Your Place | Electric baseboard heat may chill sale prospects

Posted: September 14, 2007

Question: Several years ago, we moved into a 35-year-old home in Gulph Mills heated entirely with electric baseboard heaters that are controlled in each room. The house is cooled with a two-zone central air-conditioning system.

Are the electric baseboard heaters available today considerably more efficient than those we are using, and should we consider replacing the old ones? Our window for staying in the house is about five years.

Answer: "Too often, people add electric baseboard heat to supplement poorly operating heating systems. The solution is not to increase the sources of heat, but to tighten up the house enough so you can downsize the heating source," Liz Robinson, executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency in Philadelphia, once told me.

I'm also one of those people who believe in a whole-house approach to energy efficiency, so if your house is tight and ventilated according to the rule book, you probably won't have to keep any heating source running constantly to stay comfortable.

The advantage you have with your current system is that you can shut the heat off in the rooms you aren't using. That gives you the same kind of control over your heating bill as a programmable thermostat would, even though it depends on your memory and efforts.

I get the impression that the U.S. Department of Energy doesn't like electric baseboard heaters all that much, suggesting that if electricity is your only source of power, a heat pump is preferable in all but dry climates such as the Arizona desert. Energy Department experts say heat pumps can cut consumption by 50 percent compared with the electric-resistance heating you have now.

Electric baseboard heaters are zonal heaters controlled by thermostats in each room; they contain electric heating elements encased in metal pipes. The pipes, surrounded by aluminum fins to aid heat transfer, run the length of the baseboard heater's housing, or cabinet. As air within the heater is warmed, it rises into the room, and cooler air is drawn into the bottom of the heater. Some heat also is radiated from the pipe, fins, and housing.

Baseboard heaters are usually installed underneath windows. There, the heater's rising warm air counteracts falling cool air from the cold window glass. Such units are seldom located on interior walls because standard heating practice is to supply heat at the home's perimeter, where the greatest heat loss occurs.

I'd look into alternatives to baseboard heaters before you decide how to proceed. There may come a day, even five years down the road, when energy-efficient houses sell faster, and for a higher price, than those that aren't.

Q: I have a '50s bathroom. I don't want to do all the work of a complete remodeling, but I did hear of a contractor who is able to change the colors of the tile and porcelain fixtures with some kind of spray method. I would go that route, if feasible, and at least get up-to-date color.

Have you heard of this technique, and do you know anyone who does it?

A: I've seen the tiles done on those "renovation-on-the-cheap" shows, and I experimented with the technique on some extra tiles from a bathroom renovation of my own. They looked like painted tiles, the same as the ones "seen on TV."

Clean, sand, apply high-quality primer, sand, and paint (semigloss latex acrylic or oil-based). Don't paint tiles that get wet or that you walk on - which rules out the bathroom, I'd imagine, but might be OK for a backsplash in the kitchen.

Porcelain fixtures such as sinks and bathtubs have a better chance when done by a professional refinishing firm. If I were you, I'd have the fixtures refinished (make sure you get warranties - how long the work lasts can vary), and get new tile to go with it. Old tile sometimes hides older problems.

Have questions for Alan J. Heavens? E-mail him at or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.

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