How to Clean Baseboard Heaters

baseboards

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Overview
  • Working Time: 60 mins
  • Total Time: 60 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $20 to $30

Dust can an enormous problem in the home, especially in homes without a forced-air furnace system with an air filter. In homes that are heated by electric or hot water/steam baseboard heaters, dust can gather on the radiator fins inside the casing on the heaters, leading to reduced efficiency. This is a more common problem with older homes, which are often filled with gaps around baseboards, windows and doors, and pipes where dust can travel freely through the home.

Two Types of Baseboard Heaters

There are two quite different styles of baseboard heat found in homes. Some types produce heat by electrical current flowing through metal fins running through the length of the heater, while others are heated by copper pipes carrying hot water or steam that heat up the metal fins. Heat radiates into the room through the convection currents caused by hot air rising and cold air sinking. Though you can't see it, when the heaters are operating, a current of air is constantly circulating, with cold air at floor level being drawn through the bottom of the heater, past the radiating fins, and out the top of the heater casing.

When dust clogs the fins of the heater, they no longer can radiate heat efficiency. And with electric heaters, this can become an issue of safety, since heat that doesn't radiate away may cause damage to the heater over time.

The solution is to clean these heaters once a year or so, and to seal the various cracks where dust can travel.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Work gloves

Materials

  • Rust remover (if needed)
  • Microfibercloth
  • Heat-resistant spray foam insulation.
  • High-heat silicone sealant.
  • Aluminum tape

Instructions

  1. Remove the Heater Cover

    Begin by shutting off the power or hot water to the baseboard heater. This can often be done simply by turning the thermostat to a very low setting. Electric baseboard heaters can also be shut off by switching off the circuit breaker that controls them. Hot water/steam radiators usually have a water valve that can be shut off to stop the flow of heat. The pipes and fins inside the radiator can get very hot, so make sure the heater has cooled down before you proceed.

    Remove the faceplate from the heater. This usually involves just pulling the cover upward and lifting it off the mounting groove in which it fits.

  2. Clean the Fins

    Using your vacuum's crevice tool or dusting brush attachment, vacuum the inside of the unit, taking care not to bend any of the metal fins. Take your time cleaning between the fins, as that is what will make the unit run more efficiently.

    If you accidentally bend any fins, you can gently straighten them back out with needle-nose pliers. And if you spot any rust on the metal, apply a little rust remover. Finally, wipe any remaining dirt by hand with a slightly damp microfiber cloth, and don't forget to clean the heater cover before replacing it.

    Caution

    Be careful while working around the heater's metal fins. They are sharp and can cut you. It's a good idea to wear work gloves while cleaning a baseboard heater.

    Dirty baseboard heater
    Deirdre Sullivan
  3. Seal Pipe Gaps

    Gaps around hot water/steam pipe can allow dirt and dust to sneak into your heater. One common way to fill large gaps is with heat-resistant spray foam insulation. You can find this expanding product at most home improvement stores.

    Fill smaller openings using a high-heat silicone sealant. To avoid shrinking and warping, apply the sealant when the unit is cool. It's also a good idea to wear gloves whenever you're working with these products.

    radiator pipes in wall
    Deirdre Sullivan
  4. Seal Baseboard Gaps

    Sealing gaps along the baseboard molding under each heater with aluminum foil tape as an extra dust-busting precaution. When applying, it's easiest to work with small pieces of tape. Place each piece as far back as you can, so it won't be visible once you replace the heater cover. You also can stuff the tape into small gaps. You can easily remove the tape if it becomes necessary.

    Baseboard sealed with metal tape
    Deirdre Sullivan
  5. Ensure Efficient Operation

    Most people aim to clean their baseboard heaters at least twice a year—once before they turn on the heat for the colder months and again when the weather gets warm. But if your home gets especially dusty or if you have pets whose fur and dander can get trapped in the heaters, consider cleaning them more frequently. Clean heaters use less energy, so keeping up on their maintenance will almost certainly save you some money.

    In addition, keep the area around a baseboard heater clean, as any dust and dirt there can be drawn into the unit on air currents. Make sure the unit circulates air efficiently by leaving space between it and any furniture, curtains, or other nearby items. Never allow the electrical cords on lamps and other appliances to dangle over heaters, as the heat may damage the cords.

    Close-up of baseboard heater
    Frank Bean / Getty Images