How to Use Coal for Home Heating: Advantages and Disadvantages

I moved into a house with a coal furnace in the middle of last winter. I had never worked with coal before and would like to share what I have learned about using coal for home heating.

Considering the soaring price of fuel oil, coal can be a cheaper alternative. That is if you live somewhere near a coal producing area. Coal is heavy and must be transported by truck. That can add significantly to the cost. A rough comparison is that a ton of coal equals 100 gallons of fuel oil. If you use 500 gallons of heating oil a season, then you will need about 5 tons of coal. So the oil is going to cost a minimum of $400 for 100 gallons and coal sells for $100 to $300 a ton depending on where you are and what kind of coal it it.

If you live near eastern Pennsylvania, you almost have to consider at least a small coal burner. That’s because you can get the best coal, anthracite, at a reasonable price. If you have never worked with anthracite, let me tell you; it is the greatest. Anthracite coal burns clean and hot with little odor. I like to compare it to the charcoal that you would use in your outdoor grill. It burns the same way yet is even cleaner to handle because it is so hard. Many stores now sell 40 pound bags of anthracite for five to seven dollars. These are easy to work with and would be fine for a small coal burning stove.

I live near Pittsburgh and anthracite prices approach $300 a ton. So I usually settle for bituminous coal which runs around $100 a ton. The trouble with bituminous and the other “soft” coals is that they are not very “green”. They don’t burn nearly as clean as anthracite. They have a high sulfur content.

I have to justify this pollution problem to myself by noting that I can see the smokestacks of two power plants from my front field. Both of them are burning train loads of soft coal every day. So how much is little old me adding to the pollution? Hopefully not too much. Besides that, I’m living on the edge of poverty here and I got to do what I got to do to keep my family warm.

The best way to burn coal is to not let it go out. I use a small oil furnace and electric space heaters for heating until it gets cold enough to fire up the coal furnace. A wood fire or even a small bag of charcoal can be used to start the coal burning. Then it’s just a matter of adding more coal a couple times a day to keep the fire going. Restarting the fire is a pain.

Modern coal furnaces have stokers that automatically keep adding coal for you. I have the old kind. Coal warms me four times. Once when I move it into the basement. Again when I shovel it into the furnace. A third time when it finally burns. Once more when I have to shovel out the ashes. Oh well, it’s not like I don’t need the exercise. Coal does burn hotter and therefor cleaner than wood. So you don’t have to clean out the chimney as often.

If I had access to natural gas, I would use that for heating. Maybe with a small wood and coal burner on the side. If I lived in anthracite coal country, I would definitely get one of the new automatic coal furnaces. As it is I’m stuck with what I got. I count my blessings since the soft coal is a lot cheaper than fuel oil.

These are the things you have to think about when considering your options for home heating. I’m sure that the days of cheap fuel oil are over. Personally I think we should all move south. Why are we living up here where it’s cold anyway?

A good place to get all of all of your coal questions answered is the Coal Forum at :

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