View Full Version : Semi-OT Heating Fuels

01-26-2012, 11:29 PM
Well I'm pretty serious about a house; I've got an accepted purchase agreement and there are just a few more details to be worked out.

Currently, it has a 100,000 BTU Trane propane forced air furnace. It was installed in 1985 and the heat exchanger is pretty badly rusted. I feel I need to do something so I started looking at options. I'm already investing quite a bit of capital into remodeling the bathroom - not for aesthetics, mind. The tub enamel has chipped and is begining to rust around the drain. Only a matter of time before it starts leaking and damaging the subfloor. Similarly, the kitched counter tops are cracked and chipped (everything is original ... built in 1960).

My point is this: I'm running out of cash! :) Naturally, I've been looking at the most cost effective way I can heat my house with the smallest initial investment. I read a couple of studies about heating fuels and found that coal is still an extremely cheap and efficient way to heat a house. Of course, the risk is higher with solid fuel furnaces and coal requires more homeowner involvement than a typical gas furnace.

I kind of like the idea of using coal, though. It's old-fashioned, cheap and effective. I'm young and in good shape to shovel coal. By the time I move into another house, I'll probably be old enough to not want to mess with it anymore...

Right now, there is a limestone fireplace in the basement (where the shop will go - it has a garage built into the other half of the basement). The flue tiles are cracked so the chimney would need $$ to be used for solid fuels again. There is no fireplace upstairs, but there is a really spacious living area and the chimney is accessible from there. The only reason I can think of for not having a fireplace upstairs is that the chimney wouldn't be tall enough to pull well. Anyway, if the chimney is tall enough and I can get it fixed with a liner, I was considering buying a coal stove from Harman. I think it would be neat to have a stove upstairs in the living area, but not sure how practical it is without it being tied into the ductwork to get hot air everywhere in the house. It is just a 1 story ranch, about 1600 sqft with 3 bedrooms.

I was looking at something like this:

Much fancier and it quickly becomes cheaper to buy a new propane furnace. What are your thoughts? I could put it downstairs and figure out a way to tie into the blower and duct work, but if I do that, maybe I should just make my own stove/furnace. These are stylish enough that they would look good in a living area. Also, there is an optional water coil to heat water... if it was in the basement, I could use that and the water would circulate via thermosiphon. If I wanted to put it upstairs and heat hot water, I'd have to get a small circ. pump.

Regarding coal storage, the house has two very large, underground, unused cisterns (it's on county water now). I was thinking about coming up with a way of using them to store a couple of tons of coal. I figured they'd be waterproof and out of sight.

I don't know ... I'm just tickled by the idea of actually using coal to heat my house. When I was little, I used to say I was going to do that because I was enchanted by the idea, but I never realized it might actually be a possibility. I'm still not convinced it's the most practical thing to do, though...

[This is semi-OT since I know a lot of guys here have experience with using solid fuels to heat their shops ;) ]

01-26-2012, 11:33 PM
I don't know ... I'm just tickled by the idea of actually using coal to heat my house. When I was little, I used to say I was going to do that because I was enchanted by the idea, but I never realized it might actually be a possibility. I'm still not convinced it's the most practical thing to do, though...

Thats the best part of growing up, Nobody around to tell you that you can't do all the fun stuff you wanted to do as a kid! (Well, at least the stuff that does not break too many laws anyway!)

01-26-2012, 11:49 PM
We have a 100+ year old house with a coal fire place & I also use coal or wood in the old cookstove. Here it 10 cents a pound in small quanitles but I lucked up on 500+ pounds for $20. A few years worth. Just south of us is are Amish so it's readally available. I like to burn it, reminds me of burning sod when we visit Ireland.

01-27-2012, 08:16 AM
Without hijacking this thread, can I ask about the quantity difference between burning coal as apposed to wood? If I now burn 4 cords of wood each winter, what would be a comparable quantity of coal?

01-27-2012, 08:34 AM
an insulted liner in the chimney can waste a lot of its heat output ..as the whole chimney stack can radiate a good percentage of heat into the house .

the draft for the fire should be from outside ..as bringing it from inside will cause outside air to come in from outside into the living space .

some of the stoves sold in the UK are up to or over 80 percent efficient

so when buying one look at the efficiency percentage ..use 80 percent as a benchmark

the site you posted is so slow that it pissed me off ..so could not look the stoves up on it .

all the best.markj

01-27-2012, 08:48 AM
If you already have ducts with the forced air furnace way not install a burner that would put heat into them and heat all the house?

I have a forced air oil furnace but next to it is a wood burning furnace, could also burn coal, that is connected into the oils furnaces plenum. There is a blower on the wood burning furnace that runs when the fire is hot to push the heated air into the duct system. It will heat my two store house.

01-27-2012, 08:50 AM
Decisions, decisions. First, I have a Harmon stove similar to your link. Have heated over 25 years with coal and wood. Their stoves are well built and built to last. Priced accordingly, by the current starting at prices.

Things to consider:

Around here a new 80-90% efficient gas furnace is ballpark same price, and installation should be pretty close to drop in, as you are replacing like and kind.

Central air is a possibility that the coal stove will not have.

Your living room installation will require major change, and you will be surprised how much effective space you loose in the living room. Safety zones around the stove, clearance to the wall, space to store fuel nearby, dirt created

Like it or not, local code and insurance should also be considered. Most will not allow two devices into one flue.

Moving the hot air in a single floor installation will be an issue also.

Do not discount the downstairs fireplace though. Its already there, Harmon used to make coal inserts, I have one. Gravity can work for you to move the heat. And probably keep the insurance company happier.

My opinion, given what you have described, Id opt for a new gas unit, maybe discontinued model or scratch and dent. Use the fireplace insert to supplement the gas when you are around to keep it fed and burning. It can be added later after your finances recover from the initial shock of buying a place.

01-27-2012, 10:09 AM
Things to think about.
Luging coal in and ash out.
Coal and ash dust in your house.
Same goes for wood.

A few around my area have been puting out door coal or wood boilers(water heaters) in. Hopper bottom storage beside the boiler, all you have to do is clean the ash out for the coal. Put a heat exchanger in your furnace and you are nice and warm.

01-27-2012, 10:15 AM
For me one of the first considerations would be whether you intend to be away from home for more than a day or two at a time. If so, I think you're going to need something that's automated. If you have a gas furnace now, it's probably wise to repair or replace it first, make sure you have reliable heat, and then at leisure you can work out supplements and alternatives.

01-27-2012, 10:56 AM
I dabble with coal, even though I have a multifuel furnace. 97 year old house, unfortunately un insulated for the most part. Here, bagged coal is running $00.175/lb. I stuggle keeping the fire going for more than a few hours is the little coal stove, and generally the heat is not too high. I can't spend $20/day or more for the little stove at this time, nor the same in the furnace. Get a little frustrated trying to determine who's doing well heating with coal, me or the coal dealer. A well insulated house, with maybe a self feeding stove might be fine, but its still more work than a pellet stove.

01-27-2012, 12:07 PM
IMHO the biggest issue typically isnt finding a cheaper method of heating a house, its managing the heat that is generated in a house beyond simple insultation. Dividing heat flow into zones and getting into the habit of closing doors to seal off rooms can help a lot, especially if you typically dont spend much time in bedrooms during daylight hours, or common living areas at night. If you have thermostats and seperate zones, I would highly encourage a bit of semi-scientific experimentation to find the best cost/pita balance.

The house Im bidding on now is within city limits and on the municipal gas supply, which I absolutely love as I tend to travel unexpectedly and the system is ultra low maintenance. Its also ridiculously cheap (~$100 in winter) to keep the house at 75F.

I would suggest seeking out neighbors and comparing costs vs house size vs fuel types.

01-27-2012, 12:23 PM
Ive found that just heating rooms ..doesnt quite work.

works well for the first 2 days ...then...

well ..then your temperature of the other unheated areas goes to approaching outside temperatures...and every time you leave a room it feels like you're going outside ..

and the rooms you're trying heat are loosing heat to the other rooms ..so you have to put more energy after those 2 days into keeping the room you are in warm ..

best ..heat the rest of the house to 12 degrees c..and the rooms your in to 19 degrees c ..that's the only way Ive found it works.

you do save something by heating a couple of rooms alone ..but you cant justify it ..it just gets too uncomfortable in the end .

all the best....mark

01-27-2012, 12:30 PM
Thanks for all the good advice. I woke up this morning and basically decided what everyone here is saying ... I better just stick to fixing/replacing the propane furnace for now. Later I will puruse coal a little more seriously.

Justanengineer - Hah! I like the cost vs pita measurement. I agree that heat management is a big issue, too. That is one reason why I'm curious about coal stoves. Naturally, all the manufacturer websites report how great they are, but I wasn't entirely convinced that they are the best way to heat a house. Maybe if it's a one bedroom cabin ...

All my neighbors have propane tanks, except one that used to be on fuel oil. Wish we had natural gas available. My parents are on nat. gas and they're heating costs are very reasonable, considering the stove, oven, water heater and furnace use it.

01-27-2012, 12:44 PM
Switch to natural gas. I did some calculations last night for my own purposes and here we pay about $11.40 per gigajoule for natural gas. That includes all extra charges such as transportation and various taxes. With 100% efficiency it equals electricity at 4 cents per KW hour. A new gas furnace will approach 98% efficiency and only requires a plastic pipe for a flue out the side of the house. That allows you to use coal or wood as a backup using the existing flue.

Natural gas is a good choice right now because the availability is increasing rapidly. Within 5 years the US will be a net exporter of LNG. Huge new reserves are being developed using the fracking technique in deep shale gas formations in the Bakken and other formations in the north east states even including New York. The same is happening in Canada and this continent will be floating in wet gas for decades to come. Wet gas is methane that also contains a high percentage of light fraction petroleum liquids such as propane and butane.

Another reason to switch to natural gas is the development of all in one energy systems for household use that provide heat, electricity and hot water all from one NG powered unit. No grid connection required.

01-27-2012, 12:47 PM
Justanengineer - Hah! I like the cost vs pita measurement. I agree that heat management is a big issue, too. That is one reason why I'm curious about coal stoves. Naturally, all the manufacturer websites report how great they are, but I wasn't entirely convinced that they are the best way to heat a house. Maybe if it's a one bedroom cabin ...

Glad to hear you have a plan. Call me a nerd, but I often look for opportunities like this to experiment and attempt to learn something. In college I helped renovate my brother's house where I was living at the time. Bc electricity is dirt cheap (thanks hydros) there, we put in electric baseboard heaters with individual digital thermostats controlling each room. I then proceeded to do several projects/studies for school credit studying various heat control strategies. I found that aboard_epsilon is quite right - keeping rooms at a lower base temp and closed off that you arent frequently using did help quite a bit, and with the electric baseboard heaters 5 mins preplanning will have a room at 70+F. The only "difficult" part is remembering to close doors within the house.

To me though, there is definitely something to be said for cost/pita comparison. I grew up "fetching wood." Never again. I enjoy manual labor, but only when its on my schedule, not a furnace's.

01-27-2012, 01:03 PM
Electricity was dirt cheap. We can expect the price to double over the next five years. Major infrastructure projects are in the works as there has been almost no new major generating built in 60 years. The only reason that was possible is because the government of the day in the 1950s was very foresighted and built huge (for the time) overcapacity. That overcapacity is now running out and will need new construction to supplement.

We already have a two tiered rate structure that kicks up the price from 6.67 to 9.62 cents per KWh at around 22KWh per day. Using electric heat will put all that energy in the higher tier rate and will cost more than twice as much as natural gas.

01-27-2012, 01:09 PM
Electricity was dirt cheap.

Yep. The study I read actually had wheat straw as the cheapest form of heating followed by electric (base board/radiant) but their calculation was at $0.03 KWh but I'm paying more than twice that here. If you calculate at ~10 cents a KWh, coal becomes considerably cheaper than electricity (it was runner up right behind electric). Nothing comes close to wheat straw, but I just can't see straw being a very practical solution...

01-27-2012, 01:40 PM
The cost of power is all relative based upon your exact location. In my sibling's situation, the town (few hundred ppl) has a municipal hydro generating plant due to nearby waterfalls. They own the plant, the lines, and even own their own maintenance equipment. Its rather difficult to foresee their operating costs increasing much, never know tho, but they currently sell electricity at just under $0.03/kWh.

Regarding natural gas, it too is rather unpredictable IMHO. Any time you have large personal fortunes being made and lost based upon "business," strange things do happen.


Whether or not we see a price increase remains to be seen, but they arent the only ones currently cutting production.

01-27-2012, 02:23 PM
They are cutting production just to support the price they have now. There are way too many players in this field for any sort of coordinated action. How they move will depend on many other factors than just market price. Many have long term contracts to fill and that will govern their future activity.

I pay close attention to these markets. It's where I make money. I am not interested in natural gas plays though as they are a long term investment in capacity and won't pay off well in the next 5 to 10 years. Once sufficient export infrastructure is developed the story will change but that will take some time. The best analyst forecasts right now are for about a 20 to 30% increase in NG prices in the next 5 years. That will lag all other energy sources by a lot.

01-27-2012, 03:08 PM
A bit more on coal:
A friend of mine was really into heating with coal. According to him, the quality of anthracite, or any coal, varies according to the mine it came out of. The good stuff burns much cleaner, with little ash, compared to the lower-grade stuff. I can't remember the names of the best mines, unfortunately.

Dealer seniority is the way it works. The dealer who has been a dealer the longest gets first choice.

If at all possible, find a dealer who has a railroad siding for coal delivery. It will be cheaper than from a dealer who has to truck it in.

My friend lived in Worcester, MA, and bought coal from a dealer who had a railroad siding and had been in business since something like 1917. My friend could drive into the yard and fill his own bags. Unfortunately the old man running the business died and his son thought there was more to life than running a coal business that was sitting on prime real estate.

01-27-2012, 03:14 PM
Also talk to the local utilities. A lot of them will give big rebates to switch over to their system.

For the shop look at a wood pellet stove insert. They work nice and have a low exhaust temp and can be used with your existing chimney.

01-27-2012, 03:27 PM
I would be concerned that the price of coal may take a sudden big jump if a "carbon tax" is instituted. It has a very bad reputation as I am sure you are aware and I will not be at all surprised if monetary moves are made to discourage use. Here in BC we are already paying a carbon tax on all petrochemicals. It's pretty steep too. My last gas bill which came in yesterday is $168 for 33 days. Of that $78.99 is for the gas, $62.96 is for delivering the gas, sales taxes are $19.24 and the carbon tax is $18.37. I also get some sort of rebate from the province of $11.22 but that only applies to home heating use.

If you calculate the amount of that carbon tax on the cost of the actual gas it works out to a 23.25% tax. Don't be surprised to see something similar in the US. The government needs the money.

Optics Curmudgeon
01-27-2012, 03:50 PM
Just to provide another data point, I lived the first 10 years of my life in a house that was heated by a manually stoked coal furnace. It was really just a big pot bellied stove in the basement, with an insulated (with asbestos) plenum around it, a single 36" square register in the first floor hallway. It heated the 1800 square foot house OK (central NJ), although heat reached my room only by going up the stairs. In 1964 my father had enough and took advantage of a deal the gas company was running to replace coal furnaces with gas. If I recall correctly, coal was around $28 a ton at the time (anthracite) and gas was more expensive per BTU, but the PITA factor won out. He installed it himself and never shoveled coal again. Even in a disadvantaged market coal lost to convenience.

01-27-2012, 06:36 PM
I'd find a scratch & dent gas furnace that I could afford which will take an A coil for later building a wood/coal outside furnace. Easy to make out of propane tanks, plans on the net. That way you have safe heat now & can build the outdoor furnace after you scrounge the material & when your gone for days your hose is warm. We have a place(Fleetwoods) where $500 will buy a very nice new furnace & it's a fairly easy change out. Just what I'd do but our house has a 325,000 BTU Steam oil fired boiler,so no ductwork.

01-27-2012, 06:44 PM
P.S. If you need a stainless 8" chimney liner I have a new in the box complete flex kit I'll sell for 1/2 price. You close enough we can meet in the middle. Thanks!

01-27-2012, 07:33 PM
While it is possible to buy a cheap furnace there is no such thing as a cheap furnace. One that cost little to acquire will cost much more to operate. An expensive to buy high efficiency furnace has a short payback time if you live any place where the temperature drops below freezing.

You might be able to save $500 or even more on a low price furnace but the difference in efficiency is likely to be 80% vs 95 to 98%. That is enough to pay back in just 2 to 3 years. Save that much now and pay for it over and over as long as you live there.

01-27-2012, 09:56 PM
When I meant cheap I meant get a good deal. This place sells truckloads of 80-98%. Any kind you want at 1/2 price or less. Very low budget operation. I agree the payback is short. That's why I said the "one you can afford".