Exploiting Coal

Discussion in 'Off Grid Living' started by shaman, Jan 2, 2016.

  1. shaman

    shaman Monkey++

    I'll be 58 in a matter of a few months. My retirement plans are on track. I am planning to move to the 200 acre farm and add on to the old farm house. That's where KYHillChick and I plan on living until they have to drag us out. Right now I can heat the whole place with a wood stove. However, the new addition will be basically a big insulated 2-story pole barn finished on the inside. It will be harder to keep heated. Winter in this part of the Greater Ohio Valley are just a tad milder than Cincinnati. Cincinnati gets snow. We get ice.

    The place is perfect for what we want except for a couple of snags. One is the cost of electricity. November cost me $90 this year for 1 full week of occupancy and the weekends. Last year it topped $140, because we had bitter cold. That was for lights, cooking, and supplemental heat in the bedrooms using oil-filled heaters. The latter is more for convenience, since we are trying to maximize our hunting. It's a small house, and if I was trying to pay attention I could run the wood stove more. I just mention this because the juice is so high out there, I can't figure on electric heat in the long run.

    I had always just planned on running a combination of geo-thermal and wood. There is plenty of standing oak and such on the property. However, as I got to thinking about it, I realized:

    1) I ain't getting younger. Eventually running a chainsaw every year is not going to be practical.
    2) Wood is cheap as long as you're investing your own labor.
    3) The farm is just a short drive from coal country.
    4) When KYHillChick and I get older, scooping a shovel of coal is probably going to be easier than schlepping logs.

    Pursuant to that, I started to acquaint myself with coal. KYHillChick was raised with it. My only exposure was Grandpa. He had a rathskeller in the basement. It was cold and a little damp, but when he would get a coal fire going in the fireplace, the room would get toasty in a hurry.

    I bought a bag of nut coal from Tractor Supply and experimented in my Vogelzang boxwood stove during deer season. It was a miserable failure. I built a nice hot wood fire, and then place a grate on top of the wood and filled it with coal from the top. The coal lit on the second try, but I never got a really thorough burn. I had clunkers the next morning. This is going to take a lot more experimentation if it is going to work.

    I figure coal and wood together would be a good idea, but making it work is another matter. Acquisition of the coal will be simple. I'm already planning on a dump trailer as part of the equipment for the farm. I have found a coal supplier less than an hour away that will sell bulk coal at $150/ ton. I will just make it such that the coal pile will be in a protected spot close to the house. I'm already pondering 2 fireplaces for the main room. One will be fully within the house and be provide a huge thermal mass. The other will be a bit more traditional. I plan on having a forced air geothermal heat pump in the basement that could run with a supplemental wood/coal furnace. I am also planning a sleeping wing that will include a bunkhouse for the grandkids. It will double as an efficiency apartment with the capacity to run on a generator in the event of really bad weather and a loss of power.

    All this is predicated on getting an understanding of how to exploit coal. I've got all kind of questions. For instance

    1) Gramps just burned coal on a wood grate in a wood burning fireplace, and it threw out tremendous heat. If I had an energy efficient fireplace insert or enclosures could I do the same thing?
    2) Would it make more sense to keep a coal stove out in the room, vented through the fireplace and bring it online as needed? What about one in the basement that sent heat up through the floor?
    3) What am I missing? Coal needs a draw from underneath. It needs a tinderwood fire to get it started. You feed it from the top and shake every so often get the ash to fall out. Every so often you shut everything down, clean it all out and start over.

    Bottom line: I'd prefer to enter the autumn of my life like this:


    Than like this:

  2. runswithdogs

    runswithdogs Monkey+++

    We burn coal here (No central heating in our house) We have a multi fuel stove that can burn coal, peat & wood.
    Make sure any stove you have is rated for burning Coal.
    Never had any issue getting it going, you can start a small wood fire & add coal or cheat & use a couple firelighters (put down some coal, firelighters on top & light, once they are going, add coal on top to cover & open up fire... give 10minutes or so to get going & then close down. Then all you need to do is add a bit of coal when it starts burning down. I top up at night & usually still going in the morning.

    You wouldn't want to open up the fire for extended period of time cause it will get HOT & could crack your fire bricks/damage your stove if done to often

    If you get a lot of slag in with the coal (fine bits/coaldust) you can use it to damp the fire at night.. just pack some over/cover a med fire base & shut down the fire tight.. it will keep lit but wont burn down much & save coal. Just open up in the morning to get going again.
    & Get a good coal bucket. Bleeping pain to be carting coal in in a fiddly bucket.
  3. TXKajun

    TXKajun Monkey+++

    Check your attic insulation. Of all the stuff we did to try and bring down our heating/coolingg costs, adding about 3' of blown in insulation gave us the best results.

    techsar, Tully Mars and UncleMorgan like this.
  4. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Having had a Vogelzang boxwood woodstove, the first thing I would suggest is to get rid of it and get a real stove. It is a poorly made unit with excessive airflow, minimal thermal mass, and is not designed for coal. Maintaining a steady heat level is nigh impossible, except for full heat. 3 - 20" logs would give a couple hours of heat in the Vogelzang, but would last 8 hours in its replacement...and still have hot coals to refire in the morning. Granted, in OH you would likely need a hotter fire, but the difference is amazing.
    Look around for a stove that is well sealed, has fine control of airflow, and will give you a hernia if you try to lift it by yourself. New, they run over $1k, but if you are patient you can find them for under 300 USD.
    A worthwhile investment for the future, IMHO.
    Tully Mars and UncleMorgan like this.
  5. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart Snow Monkey Moderator

    When looking for a Fire Heating Stove, the first thing you need to understand, is ONLY USE OutSide AIR, in the FireBox.... Most modern WoodStoves are built this way, or have this as an Option. This does two things. First, It doesn't use the Heated Air from inside the House, to burn the fuel, but keeps that already heated air in the House, to keep you warm. Second, by using Outside Air, your Draft, up the Stack, doesn't cause a Pressure Difference, between Inside and Outside Air, that will pull colder Outside Air into the House, thru the breaks in the Insulation, in the Floor, Walls, and Ceiling... which helps keep the already Heated inside Air, from getting diluted by the colder Outside Air....
  6. UncleMorgan

    UncleMorgan I like peeling bananas and (occasionally) people.

    Never used coal myself, but I've heard from my blacksmithing friends that a well-tuned coal fire beats just about everything in terms of cost and heat output. BTPost is dead on right about feeding your fire with outside air.

    Coal is especially good because the grid is a temporary and inadequate substitute for decentralized power--every home being entirely energy self-sufficient IOW. When/if the Grid goes down, cold people will get grumpy even faster than hungry ones.
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  7. Tully Mars

    Tully Mars Metal weldin' monkey

    Very true tech.
    I picked up a good stove from a neighbor for nothing, just because he didn't want to move it. It's now been ear marked for the new shop stove. Craigslist is a good place for this kind of stuff. Most often a little paint, maybe some new gaskets and the stove looks and works like new. Even replacing a few damaged fire bricks is no big deal.

    Can't agree more with what @BTPost mentioned about using a fresh air supply. Makes a huge difference.
  8. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Not to mention if the house is close to air tight, combustion gas can escape into the house. Not nice to deal with carbon monoxide, which is what you get when you starve a coal fire.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 2, 2016
    Tully Mars likes this.
  9. oldawg

    oldawg Monkey+++

    I guess that's why coal fired submarines didn't become the norm.
    3cyl, kellory and Tully Mars like this.
  10. shaman

    shaman Monkey++

    I can't say I agree with y'all on the Vogelzang Boxwood stove, but I would be the first to say it took a lot of doing to make it work well. I've had mine for 15 years, and it does a passable job of heating the place as it stands, but out of the box it was crap. The first time I tried to use it I nearly burned the place down. It needs to be ground and caulked and a good seal on the door needs to be established, and I lined the bottom and sides with firebrick. Mine goes all night on a fill-up of seasoned red oak. For a number of years I ran it almost exclusively on oak skid runners and pallets I got from work for free. The other thing I do is run a 20X20 box fan behind the stove so that I have air going over the stove and out into the room. It makes a huge difference. Doing all that and also putting another fan to blow hot air to the bedrooms makes the place toasty warm, but it sucks to keep a fire going when what you're really trying to do is get out and hunt.

    I realize the Deluxe Boxwood was not made for coal, but it's going away when I build the addition, and this was just an experiment to see if I could get coal to burn. It's a completely new thing for me. I'm missing something I know, but I don't know if its too little draft or I'm not concentrating the fuel right or what.

    I could not agree more on insulation. The current place was a shambles when we bought it. If there was a 40 mph wind outside, there would be a 20 MPH wind inside. We closed on it the week of 9/11 and by 9/11/2002 I had new windows on, and the whole thing sheathed in new siding and as much insulation as I could blown and stuffed in. The current status of the place is such that I have to keep a bedroom window cracked so I can hear thunderstorms coming. When we show up for hunting on a cold Friday night, I have to open windows and run the attic fan for a while to bring the temperature up to at least ambient. There can be a 20 F difference.

    Amen! An outside draft is the only way to go. Dad was a big fan of having a fire in the fireplace when I was growing up, but it sucked air from all over the house and my bedroom was the farthest from the furnace as well as a the fireplace. As a result I grew up with my bedroom windows acting as the outside draft for the fireplace.

    I hope to have at least an 8x8 pillar of stone running from the basement to the roof in the new place. I hope to warm that mass and then keep it re-radiating all winter-- something like this on the inside and
    . . . something like this on the outside:

    The good news is I have pile of field stone as much as 10 feet high all over the property. I just need to drag it back to the site.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2016
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  11. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Your modifications make a world of difference...and a fan is a must to spread the heat out. Sealing the stove does help, but it is nearly impossible to throttle back sufficiently for mere chilly nights in the deep south.
    Being "up north" makes a huge difference...25F is often a warm day ;)
  12. azrancher

    azrancher Monkey +++

    You could have a coal fired sub, but just like a diesel powered sub you need a snorkel.

    oldawg likes this.
  13. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    air ducts just outside the fire brick and running vertical with louvers at top and bottom will make a very big difference on output. it sucks in cool air at floor level, and kicks out hot air above. no fan is needed. this is strictly thermal, and passive.
  14. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart Snow Monkey Moderator

    You design leaves a lot to be desired... As CS stated, How do you clean the Creasote out of the Burnt Gas Path... That is REQUIRED, if you don't want a Chimney Fire, Down the Road... Most properly designed Chimney Systems have separate Air Channels built in to the design that hear Room Air... Fancy ones use 6" Steel Pipe, that has Raw External Surface Area inside the Fire Flue, that act as Heat Exchaners... Also FirePlaces are not really the best at burning Coal, as opposed to FirWood...
  15. shaman

    shaman Monkey++

    There are cleanouts on the side for the convolutions, but I suppose there would have to be another cleanout for the main chimney.

    I'm was originally thinking of the fireplaces as a supplement to a coal furnace couple with a geo-thermal heat pump. From what I've read, guys with a coal furnace often supplement with oil or some such easy fuel. In the coldest months, they run it all. In fall and spring, they use just the oil to keep it simple. I'd think a geo-thermal could do the job of the oil down to below 20 degrees, and then start stoking the coal furnace and the fireplaces.

    Your points are good. I was attracted to the idea of this fireplace that would be a huge thermal mass that could be heated up in the winter and also used as huge passive heat sink in the summer. The convoluted design comes from a masonry furnace in use in places like Russian for centuries, but I can't speak about the exact design I showed. I was just using it as an example. It could be the better way to go is the old Heatilator method. If I recall Grandpa's fireplaces were both Heatilators with intakes at the floor and exhausts at eye level. That's probably why those coal fires in the basement worked so well. If memory serves, you could look up through the flue and see pipes going across. I remember that, because as a wee one, I could not figure out how Santa Claus got through them. I asked and they told me that if he had trouble getting down the chimney, he just came through the front door.

    I see a dearth of info on burning coal, but I know Europeans do it, and I know we used to do it 100 years ago. I used to own a house with a coal fireplace in every room. It was built in 1902. By the time I got it, they were no longer operable. My guess would be that if you took a modern fireplace with a sealable door and used a sturdy iron grate that slopes a bit, and kept your fire reasonably small, it would work. I know coal burns a heck of a lot hotter than wood. If I remember correctly, Grandpa would only use only a couple of gallon pail's worth at a time. The newspaper and tinder were laid down first-- a bit more than for a wood fire, and then he would pile the coal on top. He used a coal oil on the end of a torch to light it. I still have the lighter. However, past that, the memories grow dim. The last fire he lit like that was 1962. I was 4. After that my grandparents stopped entertaining in the basement. However, there was a fire laid ready to light when we moved out of that house in 1976.

    Probably what I need to do is go get another bag of coal from Tractor Supply and start practicing with it in my basement fireplace back here in town. It is nearly pristine. Neither Dad or I have ever used it much, and I could use it as a test bed.
  16. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    There are at least a dozen youtubes on "how to light a coal fire". Some appear quite in depth.
  17. Kingfish

    Kingfish Self Reliant

    My cost to heat with Wood are so minimal. I work hard for two weeks to cut what we need. One 20.00 federal wood cutting permit. Gas and oil and chains for the saws and truck amount to less than 100.00 so at most I spent 120.00 this winter for heat. If I were have coal trucked in here? I am POSITIVE it would cost way more then that. I can buy wood at 120.00 per cord delivered. which would amount to about 800.00 for the year. Propane would cost us around 3,000.00 and straight electric around 4500.00 . My system works great as we have a basement fireplace where the draft comes into the room where the wood stove sits. Heat rises to the upstairs through un insulated floors . It stays around 70 upstairs unless it gets below zero outside in which case we have to move warm air upstairs by pressurizing the old heat plenum. But Bruce is correct. If you dont have a cold air inlet the stove will pull air through cracks and window leaks because of its draft. My house is set up[ perfect. We sealed the top floor to trap the heat in and allow the basement to draw air down the old chimney flue. My wood stove sits in my basement of a walk out style basement home. Three sides of the basement are built into a hill and insulated with dirt. W e also have a dog door that lets in some air as well. Even with this draft coming into the basement it stays well over 80 degrees down stairs. My stove is just a simple Osburn 2000 . I get 10 hour burn times from up to 20 inch logs but I cut most of my wood at 16 to 18 inches. By using nothing but Oak , red, white and some Maple I get hot fires that keep my stack clean and free of creasote . I do run the pipe cleaner brush down the stack twice a year. We plan on replacing the old Oil furnace that is NON functional with a Harmon Pellet furnace. Michigan produces local wood pellets and they are pretty cheap if you buy them by the ton. I can have both the wood stove and the Pellet furnace use the same stack. Pretty happy with the way we went for heat.

    By the way I turn 58 in May. My father in law is 68 and still heats with wood and he uses twice what I use to fuel his boiler.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 3, 2016
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  18. Tully Mars

    Tully Mars Metal weldin' monkey

    You won't regret it. I've had 3 pellet stoves and loved every one of them. I set up an APC with a group 27 deep cycle battery as a back up for the blower fans before I had a whole house genset. I used to get a ton of hardwood pellets for $90.00-110.00 per ton. 3 ton would heat my old house all winter.
  19. shaman

    shaman Monkey++

    This is great stuff. For instance, I didn't realize pellets were that cheap.

    I checked out the youtube videos on coal in the fireplace. My conclusions are:
    1) The boxwood stove was not the best place to experiment. I could probably modify it, but that's not the goal.
    2) If I had experimented in my fireplace back home, I would have probably been successful. That is probably the best next step.
    3) The methods shown involving a fireplace were identical to what I remember my grandfather doing.
    4) The big thing to remember with coal is that it burns much hotter. A little goes a long way.
    5) More than with wood, coal needs to have the ash knocked off, and the draw needs to come from underneath.
    6) A new fireplace built with the proper materials and methods should not be a problem when burning coal. The trick is to not overdo it.

    Those are conclusions, not facts. I'm open to criticism.
  20. shaman

    shaman Monkey++

    I went out yesterday and bought a bag of nut coal from Tractor Supply. It looks like I'll be playing in the cinders this weekend.
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