Coal is our most plentiful yet most maligned source of energy. Generating the majority of our electrical power and fueling heavy industry, it has projected the United States from an agricultural to the predominant industrial society in less than a century. But with the EPA’s focus and regulatory squeeze, it has become the convenient “dog to kick”.
However, the dog and the coal industry are not beaten yet. Witness the shift to exporting our coal to Eastern Europe, the Far East and resurgence of coal “parlor heaters’ supported by bagged fuel. This is not all, however. Economics Rule!
We have recently through a series of coincidences come to acquaint a fellow tradesman whose specialty is automatic coal-fired hydronic (FHW) systems. His niche is larger, energy-intensive applications such as greenhouses, up-scale housing and “expansion mansions”. (The latter is a regional term denoting seasonal homes that are inordinately expanded and upgraded.) Greenhouses are typically gas, oil or wood heated at significant expense in an effort to survive economically. Upscale housing and “expansion” owners are motivated by pure economics in substituting or augmenting their heating system requirements. Again the latter is where we cross paths.
Our market effort is providing a Premium, Optimized, and Packaged American Gas or Oil Hydronic Boiler System, ready to “plug & play”. We can also supply our systems pre-piped to interface with a coal/wood boiler as a fully integrated system. There is therefore in our view a very complimentary pairing of coal and wood boilers with gas or oil powered hydronic distribution systems.
As a solid fuel system a coal fire must be maintained continuously while being modulated (adjusted) to suit heating demands. You don’t just turn a coal fire on and off with a switch, as with gas or oil powered burners. Thus you must utilize or dissipate the minimum fire energy, or let it extinguish. This relegates automatic stoker-fed coal systems to being effectively a heating-season-only appliance.
The complimentary match is an integrated gas or oil burner boiler to provide the minimal heat and domestic hot water (DHW) requirements off the coal cycle. Thus is our affiliation with our coal systems guy. Whether it’s integrating an existing powered system with coal as previous or providing an overall solution, coal (or wood) systems can be very complimentary indeed.
The surprise has been the economics of coal as a residential heating fuel, if you work around its physical attributes and distribution challenges. Idealizing its use can make coal more economical than even a sophisticated natural gas system. We have ‘run the numbers’ to our amazement! Let us elaborate.
First, coal pricing is not necessarily a distribution determined commodity. You would not recognize this as a parlor stove, bagged coal user, but as a central heating system fuel you enter the bulk product market. Now you have options, similar in some regards to the cordwood vs. wood pellets scenario, with one notable exception ….. energy density.
Coal has a moderately high energy density in comparison to wood for instance, being a necessarily granulated product for automatic stoker-fed coal FHW boiler systems. You can easily handle and pack a lot of it into a storage space. So the key is to ultimately source and deliver the product from its source location in bulk.
There are two (2) means available, truck or train, or a combination of both. Your strategy is therefore predicated by your point-of-use transport and/or transfer site availabilities. Ultimately your option(s) will be driven by the nearest raw material source. In our case (North Central New England) we have no railhead or ‘coal shed’ facilities (truck under coal hopper car drop site). So we source typically from N.E. Pennsylvania. The ‘coal shed’ is likely the most efficient transit-transfer method, dictated by capacities:
- A coal train hopper car has a capacity of well over 100 tons.
- A tractor-trailer can legally haul about 22 tons maximum.
- A dump truck (for local drop) will vary depending upon its GVW.
Now you must do the math, based upon your specific annual requirements, individual handling and available storage. Obviously you must work upwards from your system active hopper charge size, considering your refill frequency, etc. to optimize your pattern.
Your opportunity is to move your fuel from the mine(?) yard at about $100+/- a ton to yours with minimum transit & handling cost. The local scenario is employing an independent Pennsylvania Semi-Trucker who delivers his 22-ton load here, and then back-hauls a bulk load home. This can be wood by-products, aggregates, scrap metal or whatever from this area. Obviously planning and scheduling are in order, and the resultant is a $250 per ton or less delivered cost.
At $250 a ton or less coal trumps even natural gas (available or not) heating costs utilizing a 95% efficient Condensing Gas Boiler! This is in contrast to a $350+/- per ton cost of buying bagged coal from the local stove shop as a convenience (and handling it).
The advantage as we see it of an integrated coal-oil or coal-LP (Propane) system is having your energy storage all on-site, and with a generator backup being totally unaffected by both electric outages and heating energy cost fluctuations.
We must necessarily defer to the coal guy for technical and operational details. Our interest is solely to inform the consumer of all his options while noting our potential technical contribution to heating system integration and performance.
Well, almost the only reason. Permit me a reflection.
As a child at the end of WWII I vividly recollect our home being steam-heated with 11 cords of wood annually, and being cold in the process. Not to mention taking away cord wood from a whistling, open saw inches away from your hands and stacking it, seemingly forever. My Dad and a one-armed Uncle operated his saw, the same one that had taken his arm several years earlier. My Dad had had enough.
We converted to an automatic coal stoker system with a large bin. Recall several nights being shaken out of sleep in a cold house to help my father fix the boiler. My task was to hurriedly dig to the bottom of the coal bin with my hands and remove a piece of chunk coal mixed into the bin that had stuck and sheared the auger feed pin. Meanwhile my Dad built a new fire and replaced the shear pin after my dislodging the chunk. Washing off all that coal dust with Lifebuoy Soap in cold water was the climax, and then hopping back into bed in a hurry.
Otherwise we always had a nice warm house with radiators hissing that we could back up against, warm ourselves and dry our clothes. Loved that old coal stoker!
Old, pleasant memories become more vivid as we age, don’t they?