In the movie "A Christmas Story," a coal-fired furnace plays a prominent role in a boy's memory of his father stomping down the stairs to restart the cold behemoth in the basement. Coal dust rises from the register, along with a din of cursing and banging from below. Not a pretty picture. With today's surging energy prices, homeowners are taking another look at the coal stove, however, a modern version that's competing with wood stoves in many parts of the country. If you live near a coal dealer, and have a place to store large quantities of it, a coal stove might be right for you.
Newer coal stoves are very unlike the primitive preconception most of us have of a dirty, smelly, iron thing that went the way of the dinosaur. Modern stoves are perfectly suitable for the living room, ranging from models with gold-gilded doors available in "honey-glo brown" and "forest green," to models that mimic a fireplace. Decorative ceramic and hand-painted tiles adorn many stoves.�
So if they're not ugly anymore, what's the appeal from an energy standpoint? First of all, coal is cheap. When natural gas prices hit the roof last winter, it prompted a search for alternative heating sources. With recent events renewing concerns about oil imports, domestic fuels are even more attractive. Depending on where you live, a whole season's supply may only cost $200. With one small stove capable of heating two rooms, that's going to save big bucks on pricier natural gas or heating oil.
And anthracite coal burned today is a cleaner version than the bituminous coal, or soft coal, of the 1900s. The sulfur fumes and carbon monoxide caused by the combustion of soft coal are not concerns with anthracite which has only about 1% sulfur content (although stove dealers still advise installing carbon monoxide detectors for extra safety). What will you pay for anthracite? That depends on where you live, and if you can get it. In New England, a ton of coal costs about $135 delivered. But the closer to Pennsylvania, for example, where much of it is mined, the lower the prices, as low as $85. In the western part of the country, coal supplies still aren't readily available.
The other strikes against coal, besides availability in some parts of the country, are storage and disposal. You buy it not by the pound, but by the ton. A ton of coal doesn't fit neatly on the porch like a half-cord of wood. But coal users are finding ways to place their coal in unobtrusive bins. Ash disposal is another issue. Coal combustion produces about a half-ton of ash for every ton of fuel. That means hauling the bags out to the curb.
Where do you buy one? Coal stove makers are almost a cottage industry but they're expanding to meet higher demand. There are about 300 dealers. Look in the phone book under fireplaces and spas. You can purchase a stove that vents through a chimney, and even adapt your stove to existing ductwork with a forced-air blower to circulate the heat. Or you can go all out on a fully automatic, self-stoking stove for about $2,700, capable of heating a 2,500 square-foot home.
Sources used to create this article include Robert Guy Matthews and The Wall Street Journal.