Hot water is used as an energy-transporting medium to heat homes in many cold climates around the world today. When heated water runs through finned tube element installed where the wall and floor intersect, it’s called hot water baseboard heating, or hydronic baseboard. Let’s take a look at hot water baseboard heaters and their particular renovation needs and unique features.
First thing; these aren’t electric baseboard heaters. Unlike the all-in-one electric baseboard heaters that just plug in, hydronic heating is a system of various components that, like the proverbial iceberg, reveal little in plain sight. The process starts with a boiler that brings water to a temperature of around 180F. A circulation pump then moves this water in a pressurized closed loop of copper or PEX piping to various emitter locations around the house. While most of this heating system runs through floor joists and wall studs, the only part a homeowner should even think about renovating DIY style is the exposed covers that protect the delicate aluminum fins. Everything else in a hydronic heating system should only be maintained and serviced by a qualified heating technician. The graphic above shows a typical hydronic baseboard heating system. The focus of this post will be on the emitting device, aka the baseboard heater.
Form, Function and the Funk
Hot water baseboard heating is 99% function, 1% form. In design school a professor once said to me “people want toast, not toasters”. With that in mind, most folks want heat, not baseboard heaters. Not only do baseboard heaters have a reputation for being ugly, they also pose problems for the placement of furnishings and drapery around them. Easy slip-on Baseboarders offer a quick and effective solution to the visible part of a hydronic baseboard heating system. After a few decades these decrepit thin gauge steel enclosures can place home owners in a real funk. What to do? To make matters worse, the back plate; the part that is usually nailed to the wall, isn’t designed to be removed. Fortunately Baseboarders are designed to retrofit on to the existing back plate by slipping over the ancient relic. Watch it happen here.
The On/Off Switch
One of the neat features about hydronic baseboard heaters is the damper; a component you won’t find on any electric baseboard heater. This metal strip runs the length of the heater and is located just inside the top gap where the heated air comes out. The damper is like a built-in on/off switch. So how does it work? The damper has two positions; 1.) open- which allows the heated air to escape the enclosure and 2.) closed- which blocks off the top open gap. A closed position discourages the cool air currents below the heater from coming into contact with the hot element as there is little escape (heated air always rises) up top. This handy feature reinforces the principle and importance of proper airflow around the heating element. Anything that impedes airflow will effectively reduce the heaters ability to heat the room. Most baseboard heaters have the damper left in the open position. If the damper is to be used in the off/closed position, we recommend Baseboarders Basic for maximum effectiveness from the damper.
As discussed on the January 2010 episode of Ask This Old House that featured Baseboarders, dust bunnies and other fluff will eventually build up inside the heater enclosure. These accumulations of foreign material can and will disrupt the airflow around the element. It’s important that the finned tube element be vacuumed out on an annual basis; preferably at the beginning of the heating season. When Baseboarders Premium are installed, the hole pattern from top to bottom means the vacuum can remove debris through the panel without removing it. Lacking any moving parts, there is little else in the way of maintenance a home owner needs to do. Boiler room components do require regular maintenance and should only be serviced by a qualified heating technician.
Heaters as Attractive Architectural Details
Baseboarders are designed with the intention of transforming unattractive hot water baseboard heaters into something much more visually appealing. The easy slip-on concept breathes new life into what are normally perfectly functional heaters. Prior to this innovative product, nearly all baseboard heater renovations required the complete removal of the old covers. This proved to be very costly from a hired labor perspective as the average home owner does not possess the tools or skills to do the job properly. So is your current hydronic baseboard heating system worth renovating?