Ready or Not #18: Coal

Every year, I ask Santa for coal, but every year he brings delicious cheese and beautiful gifts instead. I just don’t get it – what am I going to have to do to get some coal? I guess I’ll just have to buy it myself. As you can guess, coal doesn’t smell nearly as nice as wood when it burns, but it is easier to store, it is much less labor intensive to use (unless you are the one mining it), and it doesn’t have to cure like wood.

Actually, what I like to do is to burn both wood and coal. During the day we burn wood, but at night we like to put a couple of really nice BIG chunks of coal in the fire before going to bed. The big pieces of coal burn a lot slower than wood and it lasts all night. In the morning, our house is still warm and we generally have some nice coals left to start up our wood fire again.

It is important that you have a stove that is made tough enough to burn coal so that it won’t be ruined. The highest grade coal is called anthracite and it is very low in sulfur. You can still effectively burn a lower grade coal, but it will be higher in sulfur. Either way, there is sulfur involved and it will eventually cause corrosion to the smokestack and it can eat its way through the grate, or the bottom of the stove, if it isn’t made for burning coal. Fortunately, I have a stove that can burn either, but I do have to use the heavier grate if I’m going to use the coal exclusively.

As far as storing coal, it is much easier than storing wood. For one thing, insects don’t burrow into coal like they can with wood (and then come back to life when the wood warms up inside your house.) Also, coal can’t rot or deteriorate like wood….,but wood smells so good when it burns.

You can store coal in a pile out in the open, but I would suggest that you keep it covered because it just makes it easier to pack it up and bring inside the house without making too much of a mess. You can also bury it if you want. Just think about it, where do you get coal? Out of the ground of course. I have a friend that doesn’t use coal on a regular basis for heating, but their family wanted to have a year’s supply of alternative fuel. So, they buried a large amount (a ton or two) in their yard. So that they would not forget where it was when they needed it, they planted a lovely flower garden over it to mark the spot. Brilliant! Prepared and yet beautiful too!

Coal fires are a little trickier to start than wood fires, but I found a really good step-by-step set of instructions at: hearth.com/econtent/index.php/articles/coaltips. This is what they wrote:

“Coal fires are not as easy to start as wood fires and the ease of burning will vary with different types and makes of stoves. The burning of coal requires patience and a specific and regular procedure of loading, shaking, adjusting, etc. If you do not follow the right procedure the coal fire will go out. This can happen in a short period of time and once the extinction process has begun, it is almost impossible to reverse.

STARTING A COAL FIRE
1. Use paper and dry kindling to start the fire.
2. Add small pieces of hardwood when fire is burning hot. Keep the draft control fully open till a hot fire is established.
3. When a decent bed of red wood embers is built up, start adding coal–small amounts at a time. Keep the draft control open!!
4. Continue adding small amounts of coal until there is a 1” to 2” bed of burning coal. Don’t add too much coal at one time and allow sufficient time between each small loading for the coal in the stove to thoroughly ignite.
5. It is important at this point to fill the stove to the highest level possible. A deep bed of coal is critical for the proper function of all coal stoves. Since coal can be regulated better than wood, a deep bed does not mean that you can only run the stove hot – rather you can control the stove by setting the air control on your stove.
6. After all the coal has been ignited and is burning with a blue flame, then the draft control can be turned down. Serious damage can result if the stove is run wide open for extended periods of time. Make sure that the ash pan door is closed at all times.
CAUTION–DON’T ATTEMPT TO START COAL FIRES UNTIL THE TEMPERATURE OUTSIDE FALLS BELOW 55 DEGREES ON A 24 HOUR A DAY BASIS-YOUR CHIMNEY WILL NOT DEVELOP ENOUGH DRAFT UNLESS OUTSIDE TEMPERATURES ARE BELOW THIS.

ADDITIONAL HINTS ON STARTING
1. Some users have tried MATCHLIGHT CHARCOAL to light their coal stoves—also some brands of SOLID charcoal starter (royal oak, minute light) will do the job. This eliminates the mess of wood. Just spread the charcoal out until it barely covers the grate and put a small amount of coal on top don’t cover the charcoal completely!! Light the charcoal – OPEN AIR CONTROLS 100% and when the coal is burning with a blue flame add more coal as before. Never use liquid starters on a coal or woodstove….starters with large quantities of wax or softwood in them may not burn hot enough.
2. Always make sure that your chimney is drafting upward before you start your stove. Some chimneys have a tendency to reverse while not in use. In most cases the following procedure will start the chimney :
Place a small piece of newspaper as far up in your stove or chimney as possible and light it. When it burns and gets pulled up the chimney-then light the coal fire.
3. Never poke or stir the coal fire when starting or at any other time. Coal fires like to be left alone and many former wood burners tend to fool around with their coal fires, thereby putting them out!!!

RAKING AND SHAKING YOUR STOVE
Shaking should be done at least twice a day and as many as six times if the stove is being run at high outputs. Shake only with a hot stove. If the fire is very low and you must de-ash the grates follow the following procedure:
1. Open draft control and damper fully.
2. Shake or rake fire slightly to encourage air flow thru the fire.
3. Add more coal if needed.
When fire is burning well then shake thoroughly. Best results will occur if short choppy strokes are used rather than long even strokes. The amount of shaking or raking is critical. Too little or too much can extinguish a fire. The proper job has been done when red coals first start to drop through the grate. Always allow some ash to remain on the grate as this will extend their service life.

MAINTENANCE
Ashes should never be allowed to accumulate in the ash pit. This can impede the flow of combustion air into the fire. Excess ash in the pan can cause the fire to go out and also cause severe damage to your grates. Inspect the replaceable parts of your stove (glass, gasketing, grates, etc.) often to determine if they need to be replaced. Glass can be cleaned (when cool). If the glass is extra dirty, MR. MUSCLE brand oven cleaner will do the job. Coal does not produce creosote, so chimney fires are not a concern. It does, however, produce a fly ash which can clog elbows or heat exchangers. Inspect any area of your stove where you suspect this may have happened and vacuum if needed. Since coal residue contains sulfur, the stovepipe and chimney systems tend to deteriorate much faster than when burning wood. Be sure to check the pipe at least once every six months to determine if it has corroded. Replace if it shows signs of rusting through or if it can be penetrated with the point of a pocket knife.

SAFETY FIRST
Use caution when loading your stove. Always open the door or hatch slowly so as to allow oxygen to enter and burn any combustible gases that are present. Failure to do this could result in “mini explosions” (sudden ignition of unburned gases). With the exception of the start-up period, an ash door should never be left open. Serious damage from overheating can result. Coal stoves should only be used with chimneys that provide a strong and constant draft.
If you have followed the advice given in this pamphlet and your manual, then you probably have it licked. If any problems persist, follow these steps:

1. Make sure you are using low ash high-quality coal. Low heat output, large ash accumulation and difficulty of overnight burning are signs of bum coal. Try buying a bag or two at a different yard.
2. Chimney problem–if you suspect that your draft is too strong then a barometric or manual damper should be installed. If your draft is too weak, try the following: Chimney may not be warm enough. Try a hotter fire. Seal all pipe joints and leaks in the chimney system. Check outside clean-out doors and fireplace sealing plates.—increase height of chimney —line chimney with stainless steel pipe—install a draft increasing cap—make sure all heat exchangers and manifolds on your stove are clean–Fly ash accumulation in these areas can restrict your chimney.”

Lots of really good information. If you don’t know if your fireplace can burn coal, my suggestion would be to contact the manufacturer of your stove and ask them. You could probably Google the name and find it. If you have the model number I’m sure that they could send you the information you need. If you don’t have the model number, then take a picture of it and send it to them electronically to see if they can help you.

Get prepared to stay warm before it starts to get really cold – and get your water stored!

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