Baseboard Heaters Vs Heat Pumps

What’s the difference between electric baseboard Heaters and electric Heat Pumps? Even though both use electricity they must work the same way? Nope.

“As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling” Energy Star Quote

Here is the breakdown:

Although the majority of residential heat pumps are electric (commercial units are usually hydronic aka use water), the main difference between heat pumps and baseboard heaters is simply technology. Heat pumps are far more efficient than the majority of heating (and cooling) sources out there. However application is key, so they are AN option but not primarily THE option all HVAC options considered.

For the current comparison (pardon the pun)… Let’s start with the basics…

Definition of Heat Pumps and Baseboard Heating:

Heat pumps are a ductless heat/cold unit (the majority are dual) also known as mini-splits or multi-splits – the inside part, often called a “head” is mounted inside, usually on a wall, there are ceiling and floor units, but the majority are wall mounted, that acts as both a source of heating and air conditioning (cooling/dehumidifying) all in the one unit. The outside portion is the compressor, it can sit on a deck, balcony or mounted to the side of the building, or in a garage where permissible or in some climates out in the elements (not recommended for places that get lower than -10°C).

The condenser can handle 2 heads typically, and some can handle up to 4 heads, and on different levels of the dwelling and/ or multiple rooms.

Baseboard heating in residential homes are thin rectangular mainly electric units (some are hydronic) almost always installed under windows (there are a few exceptions). They only produce heat and have one thermostat per unit installed into the drywall the size of a light switch with a dial to regulate temperature, thus if there are more units in a larger room, then more thermostats will need to be installed as well, and when the temperature needs to be changed manually each unit must be adjusted separately.

The technology difference between baseboard heaters and heat pumps:

Baseboard heaters use “resistance” technology. Heat pumps use what is essentially coined as “latent energy”.

How do Baseboard heaters work: the heating element in the unit converts 100% of the electricity to heat using joule heating. This means that the current passing through the element encounters resistance, which produces heat.

An analogy might be… if you are pushing a heavy rock up hill, you will get hot because the rock is heavy and the incline is great (resistance of the rock + hill … you are the “current’ in this scenario). Although a little oversimplified, it carries the gist of joule heating aka resistive heating.

Oddly a baseboard heater is more efficient at converting energy than natural gas or oil, however it is not necessarily cheaper; gas may be less efficient but it is generally less expensive in most places than hydro. The difference being of course, unless one is off the grid, in which case baseboard heating would qualify, but in that scenario heat pumps are far more efficient than baseboard heating and one gets the added benefit of air conditioning with a heat pump unit; whereas baseboards are just heat. If one wants air, a separate system/unit would need to be added.

How do heat pumps work: Heat pumps are not just heat but also air conditioning in most units. Heat pumps do not primarily make heat, but they attract and utilize the existing heat in an area and transport that heat to the area that needs it; they are more transporters of heat than makers of heat. either from the outside in… to make things warmer, or the inside out to make things cooler. It may sound odd, but nonetheless true… read on…

Heat pumps compress gas (often Freon but not always) which attracts heat… then that heat is funneled into the area of need or out of the area of need. To make them even more efficient, heat pump’s condensing technology is coupled with regulators, stepper compressors and highly regulated fans in the new and better quality versions. A heat pump only uses electricity for power, not to generate the heat.

Good quality ductless wall units combine technologies to make them twice to four times more efficient than their heat pump predecessors but also light years more efficient than baseboard heaters.

Baseboard Heaters Vs Heat PumpsIf it’s -10°C outside (aka cold outside) how could a heat pump possibly “find heat” in the ambient air temperature? Great question. Cold may be the absence of heat, but not the ultimate omittance of heat.  If there was NO heat in the “cold” snowy air it wouldn’t be -10°C it would be -273.15 degrees Celsius  0 Kelvin (minus 459.67 Fahrenheit), for example. So it’s not that there is “no heat” in the air, it is simply “less hot” than summer. It might be significantly less warm, but heat units are still present in the external air.

Having said that most heat pumps, if they are not in some kind of breathable shelter, like under a covered porch or in a garage (where permissible) then yes, after the -18°C mark, some have backup heating technology to help them operate at such a temperature, but many could ice up at that point.

NEW! Mitsubishi’s Hyper-Heating H2i uses an enhanced compressor system to operate at 100% efficiency even down to -25°C (-13°F)!  “You no longer need supplemental heat sources to maintain comfort or separate heating and cooling systems to provide heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. “ … a direct quote from their website.

Thus if one lives in a particularly chilly part of Canada, then one would want to have a backup heating source available so that interior pipes don’t freeze nor the inhabitants, should the temperature dip.

It is explained beautifully, simply yet seamlessly here by This Old House:

How does a heat pump make air conditioning? Instead of transferring the hot air from outside to the inside, it uses a reversing valve to transfer the hot air from inside to outside.

How are newer heat pumps and air conditioning more efficient than older style heat pumps and window air conditioners?

Good quality heat pump/air conditioners use stepping valves, motors/compressors and fans in tandem. Old style units were either ON or OFF to cycle the heat/air. Inverter style good quality new units use expansion valves that can open in 400 increment levels, compressors that have 150 different speeds and spin in addition ECM fans spin in concert with the expansion valve and the compressor simultaneously (like a dimmer switch) variable speeds, making heat pumps astoundingly efficient.

Side note: there are domestic water heaters (DWH) now, hybrid units that use heat pump technology to make something that was one of the biggest draws of energy in a home to be actually efficient bringing the operating cost down to approx $20 per month for a family of 4. “Water heaters are the second highest source of energy usage in the home.” Energy Star Quote.

Solar energy? Heat pumps are one of the most recommended heating and cooling sources to be used with solar energy. Just be sure to get a quality brand, as they are more efficient… lesser quality models break down and are not efficient enough for the system.

Other Points of Consideration:

  • Heat Pumps come with remote controls, therefore easier with any accessibility challenges, whereas baseboard heaters, each unit has a dial that must be adjusted manually with standard units (typically).
  • Heat Pumps can be used in tandem with other heating / cooling options, thus if one has a sunroom or attic that is particularly chilly/hot then that room can be adjusted separately than the ones in other zones
  • Zone heating for seniors or those who have temperature sensitivities – instead of cranking the heating or cooling in the whole dwelling, sometimes supplemental heating in just the main living area and the bedroom can offer savings and comfortability than elevating the entire home to a certain temperature. Could save a lot on energy, especially if the other sources are oil heating for example.
  • Baseboard heaters are hot to the touch when in use, or just after use – thus if there are children or pets this can be a vital concern.
  • Baseboards give off a dry heat that can irritate skin, eyes nose or throat.
  • Neither baseboard heaters nor heat pumps need any duct work. Heat pumps will need approx 2” access hose hole in an exterior wall for cables/pipe.
  • Dust/Particle sensitive – there is no “poof” with baseboard or heat pump units, such as there is with a typical forced air furnace (and if there is a poof, it’s time to have the duct work cleaned, and especially the cold air returns).
  • Baseboard heaters can be noisy, popping and clicking
  • New heat pump units are usually extremely quiet inside – there is a condenser outside but they run quiet as well for a quality unit.
  • Baseboard heaters often have a “burnt” smell after use.
  • Wall mounted ductless heat pumps are “air” source heat pumps; systems that transfer heat from the water or the ground are called geothermal heat pumps. There is a “ducted” heat pump version if needed, but most opt for the ductless wall, ceiling cassette or floor unit.
  • Heat pumps generally cut electricity useage by 30-40% or more over baseboard heaters (dept of energy – USA)
  • Heat pumps will need to be appropriately sized to your home – such that the most suitable system is installed to the space and layout of the property and achieving maximum energy savings.
  • Heat pumps can be as much as 200% to 300% efficient, supplying the same amount of heat for much less energy.
  • Heat pumps don’t require a specific proximity to a window (such as baseboard heaters do) in order to operate effectively.
  • COLD CLIMATES -> NEW heat pump systems by Mitsubishi (H2i) have YEAR ROUND capability even at -25°C it will operate at 100% efficiency, using the “hyper-heating inverter”. Quote from Mitsubishi’s website “Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating has introduced a significant advancement in heat pump technology, making our products an excellent solution for maintaining your home’s comfort, even in extreme cold climates.”

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