Choosing a New Furnace
Photos: Keller & Keller
Richard Trethewey takes a reading of the efficiency of a furnace, the first step in determining whether it's time to replace it.
Q: Should I replace baseboard heaters that have gotten miserly with the heat?

— Charles Marshall, Easton, Md.

A: Richard Trethewey replies: I wouldn't replace them just yet. You can probably fix the problem yourself for a lot less than what it will cost to put in new baseboards.

A baseboard unit works by convection; cool air enters the bottom, gets heated by the copper tubing and aluminum fins—the heating element—then exits out the top as warm air. Anything that blocks or restricts airflow through the unit reduces its heating ability. Loose or poorly installed carpet is a common culprit. Sometimes the damper at the top of the baseboard has been accidentally colsed. But with older units like yours, it's often the accumulation of dust and dirt on the heating element that reduces heating output. After 30 years, there's no telling how many paper clips, coins, and balls of dust have ended p in there.

The loose carpeting and closed damper are easily fixed. To clean the fins, however, you'll need to take off the metal housing that covers the heating element. Pry the metal end caps off the housing, open the metal damper, and pop the front panel off its brackets. Now you can remove any debris you find and use a brush attachment to gently vacuum the element's fins. Once they're clean, use needle-nosed pliers to gently straighten any that are crooked or touching their neighbors, then snap the panel back on. I bet your heat will work as good as new.
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