Central Heat with Coal
Hard coal (anthracite) can be an economical fuel and is in ready supply within a couple hundred miles of the Pennsylvania Coal fields. For some reading on space heating coal stoves, see this article. Check out our Fuel Comparison Calculator to compare the cost of Anthracite coal to other home heating options.
Coal is well suited to central heat because of the long burn times, clean burn characteristics and the ability to easily burn at a range of outputs. As with other central heating equipment, coal units are available for Hot Water (boiler) and Hot Air (furnaces). Note that a boiler can be tied into a hot air system using a fan coil, but a furnace cannot be tied into a boiler system.
Types of Systems
Coal central heaters are available in hand-fed or stoker models.
A hand fed (also called batch fed) unit is similar to a freestanding coal stove, where the operator loads the coal into the unit using a shovel or coal bucket. The coal burns in one large mass - usually using the natural draft of the chimney, and the heat is exchanged into your existing distribution system. Hand fed models will usually use “nut” coal or larger. These larger sizes allow for air to easily come up through the large batch of coal. A typical mid-size hand fed unit will hold 70 pounds of coal, and require approx 2 feedings every 24 hours (12 hour burn time).
A Coal Stoker is a automatic system, using a screw auger to feed very small coal (rice size) into a burn pot. The stoker can be fed from a large bin holding many tons of coal. Most stokers on the market today are boilers (water based), although a few companies (EFM) produce hot air models.
Shopping for a Coal Central System
Make certain that the systems you compare are designed for hard coal (anthracite). Many hand-fed systems make claims of being fit for coal, yet have not been extensively tested and proven. Look for a unit with a deep coal bed - hard coal burns best in a deep vertical fashion. The unit should also have a large ash pan since coal is approx. 10% ash. Another telltale sign of a unit designed for coal is that most of the combustion air must enter underneath the grate.
When it comes to stokers, experience is key. Look for a manufacturer who has been in business for decades and is located in or near the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Firms like EFM and Keystoker have been selling certain models for over 50 years - some much longer! This assures you a rock-solid product and parts availability.
Do not buy a coal central heater based on manufacturer or dealer information alone. Visit some online web forums, including the Hearth.com forum and the Anthracite Forums and get the REAL scoop from experienced users of these systems.
Lastly, look for installers and dealers who are familiar with solid fuel heat. A properly installed and serviced system will last for decades and provide virtually 100% of household heat using a locally available fuel.
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