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  #1  
Old 02-16-2013, 04:03 PM
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Coal heating question

Back in the days of coal heating furnaces in homes. Did home owners have to go and feed coal and rake it to keep it from plasticizing on the grates and burning them up, or was it a more automated type system?

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Old 02-16-2013, 04:19 PM
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I know some larger furnaces had bins of coal with screw feeders. Clinkers would have to be removed by hand.
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  #3  
Old 02-16-2013, 04:41 PM
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Originally Posted by Aquaticedge View Post
Back in the days of coal heating furnaces in homes. Did home owners have to go and feed coal and rake it to keep it from plasticizing on the grates and burning them up, or was it a more automated type system?
Yeah it was automated! Usually one of the kids was tasked with giving the grates a shake first thing in the morning and again before bed at night, or he/she was "automatically" smacked upside the head.

Usually when running a coal furnace or stove, you open the flue and vent to get a good draw going first, then depending on the state of the fire you either add some coal if the fire that is left is small and let that get burning, if there is still a sizeable fire you can shake the grate and get it burning nice and hot before you start adding coal.

Once you get a good pile cooking you can give the grates a good shaking, busting up the chinkers and dropping the ash into the pan, then the pile should be blazing so you can add a good layer of coal.

After that charge gets burning you can rake the pile digging down to move around any big chinkers and move the ones around the edges over the grates. Then you give it another good shake,

At that point your pile should be mostly very hotly burning coal, you then procede to in layered fashion fill the firebox with coal, you let it all get burning good and then you close down the flue and adjust the vent to allow just enough air to keep the fire burning at the heat output you want to maintain. You want the entire pile of coal in the firebox burning rather than non-burning coal sitting on top of a smaller fire underneath. The non-burning coal sitting on top cooks off giving off a lot of gas, that can lead to a smelly fire and even sort of explosions when the cooked off gas accumulates before igniting. Not a bang usually by it can be like a loud very strong puff, usually pushing combustion gas out of the stove's openings.

Basically a coal fire is started in the fall and never goes completely out until the spring. You get to know how your fire burns under various conditions and you try to refuel the fire before the it get's too small to easily come back up to heat. If you wait too long you might end up with only a few small burning coals to try and get the fire going, that can take a while to slowly add pieces of coal and get them burning a few at a time.

You always assess the state of the fire before shaking because if you have too little fire you'll shake that down into the pan with the ash and have to restart the fire from scratch. That can be a pain because the stove/furnace will still be hot because of its mass.

Usually to start a coal fire you use wood, pile in some split wood the size of you thumb, a good layer, cover that with a 2" layer of coal. Light the fire from below if you can, with the flue and vent wide open. as soon as the wood is burning good the coal will start burning and you just keep adding layer of coal, wait for it to start burning then another layer until the fire box is full. Some people use charcoal or charcoal briquettes to start their coal fires also, the "Ready Light" type makes it even easier.

The only real caution is letting the coal fire get too hot, it can put out so much heat it will burn red hot and soften and warp the grate and shaker!

There where probably some semi automated furnaces probably in larger installations like apartment buildings towards the end of widespread coal usage, but because there are so many variables a human operator intervention is hard to do without sometime during the day even on those.
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Old 02-16-2013, 06:07 PM
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Brings back memories of me at age ten or so hauling the coal ashes out of peoples basements for about twenty five cents every time I did it. Our own family home had a central coal furnace until my parents converted over.

Fuel oil was I think 19.00 for two hundred gallons. So most converted over to oil. Fuel oil is lightly higher now. Like all heating systems you got used to burning coal. Usually the damper was controlled by a pull chain that was extended up to the first floor level. Automatic stokers were not all that common either.

My first house had a gravity coal furnace as most where basically gravity systems. So the ductwork tended to be large. It had been converted to a oil fired unit long before I aquired the house.

I wanted more space in the basement but my father on a visit said I would burn more oil with a modern oil furnace probably. So I did not change it out. That old unit was efficient by the way on oil. The coal furnace installations usually resembled octupus tendecles with the coal furnace in the centre of the basement. Coal was king for a long time frame.

Only when forcd air units came along the space consumption requirement was reduced. In the big cities a lot of back yards have coal ash mixed in with the backyard soil.

One of the worse jobs I observed was the guys that delivered coal. They parked the truck. Donned a leather back apron and put each and every bag of coal on their backs and walked it into the coal chute of the house. Back breaking pure physical labour. I have no ideal of just how many tons of coal they handled this way per day.
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Old 02-16-2013, 06:08 PM
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warped grates

Sounds as though Rollo has been down this road. Many of the newer coal furnaces utilized "rice" coal with automated feed augers and "shakers".

The theory is that fresh air passing through the grates from below keeps them cool enough that they won't warp. Quickest way to ruin the grates is to neglect cleaning out the ashes. An unfortunate occurance when the automated furnaces came on the scene; not having to "tend" the fire, it was too easy to forget to clean out the ash pit.

Jim
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Old 02-17-2013, 12:02 AM
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Originally Posted by jaoneill View Post
Sounds as though Rollo has been down this road. Many of the newer coal furnaces utilized "rice" coal with automated feed augers and "shakers".

The theory is that fresh air passing through the grates from below keeps them cool enough that they won't warp. Quickest way to ruin the grates is to neglect cleaning out the ashes. An unfortunate occurance when the automated furnaces came on the scene; not having to "tend" the fire, it was too easy to forget to clean out the ash pit.

Jim
Well I've burned wood or coal as the predominant heat source for a 2500 sqf full Cape for about 20 of the past 23 years, in the course doing that you tend to elevate fire tending to a minor art form. I started burning wood because I ended up with about 80 or so cords of black locust that blew down in a hurricane, so that lasted more than a dozen years. In anticipation of have less timber at hand I picked up a Newcastle Coal Stove (these are fantastic American made stoves, very easy to operate and clean and with high and efficient heat output usually running about 30 pounds of nut coal per 24 hour charge, got a blower and back and top shell wall construction with a good size window for infared radiant heat, 5/16" rolled steel construction and a double walled fire brick fire box, rotary grate on the bottom that is operated with the stove all closed up so minimal ash escapes) and eventually switched over to that. As far as burning and heating coal is superior in my opinion but I've got to buy that, burning wood is good if you've got a steady economical source of it. More work and more clean-up burning wood, you've got to tend the fire more frequently, but there is something about cutting, splitting, and stacking piles of cord wood that is intrisically satisfying. I would process wood in the winter when life and work slowed down always keeping about 10 or more cords ahead. The black locust is probably the best splitting and burning wood you can find, the bark is fanastic tinder, it burns with the finest and least amount of ash than any wood, it virtually never rots, you can cut it today and burn it green if you had to, and I've burned logs that had been cut a hundred years ago, they were so hard and seasoned that when you cut it sparks were generated by the saw chain! But you do have to sharpen your saw chains more frequently.

As a little kid my grandparents had a coal furnace that heated both their home an a couple greenhouses that were their business, so stoking and shaking go back a ways.
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Old 02-17-2013, 03:30 AM
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Originally Posted by Rollo MB View Post
Yeah it was automated! Usually one of the kids was tasked with giving the grates a shake first thing in the morning and again before bed at night, or he/she was "automatically" smacked upside the head.

...
Hey! That was my job.

Coal fires were dirty and unreliable - I was one stressed chicken being in charge of that sodding fire.
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Old 02-17-2013, 07:31 AM
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We heated with coal for a while when I was a kid. Mom and Dad built a new house in the early fifties and we moved in when it was just the walk out basement portion. We heated for a year or two with coal. I remember the coal truck backing up near the back of the house, dumping the coal, carrying coal in and klinkers out.

It was a great luxury when we got an oil fired space heater to replace it, then a gas fired forced air furnace to replace that.
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Old 02-18-2013, 03:57 PM
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Originally Posted by Rollo MB View Post
Well I've burned wood or coal as the predominant heat source for a 2500 sqf full Cape for about 20 of the past 23 years, in the course doing that you tend to elevate fire tending to a minor art form.
We burned coal for a time when I was a pre-teen; old enough to be fire tender. When we moved here to the farm in '74 our only heat source was one of the old "octapus" furnaces that was used primarily for burning wood although we bought a few tons of coal now and then. Hard to justify laying out cash for heat when we have 50 +/- acres of woodlot, mostly hardwood.

Switched to oil boilers when we sold the dairy cows in '88 and I was out earning a paycheck. We had a major ice storm in '98 (went for 6 weeks without power) that wreaked havoc in the woodlot. I bought a small woodstove for the kitchen primarily to burn deadfalls. It had been ten years since I had cut any wood and it reminded me that I thoroughly enjoy the entire wood fuel process.

Five years ago I build a masonry mechanical room/woodshed separate from the house, with a tunnel access from the basement with two fire-rated doors between the house and any combustion appliances. This eliminates the fear of fire in the house and, best of all, the noise of the boilers in the basement. The woodshed will store ten cord (cutting much more than that becomes too much like work) and the mechanical room contains the oil boilers as well as a state-of-the-art wood gasification boiler, piped and controlled (primary/secondary) for seamless operation. If the wood fire dies down on a sub-zero night, in the "shoulder seasons", or if we are away, the oil takes over.

With the current price of fossil fuel this turned out to be one of the best investments I ever made. We have only used a bit over 100 gallons of #2 fuel this heating season to heat just over 3,500 sq ft of living space.

Jim
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Old 02-18-2013, 04:34 PM
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Jim, I'm also burning wood more than oil. Don't have as elaborate a set up as you describe, just a woodstove in the basement.
So far this year I have burned less than 100 gallons of HHO.
Having closed on this house late in November, I really was not fully stocked with wood.
Next year I expect wood to carry a larger portion of the heating.

I would like to augment my wood burning with some anthracite, few pieces in the stove for overnight or when I'm at work.
But it is not readily accessible here, and I also want to experiment with it before using it in the house.
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Old 02-18-2013, 06:19 PM
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Old 02-18-2013, 06:21 PM
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Jim, I'm also burning wood more than oil. Don't have as elaborate a set up as you describe, just a woodstove in the basement.
So far this year I have burned less than 100 gallons of HHO.
Having closed on this house late in November, I really was not fully stocked with wood.
Next year I expect wood to carry a larger portion of the heating.

I would like to augment my wood burning with some anthracite, few pieces in the stove for overnight or when I'm at work.
But it is not readily accessible here, and I also want to experiment with it before using it in the house.
Biggest problem with the coal here is availability. It is crazy expensive at both "local" suppliers and either one is almost an hours drive from us. Back in the 70's & 80's I would hire a local independent tractor trailer owner that had a dump box to haul directly from a mine in Penn (300 miles). Coal was $4-$5 a ton at the mine; trucking was a $500 +/-. A 30 ton load, cost on average about $20 a ton; local suppliers were getting in the neighborhood of $50 a ton back then. Trucking has become so expensive that wood is by far our best option now.

You will need a stove that is designed for coal; most of today's wood stoves don't give you the option.

Jim
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Old 02-18-2013, 06:40 PM
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Yep, my stove is not designed for coal, but I figure a small handful when banking the stove would be useful.

I plan on getting some coal over the summer when I get next years pellets.
Then burning some in my old outdoor stove to see how it behaves.
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Old 02-19-2013, 06:04 PM
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Yep, my stove is not designed for coal, but I figure a small handful when banking the stove would be useful.

I plan on getting some coal over the summer when I get next years pellets.
Then burning some in my old outdoor stove to see how it behaves.
DON'T PUT COAL IN A WOODSTOVE. Unless you stove is super air tight you run the risk of either CO getting out. Or excessive air getting in which will cause the coal to burn beyond red hot. My on left the ash door open on our coal stove and I had to replace the grates the next summer. They are 1" thick cast iron that drooped they got so hot. Currently we are paying $220 a ton for anthracite. 4 tons heats 2200sqft nicely. Oil tank is $800 for one fill.
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Old 02-19-2013, 06:28 PM
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Wouldn't there be excess build up of CO if the stove were TOO tight???

My scheme is not to burn tons of the stuff, rather just a handful here and there when I will not be present to tend to the wood.
Seems like a few strategically placed pieces on top of a bed of wood might give good return.

I'm going to burn some over the summer to see how the coal reacts in different environments.

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