This guide is about heating with hard coal, or Anthracite, in a stoker stove or boiler. Everyone wants to save money on heat, and coal is the way to do it if you can handle the extra work involved.
Anthracite is a hard coal that exists almost exclusively in Pennsylvania, or the NEPA coal region. It is mined from the surface in strip mines and underground in deep mines. Reading and Blaschak are some of the more well known coal companies that produce rice coal which most stokers use.
Bituminous coal is soft coal, I won't get into it here as it can't be used in most stokers and is generally unpleasant to use unless you are good at it.
One ton of coal costs about $200 on average, that equals 200 gallons of oil, 310 gallons of Propane, 1.7 tons of wood pellets, 1.4 cords of wood, 27,000 cubic feet of natural gas, or 8,200 kWh's of electricity. Corn, cherry pits, walnut hulls were omitted because I couldn't get any reliable data, they should be comparable to pellets. I'll let you do the math based on prices in your area.
Anthracite coal burns clean with no smoke or odor. It does produce DEADLY CARBON MONOXIDE just like any fossil-fuel when burned so you have to have a good chimney, but that chimney won't emit any visible smoke unlike a wood burner. Coal does makes dust. If you are careful and water the coal slightly before handling it the dust is minimal, but start shoveling dry coal like a locomotive fireman and there will definitely be black coal dust everywhere.
Coal is easy to light. Put a coal mouse or some kindling under the bed of coal, light it and turn on the air source. There are a million ways to get coal lit but it's fairly easy with rice coal and a good chimney draft.
Coal storage: coal can be stored anywhere, it won't go bad or get eaten by mice or get ruined by water. It is sold "bulk" and delivered by a dump truck or coal truck, or "bagged" and sold in sealed 40 0or 50 pound bags. Bagged coal is usually more expensive than bulk or loose coal.
Ashes. This is by far the only drawback of heating with coal worth considering. A 50 pound bag of coal will produce 5-10 pounds of ash, so the ash pan has to be emptied every day or at most two days during the heating season, once a week during the summer if used for how water only. If the ash pan gets overfull you have a dusty mess. The ash is a light brown/reddish color and has the texture of sand or a light gravel. Fly ash, the light fuzzy ash that floats around inside the stove needs to be cleaned out of the chimney periodically, more so in a direct vent application.
What is a stoker?
A coal "stoker" is a coal burning heater that runs automatically, all you have to do is fill a hopper and empty the ashes. There are a few types of stokers but they all work in essentially the same way. One method works where coal is fed onto a "flat grate" from the hopper where combustion air is forced through the coal. Timers, feed screws, and thermostats control how much coal and air get onto the grate and regulate the heat. Harmon, Keystoker, Leisure-Line, Alaska and Reading stoves work like this.
Another method uses a "underfeed retort" which is basically a steel pot where the coal is augured in from the bottom from an external coal bin or hopper. These are the older designed units but work just as good as the newer ones. The heat is still controlled by the combustion air and coal feed rate. EFM uses this design. There are other designs, Axeman-Anderson, AHS, and many others.
All stokers require electricity and won't work in a power outage unless you have a generator or other backup power source. Underfeed boilers will stay lit during a power outage by means of a manual crank to auger coal into the pot.
Coal stoves that don't require electricity are hand fired units. You will have to learn the skills of hand firing coal which definitely has a learning curve. The advantage is that they don't require any electricity and can also burn wood. The disadvantage is they require more attention unless you want the fire to go out, and they are less efficient than a stoker. They usually cost less than stokers as well. Hitzer makes gravity fed hand fired stoves.
EFM, AHS, A/A, KEYSTOKER, HARMON, ALASKA, HITZER, LEISURE LINE, these are all good companies. There are others for sure. U.S. Stove, Clayton, Vozelgang, and imported wood/coal/multifuel stoves and furnaces like you would find at the chain stores are not recommended for coal. They burn wood and pellets very well, and they can burn coal with the proper modifications, but I would go with a stove that was designed from the beginning to burn Anthracite coal from the people that know coal.
Stove, furnace, or boiler?
A stove is the easiest to install. You simply place the unit on a non combustible surface with the proper clearances, hook it up to a chimney, and the installation is basically complete. Most have a glass fire door so you can watch the flames. The stove will radiate heat and it might use a blower to circulate heat off the unit. Careful homeowners can "do it yourself" installing a stoker stove.
A furnace has a larger fan and is meant to be hooked to forced air ductwork, it is generally not as attractive as a stove and heavier, but will provide more BTU's of heat because they are usually larger units. They are generally installed in the basement. This is a borderline do-it-yourself installation, it can be done but you will probably need to consult with a pro to get it set up right.
A coal boiler is the ultimate in coal heat. Because they heat up water rather than air, hydronic or steam boilers are more efficient than a furnace or stove and can be easily zoned to different rooms, floors, or areas. One boiler can heat many apartments all with their own thermostats. Even when heat isn't called for, the water in the boiler is still hot and ready to heat your home. Boiler's are much heavier than stoves or furnaces and much more complicated to install. Boilers weigh around 800 pounds or more. They must be hooked to a water supply and require radiators, baseboard heaters, radiant tubes, or a heat exchanger to work. Circulator pumps, zone valves, and hydronic controls are all required for a boiler installation. Boilers can provide efficient domestic hot water eliminating your hot water tank, and with good insulation on the boiler shell it can be used all year. Unless you have considerable plumbing experience (or strong desire to learn a new trade) a boiler installation should be handled by a pro.
NEW OR USED: CHECK FOR RUST! an improperly taken care of coal burner that has been left to rust is no bargain. Grates that are burned through are another expensive problem. Gaskets, flue pipes, stoker gears, and hopper sheet metal can all be replaced fairly easily but a neglected stove where the grate has rusted solid is basically scrap metal. Anything can be fixed with enough time and money, I suggest paying a little extra for a well maintained unit. You can't go wrong with a new unit with a warranty if your budget allows it. It is a wise investment that will pay for itself quickly.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR USING COAL:
Availability: can you get a good supply of coal for a fair price?
Do you have a good chimney or will you require a direct vent like the Field Controls SWG Power venter?
Is someone home every day to empty the ash pan and fill the hopper? Ashes have to be dealt with pretty much every day during the winter, the good news is that because the ashes aren't black and sooty like wood ash they make for an excellent non-slip surface on icy driveways and sidewalks.
Do you have a place to store the coal?
Do you like to save money on heat?
Do you like your heating dollars to go to hard working families right here in the USA, or sent overseas to fund who-knows-what?
Coal heat is not for everyone. If you require a strictly "hands off" heating system due to a busy schedule or whatnot then just keep paying the gas bill. You aren't alone. If you are willing to learn about your new coal burner and take the time to fine tune and maintain it and can find 10 minutes a day to empty the ash pan and fill the hopper it will provide decades of affordable heat. Some coal boilers installed in the 40's are still producing heat just like the day were put in!
300 page books could be written on heating with coal but I tried to be as brief as possible. For more information just Google any of the keywords in this article or contact a stove dealer in your area and you will find a wealth of information. .For much more information on heating with coal just do an internet search for "anthracite coal forum nepa" If this guide was helpful please click the rating box below, thanks -Ed
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