Radiators vs. Baseboards: A Complete Comparison


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Efficient and thorough heating is necessary, especially if you live in states like Maryland or New York. Radiators and baseboards are the most popular heating solutions available, but what are the benefits of picking one over the other?

The key differences between radiators and baseboards are the mode of heat transfer, the square footage of your property, and the overall cost-efficiency. Before you pick, consider the size/build of the space you want to heat up and the heating system’s overall cost-effectiveness.

This piece discusses how each heating system transfers heat, the comparative costs associated with set-up and operation, and both systems’ cost/energy efficiency. Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between radiators and baseboards.

Mode of Heat Transfer

Both radiators and baseboards use a combination of radiation and convection (even conduction, depending on the variant you pick. Heat dissipation from radiators happens mostly through radiation, while baseboards mostly use convection. 

Radiant Heat Transfer

Radiators don’t actually heat up the air around you. They transfer heat through radiation that warms up objects in your room, which warms up the air around it. Cast-iron radiators tap into a central furnace that burns fuel to heat up water.

Traditional hot water radiators generate heat by boiling up water and pumping it through a network of copper pipes. This hot water collects in cast-iron radiators inside your room, and the ridges disperse heat through radiation.

While conduction gets the warm air to the ridges, final dispersion happens through radiation.

Steam radiators essentially work on the same principle. Pressurized steam travels through the pipes. Although it does not require pumps, it can prove to be energy-inefficient over long-term usage. A lot of heat is lost in conduction because of the heat at which the system operates.

On the other hand, electric radiators heat up specialized heating elements and transfer heat in the form of radiation. 

Convection Heat Transfer 

Baseboards mostly use convection currents to directly heat the air, rather than the physical objects in your space. Convection uses mass movements of fluid particles as opposed to molecular vibrations of conduction and electromagnetic transfer of radiation. Hydronic baseboards are liquid-filled with either oil or water. This liquid is heated up by a metal-sheathed heating element, which in turn warms the air up. 

Types of Radiators

Conventional Radiators

Traditional radiator systems use either steam or hot water as their source of heat. Steam HVAC systems were once the most popular, but they’re now gradually being replaced by modern variants.

Standalone cast-iron radiators are commonly used in places where heat retention is crucial. While they are cumbersome to use, thermostats can be installed to give you better control over your room’s heat.

Pros

  • Steam radiators are cheaper to install and run.
  • Existing cast-iron radiators can be modified to fit modifications in the central heating system. 
  • They tend to retain heat for longer periods after the system/thermostat is shut off.
  • Cast-iron radiators can be used to dry bedding/clothes.
  • Cast-iron radiators are heavy and cannot be tipped over easily, reducing injuries from accidents. 

Cons

  • Damages in plumbing, rust, grime, and dust can prove to be costly long term.
  • And damage to the central furnace can affect heating across multiple spaces.
  • It takes longer for cast-iron radiators to heat up fully, which leads to inefficiency. 
  • Steam/cast-iron radiators can get noisy and hot to touch.

Electric Radiators

There are several models of electric radiators to pick from. The most popular ones include floorboard radiators, fan radiators, infrared radiators, and oil-based radiators.

Pros

  • Electric radiators are efficient in terms of energy and cost, compared to regular radiators. 
  • Programmable thermostats, cheaper upkeep, and longer system lifespan. 

Cons

  • Floorboard radiators require significant upfront capital to install.
  • Heat dissipation is quite efficient, which may require additional fans and heat sinks.
  • Their functioning can be disturbed by thick carpets/rugs or misplaced furniture.

Types of Baseboards

Convector Baseboards

Pros

  • Baseboard heaters can be placed under windows easier compared to bulky cast-iron radiators. 
  • Thermostats available on convector baseboards are easier to use and program.
  • They’re cheaper to buy and relatively easy to install by yourself. 
  • Perfect for homes without central air conditioning as individual units can be installed.
  • These systems have close to zero moving parts, which increases usage lifespan. 

Cons

  • Since they draw large amounts of electricity, they can be energy inefficient in larger/ open spaces.
  • Heat dissipates quickly, which can be a disadvantage if your space has hallways/corridors, etc.

Hydronic Baseboards

Pros

  • The heating elements in hydronic baseboards heat the water or oil instead of the air directly.
  • They tap into a central furnace just like conventional radiators, allowing both to be used together with modifications. 
  • Upfront costs are manageable if you want to install a permanent heating system.

Cons

  • Extremely expensive upfront cost (up to four times) compared to convector baseboards.
  • The usage lifespan might reduce due to annual corrosion/ calcium deposit maintenance. 

Cost & Energy Efficiency

Cost and energy efficiency boils down to the mode of heat transfer and your heated space’s size. In general, electric variants of radiators and baseboards tend to be more energy-efficient than hot water heaters.

Radiators 

Effective control of your room’s ventilation (or a thermostat) controls the mean radiant temperature. This means radiators (cast-iron) can retain heat inside small spaces for long periods. If you have only one radiator and multiple rooms, this can get problematic in the absence of an existing central heating system.

Cost efficiency mostly depends on whether you’re renting or buying your space. Floor radiators can offset this problem, but they’re expensive to install and maintain. For smaller rented spaces, it’s economical to use cast-iron radiators with thermostats. For larger office buildings and commercial projects, electrical systems are worth considering.

Baseboards

Baseboards, regardless of the type, are usually permanent fixtures in a household. They are long-term investments if you want to buy/lease a property. 

The costs associated with a baseboard system varies largely based on square footage. The panels aren’t cheap to install, and the additional devices can put a huge dent in your budget.

However, the long-term savings you incur from an electric system far outweigh the initial cost.

Electric baseboards are hardwired into your home’s electrical circuitry. You will need professional electricians to install larger systems.

Heating Space 

If you’re on the hunt for a new heating system, or you want to replace an old one, what’s the size, design, and build of your space?

Cost and energy efficiency comes down to how big your property is and how heat is transferred.

For example, most apartment buildings already have an existing heating system (depending on where you live.) Offices, mansions, and other large buildings require customizable heating systems with less upkeep.

Older commercial buildings and complexes typically have central heating systems. You can pick a combination of radiator/ baseboard heaters that are compatible with the existing system. 

In the case of a revamp, electric heating systems are more customizable and require minimal maintenance. They’re also more eco-friendly (depending on how electricity is generated where you live) and cheaper to run.

Final Thoughts 

The choice between installing radiators or baseboards comes down to the size of your space, how the device heats up the air, and the associated costs.

Generally, electric heaters are costlier to install and might require you to buy additional accessories. However, you can save a ton on daily costs once the system is up and running. 

Calculate your total costs in terms of installation, operation, and maintenance before picking between the two. 

Chris Hewitt

Chris is a Texas-based freelance writer who loves the outdoors and working in his garage. When he's not enjoying the Texas sun, he can be found tinkering with all sorts of things in his workshop.

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