How Coal Stoves Work

coal stove with grate
Soaring heating prices got you down? You might want to consider a coal stove. ­

­The cost of heating a house isn't getting any cheaper. In fact, it's getting more expensive every year, and it doesn't look like that's a dying trend. As a result, many people are looking­ for new ways to stay warm and they're finding the answer in an old favorite -- coal stoves. Not only can a coal stove heat up your home, but it can save you money as well, especially if you live in Pennsylvania. Don't worry, this article will explain.

Let's talk about coal as a resource. There's a ton of it in the United States. Actually, to be specific, there are roughly 250 billion tons (227 billion metric tons) of it in the United States. The United States is responsible for producing a quarter of the entire world's coal supply [source: Jones Hardware].


There are basically four different types of coal that can be burned: lignite, subbituminous, bituminous and anthracite, listed in order from least efficient to most efficient. Anthracite has the highest carbon content and as a result, gives out the most heat and burns the cleanest [source: Stoves Online]. If you install a coal stove, you'll undoubtedly be burning anthracite -- which brings us to Pennsylvania.

­Almost all of the anthracite used between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can be found in Pennsylvania -- more than 90 percent [source: Batch]. Unfortunately, the farther you are from the great "Keystone State," the more exp­ensive it gets. Of course, there are a few other places where you can find anthracite and the same rule applies. The farther you are from the source, the more it's going to cost you.

Modern techniques have lead to more efficient and cleaner burning coal stoves. If you've got room for one in your house and you live somewhere with an abundant supply of anthracite, you might be able to save a nice chunk of change. Even if you don't live near a large supply of coal, installing a coal stove might be the way to go. Coal stoves require less maintenance than wooden stoves and they can be more efficient as well.


Types of Coal Stoves

If you decide to install a coal stove in your home, you'll be looking at two options. There are batch or hand fired coal stoves and stoker coal stoves. Both of them have advantages and disadvantages. In the end, it will probably come down to personal preference. Let's cover the basics.

Batch or hand fired coal stoves are more "hands on," hence the name. You have to load the coal into the fireplace yourself, much like a wood stove. Once your fire is burning, you'll have to check on it every 12 hours or so to keep it going [source: Podschelne]. This involves emptying the ash pan and raking the coals. Don't worry about being gentle when you rake them. In fact, long even strokes aren't going to get you anywhere. You need to be aggressive. Quick, rough strokes will yield the best results. One thing to keep in mind is that hand fired coal stoves require chimneys. So, if you don't already have one, you're going to have to make some room. In the end, operating a hand fired coal stove isn't that different from operating a wood stove, but it'll take a lot less coal to heat your home.


If you're looking for something that requires a little less maintenance, the stoker coal stove is probably more up your alley. Simply keep the hopper full of coal and empty the ash pan when necessary. If you do, your fire will never go out [source: Online Tips]. Stoker coal stoves actually hook up to a thermostat so you can control the temperature in your house. The stove automatically adds coal when necessary to maintain a constant temperature.

The biggest difference between hand fired stoves and stoker stoves is that a stoker stove requires electricity to run whereas a hand fired stove does not. This means that you can use a hand fired stove to keep your house warm even if the power goes out [source: Fireplace Capital]. If you live in an area prone to power outages, you may want to keep this in mind.


Installing Coal Stoves

Installing a coal stove in your home shouldn't be taken lightly. A faulty installation could result in improper ventilation or even worse, it could burn your house down. Whether you choose a hand fired stove or a stoker stove, both can be difficult to install and require an experienced professional. Most likely, whoever you buy the stove from will also be able to install it.

There are a few things you need to consider before you install a coal stove in your home. Regardless of the type of stove you're installing, the size of the stove should be proportional to the size of the area you're trying to heat [source: Dowling Stoves]. A small stove isn't going to heat your entire house.


If you decide to go with a hand fired coal stove, you'll need a chimney. If you already have one in your house, you'll probably want to find a way to use it -- chimneys aren't cheap. Constructing a brand new one usually costs more than the stove itself. If you have to install one, then you need to choose an area in your house where the chimney will not only fit, but the stove will be able to efficiently heat the space you want it to heat. Whoever you hire to install the stove will be able to offer you advice on this matter.

The installation of a stoker coal stove will involve electricity. The stove is hooked up to a thermostat. While the stove should be placed with efficiency in mind, the thermostat can be installed wherever it is most convenient. The venting system for stoker stoves is also a delicate matter. If not done properly, you could end up with a house full of carbon monoxide and a fire that keeps getting suffocated.

The bottom line is that unless you're a professional stove installer, your job pretty much involves picking out a stove and the spot you want it to go in your house. Everything else should be left up to someone with training and experience.


Safety Concerns with Coal Stoves

Most of the safety concerns associated with coal stoves are the same as those associated with any type of fire. If you install a stove in your home, you should have both a carbon monoxide detector and a smoke detector nearby. They should be battery operated in case of a power outage, and on the same note, the batteries should be replaced regularly whether they're dead or not. As obvious as this may seem, you should also have a fire extinguisher nearby [source: Reading Stove]. Making sure you have these simple items can save lives. Don't take your safety for granted.

One of the dangers specific to burning coal is the emission of sulfur dioxide. Generally, this is only an issue with bituminous coal, which you shouldn't be using in your home anyway. Sulfur dioxide is responsible for "acid rain," a result of the chemical combining with water vapor in the air [source: JUCA]. This side effect gave coal a bad name in the past. However, anthracite is a much cleaner source of coal and the only type you should be burning in your home.


If you have a hand fired coal stove, be careful when reloading it. Don't open the door too fast. Let oxygen in slowly. The chimney should also be tended to regularly. The gases released by a coal stove can corrode your chimney over time. You'll want to have it cleaned and inspected at least once a year.

Also keep in mind that coal produces a lot of ash -- much more so than wood. When cleaning out the ash pan of your stove, the ashes should be stored in a fireproof container with a lid somewhere away from anything that could catch fire or explode. Ashes need time to cool down before they're discarded [source: NYC gov].

Proper maintenance of a coal stove is crucial. The simple steps listed above will help ensure your safety, the safety of your loved ones and the safety of your home. Be safe, be smart and stay warm.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Coal Foundation. "Fast Facts About Coal." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • Batch, Rachel. "Mining Anthracite." Explore PA History. (access 03/01/2009)
  • Dowling Stoves. "Considerations on choosing and fitting a stove." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • Fireplace Capital. "Coal Stoves- An old favourite makes a welcome comeback." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • Jone's Hardware. "What Is Coal?" Jone's Ace Hardware. (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • JUCA. "Burning Coal." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • NRP. "Power of Coal." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • NYC gov. "Safety Tips for Coal and Wood Burning Stoves." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • Online Tips. "Coal Burning Stoves." (Accessed 03/01/2009)
  • Podschelne, Corie. "So You're Considering a Coal Stove?" Hearth. Jan. 14, 2008 (Accessed 03/01/2009)
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  • Stoves Online. "Types (Ranks) of Coal." (Accessed 03/01/2009)