What's up with these metal baseboards?
February 27, 2015 12:14 PM   Subscribe

We just bought a new house that was custom-built in the 50s and has some unusual features. Many of the walls have metal baseboards. They're 5.25 inches tall, and you can remove them by unscrewing them, revealing a metal panel the same size as the baseboard, which also comes off, showing the inside of the wall. What is the purpose of these baseboards? Pics inside!

(See pics here, here , here and here to get a sense of what they look like and what's behind them, though I didn't get a good shot of the metal panel.)

Neither our realtor, nor our home inspector, nor the contractor we just spoke to has ever seen this before. Any knowledge or educated guesses are welcome! (Please, no comments about how we should have figured this out before buying the house!)

Possibly pertinent information: the house is on a concrete slab with no basement or crawl space. There is a plastic rectangle labeled "Echols" attached to one of the metal panels that our contractor thinks might be related to termite treatment, but if you have information about that, that would be great, too. (We also think there's rat poop in the pictures... does that seem right?)

Thank you!
posted by cider to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
Some possibilities:

If there is under floor or in floor radiant heating these may be some access panels.

There was a flood and they cut away the bottom X inches of the plasterboard and used the metal as a rot-proof baseboard.

Also that is rodent poo.

Also that window is too close to the floor and by code should have shatter proof glass.
posted by Gungho at 12:26 PM on February 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Maybe this company would know something about them.

Edited to add: I don't mean to imply that any of their current products are similar, but you might contact the company and see if they were around in that time period and if the "Echol" plate is from one of their products.
posted by yohko at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2015

cheap coverup for where the electric baseboard heaters used to be?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:33 PM on February 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

I don't know and maybe you should have asked before buying, but why can't you ask now? Call the previous owner. They have nothing to hide. If they know, they will tell you. Or call the seller's agent and ask her to ask them.
posted by 724A at 12:39 PM on February 27, 2015

Thanks everyone! We're asking the seller, but we're not confident they'll know (they only lived there for a few years). I just called the company that yohko linked, but they said that they didn't install it (they're not in our state). We don't THINK it's a coverup for old baseboard heating -- though that was my first guess, too -- as some baseboard heating remains and it is separate from these baseboards.

There is radiant heating under the kitchen floor, apparently, but these baseboards appear in pretty much every room throughout the house.
posted by cider at 12:43 PM on February 27, 2015

Looks to me like an atypical baseboard radiator. Maybe something like these. Probably disconnected or replaced at some point and just left in place to avoid the work of putting in new wooden baseboard.

Also, seconding that you definitely have or had a rodent problem there. Bring that up with the seller for sure.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:58 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if it's for something that moves around the floor but would damage the walls if it hit them, like a 1960's Roobma?
posted by Solomon at 2:02 PM on February 27, 2015

I don't know why the baseboards are metal, though if I had the money I don't see why that'd be a bad idea in terms of durability.

The drywall doesn't go to the floor, though, in case of minor flooding. Maybe it was a problem at one time, or just a precaution. I see it behind baseboards to varying degrees in Texas all the time.
posted by cmoj at 2:07 PM on February 27, 2015

This is not a complete answer but a lead for you. In the 50s aluminum was pushed as a construction material.

I don't have time to look further but here's the start for you:
posted by littlewater at 2:50 PM on February 27, 2015

I've seen metal baseboards in some older public housing projects we've designed renovations for. They were at one time a thing. (Recall the 40's/50s kitchen cabinets made out of sheet steel?) I might guess that you have or had plaster walls rather than gypsum board, the bottom layer of baseboard would serve as a screed for finishing the plaster.
I also noticed that Echols makes rat and termite control products. Maybe someone took off the baseboard and tossed some bait in there after hearing rats in the walls?
posted by rudd135 at 7:00 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

It wouldn't surprise me if one of the prior owners was a sheet metal worker or worked somewhere where the product was sold and decided to use it in their house. It feels like an industrial or commercial product.

You should be able to replace it with wood baseboard moulding no problem.
posted by amanda at 8:12 PM on February 27, 2015

Are the metal baseboards only on exterior walls? That may provide a clue.
posted by klarck at 6:37 AM on February 28, 2015

So... it turns out that these baseboards are where the heat comes out. (I feel somewhat embarrassed to post this, but the recent Metatalk thread about posting updates made me feel like I should give you guys a response.) This had honestly not occurred to me, as they don't get hot to the touch, there are no pipes or coils running through them, and none of the handy types who've been to our house has ever seen a heating system like this before -- but when we asked the sellers, that's what they said, and if you unscrew the metal, turn up the heat, and feel the space behind it, it's clear. It seems to work well enough, so we'll just leave it alone. Thanks for all of your guesses!
posted by cider at 6:41 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

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