic)
Installation and Design
If you want to use forced air heating in your home, you’ll need to designate lots of space inside the house for the ductwork that has to be done. Remember, you need a lot of volume to transport heated air. This means you need a lot of dedicated space for ducts.
In comparison, hydronic baseboard heating only needs a setup of 8-inch copper pipes to carry the hot water. The small pipes can be neatly and easily tucked away within the house. If you go with electric baseboard heating, there’s even less design and installation logistics to worry about.
Winner: Baseboard heating
Forced air systems send out hot air via ducts. After a while, dust and other particles will build up in the ducts. This requires regular cleaning. The cleaning process is tedious and will require hiring a company with equipment for the cleaning process.
Electronic baseboard heating doesn’t require any such elaborate maintenance. Cleaning the dust on the boards is all you have to do most of the time.
Hydronic systems also don’t require much maintenance. The water in the system can be reused for years, even after it has changed color from absorbing the minerals in the copper piping. Before turning on the heating for the year, you should bleed air in the pipes and vacuum the heating element.
Winner: Baseboard heating
Use in the Summer
It’s always nice to have a system that can deliver hot air in the winter and cold air in the summer. Baseboard heating doesn’t work in this regard as most electric variants don’t have the mechanism to deliver cold air in the summer. The hydronic systems also don’t work in the summer because cold water flowing through copper will cause damage due to condensation.
Forced air heating excels here because the system designed for it can also seamlessly push cold air out via the same ducts when the weather heats up outside. You’ll need an air conditioning installation to the system for this to work. With the air conditioning and the heating system in place, you can switch between cold and hot air as the temperature demands.
Winner: Forced air heating
Baseboard heating systems evenly distribute heat by relying on the existing airflow in the room already—a process referred to as convection air current heating. No new particulates are introduced into the air. Forced air, on the other hand, blows air from a vent connected to the furnace. The furnace draws in air from the outside to work. Even with filters in place, the furnace cannot filter out smaller particles such as allergens. These can make their way into the home.
Winner: Baseboard heating
Forced air heating systems of today are designed to run quietly, but some are also noisy. Hydronic baseboard heating can get noisy when operating. This is because of the constant expansion and contraction of the soft copper when it’s in use. Some technicians use PEX tubing as an alternative for copper piping in a bid to avoid this problem.
Comparing the costs of baseboard v forced air heating is difficult as there are many variables to consider. The cost of equipment will vary from one part of the country to the other, and skilled technicians will charge different rates. You also need to consider boiler/furnace efficiency and the size of the rooms in different homes. Combining these factors means that it’s hard to run a proper comparison.
Baseboard Heating Pros
- The installation costs are lower than other heating systems.
- It’s more energy-efficient and economical in smaller spaces due to the physics involved in using hot water or electricity to heat small spaces.
- It delivers a consistent supply of heat around the space.
- It doesn’t spread carcinogenic gases or allergens.
- Hydronic baseboard heating is eco-friendly.
- It doesn’t require ductwork, which makes it easy to install.
- The lack of ducts means there’s little ongoing maintenance required.
Baseboard Heating Cons
- The system’s makeup means it can’t produce heat in large quantities needed to heat a small space.
- It will take longer for it to heat a room from scratch.
- The boiler and water pump may break down from time to time.
Forced Air Heating Pros
- It delivers fast heating at all times, regardless of the size of the room.
- The setup can be designed to handle both heating and cooling needs.
- The design of the system promotes better circulation within the house.
- The air filter can improve indoor air quality if replaced regularly.
Forced Air Heating Cons
- It can get noisy.
- Pollutants from outside may get through the filters and spread throughout the house.
- The ducts might become leaky quickly.
- The installation process is costly and demanding.
Which Should You Choose?
The biggest selling point for baseboard heating over forced air is the consistent heating delivered. However, this advantage disappears if you have to heat a large space. Forced air heating systems don’t deliver consistent heat, but they will heat all kinds of spaces faster. The installation process, however, may not be suitable for your home.
The right option to choose will come down to your unique preferences. Two homeowners in the same situation may choose any of the two, even with all the facts we’ve covered so far presented to them. Pick the option that matches your budget, and your heating needs the most.
Factors to Consider When Looking for the Best Baseboard Heater
Have you decided to go with a baseboard heater? Here are some factors to consider as you look to install one (or a few).
Baseboard heater prices can be as low as $50 or as high as $500. You have to know exactly what you expect your heater to do before you settle on a budget. When calculating your budget, don’t forget to account for additional costs like the price of a thermostat and your installer’s charges.
Your Type of Flooring
The type of flooring you have can influence the power of your baseboard heater. For example, carpets will be warmer than tiles due to the added insulation that comes with the former. If you have hardwood, tile, or linoleum flooring, you need to ensure you’re choosing a baseboard heating system that can keep them warm.
Carpets are less picky, but some baseboard heaters may singe the carpeting around them. You should talk with the dealer about how your flooring affects your choice.
Overall Design of Your Home
Baseboard heaters typically work best on a room by room basis. This means that you’ll typically need to have a separate heater for your living room and another one for your bedroom, etc. However, if you live in an open floor design, you may be able to choose a baseboard heating system that is powerful enough to cover the entire space.
Your baseboard heater won’t work without an internal thermostat. Check to be sure your chosen heater has one. There are two types of thermostats you’ll find on these: the single-pole and the double-pole thermostat. The former can only be turned down but never off, while the latter comes with an off switch for when you need to turn it off.
The Heat Output
The heat output on a baseboard is measured in watts. You need to look at the number to know what to expect from your chosen unit. A good tip to keep in mind here is that it takes around 10 watts to heat one square meter of space in your home.
This should give you an idea of what kind of power to watch out for when buying your heater. However, don’t go with exact match figures. You should choose a baseboard heater with 25% more watts than you need to ensure proper warmth.
Baseboard Heater Safety Tips to Keep in Mind
To make sure your baseboard heater remains safe to use and to ensure a prolonged lifespan, there are a few safety tips you need to adhere to at all times.
Maintain the Airflow
With a baseboard heater, it’s very important to ensure good airflow at all times. This will allow the space to heat up faster and also ensure longevity for the heater. Clear out any materials that may block the airflow around the heater, and don’t use it for applications that can damage it—such as for drying of clothes.
Keep Inflammable Objects Away
Objects that can catch fire shouldn’t be placed near your baseboard heater. Such objects will make it harder for the heater to work, as we’ve mentioned above, but there is always the risk of a fire. If the item is inflammable and gets hot enough, it could cause a fire outbreak. Keep all such objects as far away from the heater as possible.
Baseboard heaters are generally installed close to the floor. This means they accumulate dust quite easily. A small amount of dust won’t affect the heater, but you’ll start to notice a general drop in performance after a long time. The heater may also burn out quickly if you keep on ignoring the dust. You should clean out the grilles on the heater every month.
Factors to Consider When Looking at Forced Air Heating Systems
The furnace is the core of your forced air heating system. The bulk of your decision should be around it. Here are the top factors to consider.
The BTU Capacity
You need to ensure you pick a unit with the right heating capacity to adequately keep your home. A good tip is to ensure around 30-60 BTUs per square foot of living space. You can use this calculator to better work out how many BTUs you need for your home. Factors taken into account in the calculation will include the age of your property and where you live.
It’s often better to have a larger furnace than what you need instead of one that is too small, so you should go with a slightly higher BTU than what you arrive at using the calculator. Most 2,500 square foot homes will need a forced air heating system powered by a 75,000-150,000 BTU furnace. The exact number will come down to your climate.
The AFUE Rating
A high BTU capacity doesn’t always mean that your forced air heating system will be able to heat your home properly. You need to think about the AFUE rating (annual fuel utilization efficiency), which measures the heat source’s energy efficiency when it comes to turning the fuel source into heat over a specific year. This rating is important for comparisons.
A heating system with an AFUE rating of 80% converts 80% of the energy in the fuel source to heat. The remaining 20% is lost in the combustion process. If such a system has a 100,000 BTU capacity, it means you’re getting 80,000 BTUs in practice. This is why both metrics are important in your purchase decision. Go with models that are Energy Star rated to ensure you’re getting a truly high-efficiency system.
You should keep in mind that the AFUE rating of a furnace doesn’t consider the heat lost to your piping and duct system. Another 35% of the heat can be lost via these points, especially if you’ve got ducts running through poorly-insulated parts of your home.
Calculate the Load
Load calculation is perhaps the best way to know if a forced air heating system is good enough for your home. It considers a range of factors, including your window type and location, the foundation type, your postal code, your house size, and other such details that can influence a home’s heating needs.
There are a few calculators online that you can use for this purpose, but to get the best result, you should talk to an HVAC expert. Load calculation will ensure you get the best home heating system possible for your house, and you will save money by not buying a system that is oversized for your home.
The best forced air heating systems will come with a warranty. This ensures any defects or repairs will be covered. The warranties can range from 5-10 years in length, depending on the manufacturer. Manufacturers with costlier products tend to offer longer warranties, but you can buy extended warranties with other manufacturers if you think it’s necessary.
Other Optional Considerations
These are features for a forced air heating system that are not compulsory but can improve the ease of use and give you greater comfort when using the product. They include the following:
- Integrated air filtration system: As we mentioned above, a major downside of forced air heating systems is that they can easily spread dust and allergens around the home. With an integrated filtration system, you can cut down the foreign materials spread through the system drastically.
When you get one with such a system, don’t forget to keep the filters clean at all times to maintain the indoor air quality and also ensure the filters aren’t blocking off the hot air from spreading across your home.
- Variable-speed blowers: This system helps prevent temperature swings that are normal with these systems by delivering air in a quieter, slower, and more controlled way.
- Variable heat delivery: This feature increases the efficiency and overall comfort of your system but is mostly found on units that come with variable-speed blowers.
- Zoned heating: This feature allows you to only heat specific areas of the home, ensuring that you’re only using the energy where necessary.
Forced Air Heating Safety Tips to Keep in Mind
To ensure your forced air heating system remains safe to use and to ensure better longevity, here’s what you should do:
Ensure Seasonal Maintenance
You need to get the product checked out by a professional before turning on the heating system for use at the start of a season. When it’s turned off for the year, you should also have it looked at again. This way, all issues will be identified and fixed early enough before it becomes a larger problem that will require more expenditure to fix. You also don’t want your heating to break down in the middle of winter when routine maintenance would have solved the problem.
Check the Ductwork Regularly
To ensure you get the best out of your forced air heating system, you need to ensure the ducts are in the best condition at all times. You should inspect them to check for all signs of damage. If there are dents in the sheet metal, you won’t get proper airflow through the vents. Cover all dents and holes to ensure the bulk of the hot air generated ends up inside your home. You should also get them cleaned out at least at the start of the season.
Pay Attention to the Registers
Look around your home from time to time to see what’s happening with the registers. They shouldn’t be covered by blankets, furniture, or any other such household items. If you find anything blocking the registers, remove them immediately to ensure the unimpeded spread of the heat across your home. You don’t want to lose heat warming up a piece of furniture instead of the entire room.
Consider Upgrading Your Thermostat
Older thermostats are generally problematic with forced air heating systems. They make it harder to know the temperature of the home or adjust it. This is why you should upgrade as quickly as possible if you own one of these. You should go with more modern and programmable options that can be connected to your forced air heating system to keep a better handle on the temperature.
You should be able to lower the temperature when you don’t need the heat at full blast. This way, you can save a lot of money. Call in a professional to complete the installation and to make sure you’ve got the sensors where they should be.
Set Up Carbon Monoxide Detection
This is important because it will help warn you as soon as carbon monoxide makes its way into your home due to poor combustion or any other such reasons. Carbon monoxide is deadly, so it’s important to set up an alarm that will notify you of leaks as quickly as possible to limit your exposure.
Remove Flammable Items
Forced air heating systems need to be stored in rooms that don’t contain any flammable items. The central furnace can get very hot as you’d expect, so any item that can catch fire near it is dangerous.
You should clear the area of items like clothes, cleaning solutions, paint, fertilizer, insecticides, pesticides, wood scraps, sawdust, papers, gasoline, etc. A good tip is to avoid installing the system in your conventional storage room. You should either move the items in storage elsewhere or create a new room.
Tips to Make Your Heating More Effective
Whether you choose to go with forced air heating or baseboard heating, there are a few things you can do to make the generated heat feel a bit warmer and make your home more comfortable:
- Turn off the exhaust fans in your bathroom and kitchen as they’ll pull out warm air from your home.
- Insulate wood or tile floors with rugs.
- Check the seal across your doors and windows.
- Turn the blades on your ceiling fans so they can pull cool air up and push heat downwards.
Baseboard and forced air heating are excellent options for keeping your home warm. The slight variations in the operating mode and the type of heat delivered make all the difference and are why some people will prefer one over the other.
After the comparison above, you should have a clearer picture of what will work in your home and what won’t. If you live in a big countryside house, a forced air heating system with a furnace that matches your home’s load will most likely work best. In a smaller home, however, baseboard heating will offer more value for money.
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