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Professional finish will take time for baseboard heaters

QuestionMy husband and I own a 1904 Tudor, although it could be said more accurately that the house owns us. We are slowly trying to restore some of the stately grandeur that 100 years have stolen. The house has undergone several transformations, including a humiliating 1970s period in which the second floor was "remuddled" into a duplex apartment. Baseboard heaters were installed to allow separate utility billing. Those baseboards are a typical 1970s deep sand color, and, unfortunately, must remain in place for now.

We would like to paint those baseboard heaters to better blend with the wall color. Can this be done? If so, how do we begin? What type of preparation and paint do you recommend?

AnswerIt's too bad that a house of such grandeur has baseboard heaters—ouch! To briefly answer your question: yes, baseboard heaters can be painted. However, now that I've said that, you can't imagine how many baseboard heaters I have seen that were painted with ordinary interior house paint. Frankly, they were flat-out ugly, so if you plan to tackle this project, please take my recommendations seriously. A professional finish will take time, and each unit will need to be disconnected from the electrical and removed from the wall.

First turn off the breaker(s) or remove the fuse(s) that power each unit. Next, locate the front side panels that conceal the power source and remove both panels to expose the wiring. Disconnect the ground, white, and black wires and take care that the black and white wires don't touch. I also suggest that you use a voltage tester to check that the black and white wires are not hot.

Next remove the front faceplate to expose and remove the screws (hopefully, not nails) that hold the unit to the wall. Once the unit is free, return to the power source and look for a metal or plastic connector that connects the power source through the back of the unit. If it's metal, loosen the screws or remove the lock nut inside the unit. If it's plastic, remove the plastic wedge that was forced down into the connector and up against the wire. In either case, when you're done, remove the power source from the unit and attach wire nuts to the exposed white and black wires.

Lay the heater across a pair of sawhorses and remove the end caps, if they are removable. Now use Simple Green, a nontoxic biodegradable all-purpose cleaner, to clean all the metal pieces to be painted and make sure they are thoroughly dried. Working outside on a sunny non-windy day would be ideal. Sand any scratched areas using a rubber hand-held sanding block with 3M's 320-grit TRI-M-ITE (white) sandpaper, blending any ragged edges into the surface. Then prime this area with an aerosol automobile primer. You may have to apply a few coats, sanding between coats, to achieve a flat surface in the damaged area. For easier painting, hang smaller pieces on a clothesline using a thin wire or place them on an upside-down cardboard box. Baling wire works great for this type of project.

Even though the epoxy/polyester powder coat paint used originally on the heater's component pieces will accept most interior paint, I would spray the pieces with one of the following types of paint: appliance epoxy, heat-resistant (limited in color), lacquer (dries fast), automobile, or premium enamel to eliminate brush strokes. Before painting the main case, cover the heater element so no paint or overspray gets on the fins. Take care not to damage the fins. I recommend two finish coats, and I would lightly sand between coats to smooth out any imperfections.

Don't forget to paint the area inside the main case between the underside of the case and the top of the front panel. This area can be seen from a distance, so before you dismantle the unit, take note of this area as it will be helpful when the time comes time to paint it. After the unit has dried according to the paint manufacturer's specifications, reassemble the heater in the reverse order the unit was originally taken apart.

A word of caution before reassembling: it is important to recheck the power source with a voltage tester one more time before you handle the wires in case someone didn't turn the breaker(s) back on or reinstall the fuse(s) while you were painting the heater(s).

Good luck with your project and I hope your repainted heaters blend in nicely with your wall color scheme!

Copyright © 2004, 2006, & 2007 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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