What You Need To Know Before Buying a High-Efficiency Coal Stove

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High-efficiency coal stoves for home use are beginning to appear on the market again after an absence of nearly 100 years. During the 19th century, coal burning stoves and furnaces were very, very common. Many older homes still have coal chutes or small iron doors in the foundation that open to a basement room where coal was stored for home heating.

Coal as a home heating fuel fell off dramatically over the course of the 20th century due to pollution concerns. When coal is burned it produces sulfur and sulfuric acid (the cause of acid rain) as byproducts. These two toxins are released into the atmosphere as smoke and ash.

The harder the coal, the lower the toxic emissions when the coal is burned. However, all coal produces some toxic byproducts when burned. Today’s high efficiency coal stoves produce much, much less pollution than 19th century models and are designed to get the most heat out of the smallest amount of coal.

How can a homeowner decide if a high efficiency coal stove is the right choice?

In general, coal can be a reasonable choice in areas where wood is scarce or when used as a backup system in locations where coal is cheap and plentiful. Before deciding on a high-efficiency coal-burning stove for home use, here are some basic facts about coal to keep in mind:

  • Anthracite or ‘hard coal’ burns very cleanly but is hard to ignite and harder to keep burning. A specialized high-efficiency coal stove designed to burn only anthracite coal is needed to use this fuel effectively.
  • Bituminous or ‘soft’ coal, canned coal, and peat all burn about as easily as wood but they also produce the maximum amount of pollutants–even more pollutants than wood smoke.
  • All types of coal burn much hotter than wood, so burning coal in a wood stove will harm the wood stove over time. Many wood stoves will burn soft coal, but this is not a safe or environmentally friendly practice.
  • Coal produces 7 to 10 times the ash of wood. If you dislike cleaning ash out of your high-efficiency wood stove, your high-efficiency coal stove will be even more labor intensive, so keep this fact in mind when shopping.
  • Even the best grade of coal produces ‘clinkers’—hard bits of unburnable byproduct that have to be continuously removed from the firebox to keep the coal-burning stove from going out.
  • The most efficient coal-burning stoves are about as efficient as the best wood-burning stoves. However, burning coal efficiently requires a narrower, smaller firebox so mixing fuels (wood and coal, or wood pellets and coal) is not a good option, though some people do this anyway. On the other hand, many pellets stoves are designed for multiple fuels: pellets, corn, fruit pits.
  • The cost of using a high-efficiency coal stove at home depends in large part on the cost of coal in your region.

Many homeowners began to turn their attention back to coal-burning stoves during the winter of 2008 when the price of oil reached record highs, and thousands of people who had never considered alternative home heating products rushed out to buy wood-burning stoves or wood pellet stoves only to discover every dealer in town was sold out.

In some areas, supplies of wood and wood pellets became scarce, and the rumor that coal was a more viable option took hold and coal stoves reappeared on the home market.

In actual fact, wood is a renewable resource but coal is a fossil fuel with finite reserves. Shortages of wood and wood pellets were confined to that specific situation and the rapid surge in demand and have since been alleviated.

On the other hand, once the coal in the world is gone, it is gone. Wood, especially wood pellets, can be produced indefinitely, especially if forests and wood byproducts are stewarded effectively and responsibly.

Depending on how much coal is used to transition to away from fossil fuels to renewable fuels in the coming decade, coal could become scarce in as little as 50 years. That is definitely something to keep in mind when choosing a stove, especially since pellet manufacturers are learning to make combustible fuel from sawgrass and other plants that before recently seemed to have no useful purpose.

A high-efficiency coal stove might still be a good idea as a home backup, especially in areas where coal is plentiful and wood is scarce. Look at all the options for home stoves before deciding so that once you do make your purchase, you can be confident that it was truly the right one for you and your family.

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