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Troubleshooting Baseboard Heaters

How to test a baseboard heater and its parts.

When a baseboard heater does not work there is only two choices, replace the whole thing or find and fix the broken part. Troubleshooting a baseboard heater can find that broken part and save money. Baseboard heaters efficiently operates on a simple electrical circuit. Electricity flows from the circuit breaker to a thermostat and from the thermostat to the baseboard heater. The baseboard heat's element is protected by a limit switch. Troubleshooting a broken electric baseboard heater can give a homeowner all the necessary information before replacing the entire unit.

The first place to look when troubleshooting an electric baseboard heater is its circuit breaker. The circuit breaker's action can pinpoint the baseboard heater's fault. Open the circuit breaker box's cover and identify the correct circuit breaker. Turn on the circuit breaker before turning the baseboard heater on. Watch the circuit breaker's action then ask yourself a few questions.

Does the circuit breaker stay on for a short period of time before tripping? A couple things could cause this. 1) Was the baseboard heater replaced recently? If so, then verify that the new baseboard heater is the same size, as measured in Watts, that the old one was. Larger heaters often require a thicker gauge wire and a circuit breaker with a higher amperage. Baseboard heaters up to 4000 watts should use 12 gauge wire and a 20 amp circuit breaker. Baseboard heaters over 4000 watts need its wire and circuit breaker upgraded to 10 gauge and 30 amp respectively. 2) Does the breaker start off cool to the touch then turn hot just before it trips? If so, then there is a loose wire connection somewhere in the circuit or the breaker's internal buss bar no longer makes solid contact. In this case the best solution is to tighten each wire connection and retest the circuit breaker. If the problem persists then replace the circuit breaker.

Does the circuit breaker trip immediately after turning the circuit breaker on but before turning the heater's thermostat on? If so, then there is an electrical short between the circuit breaker and the thermostat's internal switch. 1) Start at the circuit breaker and follow the wire to the baseboard heater's thermostat. Check the wire for burn marks, frayed areas or any other sign of damage. Pay special attention to all wire nails, the nails that hold the wire to the home's frame. 2) Pull the thermostat from the wall and look for burn marks on the housing and at the wire connections. If the thermostat has burn marks, then replace the thermostat. 3) Disconnect the wires that lead to the thermostat. Turn a multimeter to its continuity setting. Check each wire and the thermostat for a short with the multimeter. To do this, place a multimeter lead on the ground wire and then touch the other lead to each insulated wire. If the multimeter reads continuity between any wire pair, then you have found the short. Do this for each wire that enters the thermostat and the thermostat itself.

Does the circuit breaker stay on until the thermostat turns the heater on, then it trips immediately? If so then the baseboard heater has a short to ground in it. Open the baseboard heater's electrical compartment. 1) Visually check each connection for a burn mark or a spot where the wire's insulation has rubbed off. Replace this part. 2) Disconnect each electrical connection and use the multimeter to check for continuity between its wire connection, or its housing, to ground. The green ground screw provides an excellent place for the multimeter's ground lead to rest.

Does the circuit breaker stay on and the heater does not warm up? If so, then the problem is in either the thermostat, the heating element or the limit switch. Turn the circuit breaker off. Open the baseboard heater's electrical compartment. 1) Disconnect the wires from each electrical part. Test the continuity through each part. To do this, place a multimeter lead on each wire that enters a part and read the multimeter. Each electrical part has an input and an output wire. Some models use double-throw parts, which means that the part operates both legs of electricity. In this case both legs will need to be tested. The meter should read continuity. If not, then replace the part. In all but the most rare of cases this test will find the problem. 2) More advanced technicians can check the voltage drop across each electrical part when the circuit breaker is on. This should only be done by persons comfortable with and experienced in electrical circuits. Voltage should reach all parts of the circuit when the baseboard heater's circuit breaker and thermostat are turned on.

Baseboard heaters usually last for many years without any problems. When they do fail it is at the start of the cold season. Luckily temperatures usually are not severe at this time and there is plenty of time to repair or replace the baseboard heater.

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