by Kurt Baxter
Hydronic baseboard heat has been around since the 1940’s.
It evolved from the heavy cast iron radiators that were popular
in previous decades. Baseboards had a few advantages over
heavy cast iron radiators. They are light, easy to install
and able to deliver heat faster. Cast iron radiators radiate
heat whereas baseboard heaters were designed to radiate and
The convection process works like this: The baseboards draw
the cooler air through the bottom of the baseboard past the
fins and out the top.
But is Hydronic baseboard heating practical today? The answer
is: "Sometimes yes and sometimes no". When deciding
if baseboard heating is practical you must compare it to the
predominant heating system in the U.S.; forced air. Hydronic
baseboard heat has many advantages. Hydronic heat doesn’t
dry the air like a forced air system, and it doesn’t
spread dust particles. This is important for those who suffer
from allergies or dry skin conditions. It is more compact
system… no huge ducts overhead or in the basement cutting
into headroom. It is easily separated into separate zones,
which lowers heat bills and improves comfort. One of the biggest
advantages is that it is an easy system for the do-it-yourselfer
to design and install.
But what about the disadvantages? Many people don’t
like the fact that the baseboards themselves take up room
on the wall. Hydronic baseboards also take longer to raise
the room temperature than a forced air system. The biggest
disadvantage is the cost of the system. When comparing the
baseboard system to a forced air heating, they are quite comparable
in cost. However, when you add air conditioning into the equation
it's a different story. To get air conditioning with a baseboard
system you need a separate forced air system. With most forced
air systems a condensing unit and an evaporator coil is added
to the system.
If you suffer from allergies or skin irritation, installing
a baseboard system is probably worthwhile, even with the added
cost of an extra system for A/C. If you live in a mild climate
and don’t need A/C, a baseboard system is an excellent
choice. In dry climates, you could opt for hydronic baseboard
heat and an evaporative cooler for the summer months. This
is probably the healthiest heating and air conditioning option
How does the hydronic baseboard system work? Well for starters
a boiler is used instead of a furnace. Water is heated in
the boiler and then circulated to the baseboards with a pump.
Typically, the water is heated to 170°-180°.
The system is a closed system meaning that once the system
is full, no water is added, the boiler just heats the same
water over and over (see fig. 1). Copper or PEX (plastic pipe)
pipe is used to carry the water from the boiler to the baseboards
and back again.
One major advantage of a hydronic heat system is that it can
be easily separated into zones. For example, each bedroom
can be controlled by a separate thermostat. To save money,
the thermostat can be lowered or turned off in an unoccupied
To create a zoned system, generally two pipes are run. One
pipe sends hot water to the baseboards and the other returns
the water to the boiler to be reheated. A Thermostat controlled
valve opens to let water to a zone (see fig. 2). When the
room reaches the desired temperature the valve closes.
Hydronic baseboards are a time-tested system that have many
advantages over other systems. They produce an efficient even
heat, and are easy for the do-it-yourselfer. Whether baseboards
are right for your particular situation is a matter of climate,
budget and health considerations.
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