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Is a Hydronic Baseboard System Practical Today?

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 convect heat.
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.

When and Where
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 available.

How it works
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 area.
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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