While remodeling our kitchen several years ago we purchased an antique coal/wood kitchen stove. This stove was a replacement for a wood-only cook stove that had seen better days. With the economy crumbling and living in New Hampshire where winters can be long and harsh we thought it would be a good idea to have an alternative to our all-electric kitchen. Power outages are relatively common here as well. Several years ago we lost our power for 8 days due to an ice storm.
We have lived in our current home for 33 years. It is a log home several miles outside of a small city of approximately 25,000 people. For the most part we have burned wood and home heating oil for heat. My only previous experience with coal came 35 plus years ago when we lived in town in an 80 plus year old cape with little insulation. My father-in-law was an experienced coal-burner and set us up with a small coal stove in the cellar.
Our original cook stove was given to us by a friend who found it in the barn of a house he had purchased. The stove was in sad shape, but the price was right; free, just take it away. After having it sandblasted and reassembled it sat in our kitchen for 30 years. We only used it when the power went out or when the temperature got below zero for a couple of days. Other than that, it was only lit on Christmas and Thanksgiving when I would cook a turkey or prime rib in the oven as a special treat.
Our original plan during the kitchen remodeling was to get the old stove restored. After searching on-line I contacted a father and son team in southern New England and brought the stove to them for an inspection. It was in worse shape than we suspected, so a replacement was in order. Replacing the stove opened up options we would have not had if we had stuck with the old stove. I had not given coal any thought for many years. When we walked into the stove shop they had a coal fired base heater running…it was fantastic!
After wandering around the stove “junk yard” for several hours we settled on a coal/wood burning model from the 1920s. This “new” stove had several options our old stove did not; a warming oven and a compartment under the oven for storing pots and pans. It was also narrower in length than our original which helped the overall design of the new kitchen.
We got the stove up and running during January of 2010. There is a “learning curve” required to burning coal. After getting the hang of it, you can light your fire in October and shut the stove down in April if you want. I shut ours down every couple of weeks so I can clean out the fire box, ash pit, and the area around the stove so the ashes don’t build up. Ash build-up around the oven makes the heat transfer to the oven less efficient. Unlike wood that burns up rather quickly, coal will burn constantly as long as you are available to shake down the grates and restock the fire box several times a day. I have also found that the coal burns at a more consistent temperature without the “highs and lows” you get with wood.
The first season I purchased my coal locally through the last remaining coal dealer in the region as well as one of the local hardware stores that happened to have a supply. I chose to buy bagged coal for convenience and ease of handling it. Even at 61 years old I can handle the bags without much trouble.
Depending on your area coal may or may not be readily available in bulk. Bulk deliveries require a specially designed truck capable of lifting the bed and dumping the coal through a chute into a bin, usually located in the cellar. In most areas bagged coal should be fairly easy to find. Coal is available in several sizes. Our stove uses “nut” coal; others may require “pea” or “stove” coal. Some experimentation may be in order to find the optimal combination for your stove. For me bags are easier, no coal bin, less mess and unlike cordwood, it can be stored just about anywhere. Bags are either 40 or 50 pounds each depending on the supplier.
This year I got together with three other people and arranged for a tractor-trailer delivery of bags from Pennsylvania. The truckload consisted of 22.5 tons of coal in bags on 18 pallets. I borrowed a skid steer with forks from a friend to unload the truck. You could unload it with a tractor or by hand. But I would plan on getting some younger, strong backs to help. In the end I kept 10 tons for myself. The savings by buying in bulk was almost $170 per ton over purchasing the coal locally! The cost per ton, delivered, was $270. 10 tons will last several years heating my house and shop which also has a coal fired boiler.
According to a chart I picked up at the local plumbing and heating supply store coal at $270 per ton has the equivalent BTUs of oil at around $1.70 per gallon, propane at $1.10 per gallon, wood pellets at $190 per ton and [hardwood] cordwood at $200 per cord.
I recently filled my oil tank with #2 fuel oil at $3.499 per gallon. Last week I bought propane for our gas cook top at $3.53 per gallon Earlier this fall I bought some cordwood as well; 16” lengths were $180.00 per cord and 10” lengths (for the cook stove in the early fall and late spring) was $200.00 delivered. Makes the coal look like a pretty good value to me considering how much easier it is to deal with. Keep in mind, the closer you live to the source of the coal the cheaper it will be, we had about $1100.00 in transportation costs with our 22.5 ton load and it was still a “deal”.
Once I start the stove in the kitchen in the fall we do the vast majority of our cooking on and in it for the rest of the season. In fact it’s rare for us to start the electric oven or our propane cook top in the winter. Once you master the “art” of burning coal there is very little work involved.
When I get up in the morning I open the damper on the smoke pipe and open the air intake under the grates. This causes the fire to burn hotter. While I am waiting for the fire to pick up I put my percolator and water for my oatmeal on the cook top. After a half hour or so I toss on a shovel or two of fresh coal. It takes a few minutes for the new coal to take off. When it is going good I shake down the grates letting the ashes fall into the ash pan in the bottom of the stove. If we are not going to cook anything until supper time or the outside temperature is moderate I will shut the pipe damper and leave the air intake about 1/4” open. On our stove this equates to about a 200°-250° oven, just right to keep the kitchen area warm during the day. Every couple of days I empty the ash pan out back. That’s it. (Be aware that every stove is a little different; every chimney draws a little different so you need to adjust you technique to your situation.)
When I get home at 5:00 p.m. I repeat the process from the morning and normally cook supper on the cook top or in the oven as I feed/shake down the fire. I repeat the process at bedtime. Typically I put between 25-30 pounds of coal through the stove daily.
Like just about everything in this life there are pluses and minuses to burning coal. Nothing is as easy as walking over to the wall and turning up the thermostat on your oil or gas fired furnace…but we’re talking about alternatives here.
Coal is not for everyone. If you are considering an alternative to your oil/electric/gas heat, give coal a look. In my opinion there are several distinct advantages to coal. The BTU content of coal is superior to most other fuels per dollar spent, it is more convenient to store than wood, either in bulk or bags, it will not rot like wood (it’s already millions of years old) so you can buy years ahead and store it without fear of losing you investment. It takes up much less space than the equivalent amount of wood or pellets. As I get older I find it is easier to deal with a bucket or two of coal than the amount of cord wood that it takes to provide the same amount of heat. From a safety standpoint coal does not produce creosote, so chimney fires are unlikely. Stoves designed to burn coal will also burn wood; wood stoves can not burn coal without the proper grates.
On the negative side: Coal is harder to obtain than wood, and unlike wood you can not mine it yourself [unless you are very fortunate to have a surface coal seam on your land]. Burning coal is dusty no matter what the hard-core proponents tell you. You will be vacuuming and dusting more often. I have not heard of a use for the ashes other than as fill, and as a traction compound under your tires if you get stuck in snow or on ice. If anyone else has any other uses for the ashes I’d like to hear about it.
A side note that might matter in a SHTF situation is that coal burns without any visible smoke. Looking at my chimney you can see heat “waves”, but no smoke. Coal does have a distinct odor but in my experience wood smoke is more of a problem from an OPSEC perspective. My closest neighbor is 1/8th mile away; I know when he has his wood stove running, I have been at his house and there is no indication that anything is burning at my location. Being able to cook and heat in a grid-down situation without attracting attention could be a real asset. Another advantage to coal when/if the SHTF is the ability to store large quantities out of sight. It can be left outside, in a cellar, or even buried to be dug up years later…try that with cordwood. It also never goes bad…try that with fuel oil, kerosene or gasoline.
If you are planning for a SHTF or a grid-down scenario I would look for an older stove that was designed/built in the late 1800s to early 1900s when coal burning was prevalent. These stoves were state of the art at the time, burn relatively cleanly, are simple to operate, and require no electricity to run. Vintage (and new) cook stoves are available with options including warming ovens, cabinet models with storage underneath the oven, left or right side fire boxes, fire box extenders for burning longer pieces of wood, water tanks, and water heating coils. Many times the original users of these stoves also got their domestic hot water from them as well. There are also coal fired stoves used for heating only, these can be used in a living area or in the cellar to provide heat throughout the living space. I am also experimenting with a small coal boiler that I have attached to my oil fired boiler for our radiant heat and domestic hot water. I will report back as I make progress on that project as well.