Is Coal the Best Off-Grid Heating Fuel? – Chinese Villager Coal Stove Suggests That IT IS!

    Chinese Villager Coal Stoves – 3 sizes – at Star & Bullock Hardware

    Off-grid heating always comes down to two things: The size you hope to heat, and the fuel you hope to heat it with.

    When it comes to wood stoves, coal stoves, and most kerosene stoves, that first point is not taken into account. You select them according to how large a space you want to heat, not how small. And small is what survival heating is all about. Even if you are currently off-grid for your heating needs now, you should be thinking about what happens if the lights go off for good. You should be asking, does my stove give me the freedom to burn less fuel at one time to heat a smaller area.

    You could add firebrick to the inside of your burn chamber on a regular wood stove. This would give you a tight and efficient burn with less wood. Too much open space burns up your wood too fast. But that’s about the best you will accomplish. Those guys just aren’t built to heat one room.

    I started looking into coal a couple years ago, mostly because of my disastrous experience with storing wood in South Florida. My interest is of course for cooking, not heating, but in the process I learned a lot about coal stoves and how they work. And while looking for a cook stove that was set up for coal, I ran across this little guy you see in the video, which I’ll get to. And yes, I did figure out how to cook with coal as well, and will cover that in a future column.

    First you have to understand what makes a coal stove different from a wood stove. Fundamentally this comes down to air, and controlling the access to air by the fire. The BTUs in wood will burn up really quick if exposed to air, so most of the wood stove is created to cut that air off.

    A stove built specifically for coal will have what is called a shaker grate. This is a rotating open grate that allows you to shake the coal ash down, giving the burning coal more air. Coal will not burn on a flat bottom like a woodstove. It needs a good supply of air from the bottom.

    This gives you a cooler, longer burn, which is what makes a wood stove practical for everyday use. You fill it 3 or 4 times a day, and the heat will be consistent and predictable. With proper air control in the house, you can live comfortably in the far reaches while not baking where the stove is located. Many people still have their wood stove in the basement, as they have pipes down there anyway that can’t freeze, and heat distribution is much easier. Wood stoves generally have flat bottoms, not a grate that connects to the outside air, because you just don’t want air to get to that fire anymore than it has to in order to keep burning, and that isn’t much.

    With coal, it is completely the opposite. You need a good flow of air in order for coal to even burn, so there has to be a grate below the firebox where air can flow upward into the burning fire. Ideally this grate has a “shaker” as part of its design. This is a little lever on the stove that rotates the grate back and forth, which shakes the ashes down into the ash pan. Good stove tending also involves picking at the bottom of the burn with a pick to make sure that it has full access to air.

    Coal stoves are normally crazy expensive. Like pellet stove expensive. And unlike good old woodstoves, you never see rusty old cheap ones on Ebay, Facebook Marketplace, or at a local yard sale or antique shop. People who own coal stoves know that the antiques mostly got thrown away, and if you have one, you know what you had to pay for it.

    This little guy is perfect for someone preparing to survive winters off grid. Coal lasts for ever, never degrades, and a small stove will allow you to heat a small living space, conserving your fuel for the yet unknown times ahead.

    In China not so much. They use coal to heat individual homes almost exclusively in the villages. The CCP actually went on a smashing campaign last winter because someone from the gas companies greased the right official, who mandated that everyone on coal had to switch to gas. I saw videos of them going into peoples houses and literally tearing them out of the floor.

    The poor village Chinese also know the importance of not heating a space that you don’t need to heat. Every bag of coal is precious, and there may not be any tomorrow where they were able to get them today. So they know to conserve.

    These concepts are completely unknown to most Americans, but when you are preparing for a breakdown in the physical economy, it is something we all should try to learn quickly.

    My humble (ahem) advice is to plan to heat a space as small as you are able. I have said for years, set up a tent in your living room. Most dome tents down need any tie downs at all to set up just fine You can sleep in a sleeping bag with no heater at all, no problemo. By morning you will be unzipping the bag most nights.

    If you have an exit for a stovepipe, or you can use an existing chimney, make quilt insulators to hang up in your doorways so that your central living area is much easier to keep warm. With no electric you most likely will be hand pumping your water anyway (if you read my article on pitcher pumps), so blow out the pipes and accept that things have changed.

    Small wood stoves are out there. If you have wood available, go buy one. They sometimes even sell cheap cast iron tent stoves at places like Cabelas, and you can certainly get them online. When I first covered this topic there was an awesome wood stove on Ebay for $55 (which I still have). Now that stove is about $149. Right now both stamped and cast iron wood stoves are all north of $100, with many over $300. Get on this right now if you haven’t.

    Even though I have a ton of wood available all around me, I decided to look into coal for 3 reasons.

    1. I tried to keep some wood on hand just for campfires, and the pile quickly got termites and rotted, like in less than a year it was gone. That corner of my house then got termites.
    2. Even without South Florida’s brutal bugs, wood starts losing it’s BTUs as soon as it is dry enough to burn. Good luck finding any information on how much or why. In a cursory search I found nothing, but I researched it in depth several years ago and it for sure is true. People who sell firewood for a living know not to sell standing deadwood, even if it has no insect damage.
    3. In a small stove, you just have to refill them too often. They usually also have a very small opening, so you have to cut very small pieces to start, and split them thinner than you would. Or just use branches.

    In a survival situation, even an inefficient or less than perfect tool is better than no tool at all. But for me, coal makes a lot more sense, especially since finding these little tiny guys.

    I knew that coal burns a long time per fill. A regular wood stove might go 4-6 hours between fills, at least in my experience. In the morning, you are usually waking up cold and have to run to fill the stove before the kids get up. With coal, the same size stove will burn for 24-36 hours with no fill at all. You do have to periodically use the shaker grate and/or a pick. But longevity of an effortless burn is no comparison.

    It is also a lot less to carry. Bags of coal carry easier than armfulls of wood, and by weight, the BTUs are almost exactly double. Wood is about 6,000 BTUs per pound, while the common coal and anthracite grades are 12,000-15,000 BTUs per pound.

    And I have to mention, coal is way less dangerous to burn than wood. Taken from a stove website:

    “Wood and pellet stoves were responsible for almost 25,000 chimney fires in the US in 2021 alone. There has never been a chimney fire caused by an anthracite burning appliance. Also the chimney connected to an anthracite burning appliance requires brushing only every 5 to 10 years instead of every year as is required for chimneys connected to wood burning.”

    I’ll get to the types of coal below.

    On Buying Coal

    I got my coal from Pennsylvania Keystone Coal. Yup, delivered to South Florida, even though I have tons of wood available. Call me crazy, but this stuff never goes bad. It can get rained on and burned the same day, and it needs no container at all. You burn it exactly how it comes out of the ground.

    Most of the coal out there that is sold for home stoves is bituminous coal. It lights very easy (easier than I had imagined. if you watch the video I kept putting wood in the fire, even though the dense grey smoke from the coal was already smoking me out), but it is very dirty and produces a lot of smoke. Not so great for a covert prepper, but with a smoke diffuser much better than nothing.

    My choice was anthracite, which looks like regular coal like you would expect at a power plant, or in a steam locomotive, but it burns completely different.

    The common type of coal is called bituminous, or some grade thereof. It burns with a thick, dirty smoke, and your stove pipes need to be cleaned periodically, though from what I gather it is not dangerous like creosote from wood. If you are trying to hide the fact that you have a way to heat while many others do not, bituminous coal is not droid you are looking for.

    After doing some research, I ordered anthracite. It burns clean, with no smoke at all. But lighting it can be difficult, especially big pieces like this. I ended up smashing my “stove” size bricks into much smaller pieces so they would catch much easier. The most common size for stoves that is suggested out there is “nut” or “chestnut” size.

    Anthracite burns clean. You really never need to clean your pipes, and nothing comes out of the top of the pipe at all ( see the video). It is more expensive. I paid $700 per 1.25 ton pallet, before shipping which was ouchies even before diesel was almost five bucks a gallon.

    Anthracite is also a bitch to light. But now I have a system.

    Most of you who follow this column will remember that I recently covered a wood cookstove from Turkey. The firebox in that has a grate, so I figured hey, I’ll burn anthracite in it. And oh by the way, before I even try it, I’ll get two and a half freaking tons of the stuff. Then I went to try it, following the Youtube videos that are put out by the companies that make coal stoves. I built a wood fire so that I had coals, and put in my anthracite.

    Nothing. Grey instead of black.

    Then I tried using charcoal briquettes. Filled up the entire bottom of the firebox with those guys and lit them, let them burn a while, and dumped in my anthracite.

    Nothing. Not even grey.

    So I was really stuck. Two and a half tons stuck. Or so I thought. Then I got a couple ideas. One was to crack up my large pieces into smaller pieces so that they would have more surface area to catch. I had bought “stove” size coal, but the videos generally tell you to get “nut” or “chestnut” size. I also thought that maybe I would try regular soft bituminous coal to light the anthracite. I saw from a number of blacksmith videos that the stuff is pretty easy to light, so I got some on Ebay.

    And wouldn’t you know, it worked, first try. I got a ton of black smoke initially, and about 20 minutes later there was no smoke coming out of the pipe at all. I thought it went out, but it was glowing red.

    Testing This Little Stove

    As I said, what attracted me to this guy was its size, and that it had a shaker grate. I knew it was built for everyday home use in China, probably for a one room shanty kind of thing. There are three sizes. I got the smallest, 34cm tall, which is just over 13 inches.

    This is a very high quality stove, even though it is clearly sand cast and very rough looking. The door seals perfectly with asbestos rope, and it comes with four pieces of pipe and two elbows, plus all of the tools you need.

    Filled up to about the bottom of the outlet for the exhaust, the burn lasted for between 4 and 5 hours at full heat. Six hours later it was still hot, but it had gone out leaving a small amount of fuel in the stove. I show in the video. During this time I did not use the shaker grate or pick the ashes from the bottom at all. I wanted to replicate going to bed. I grabbed an almost dead battery panel for the solar light I used for the video, but you can see pretty ok.

    I don’t see why you could not fill the stove right to the top, and maybe hope to get up during the night once to shake the ashes down. My guess is that you will get at least a solid 6 to 7 hours per burn. You ideally don’t want this stove to go out, because the lighting process has to begin again.

    Of course during the day you would be careful to not let it go out at all. My guess is that a 50lb bag of anthracite would last you a week or so. I don’t have any experience yet with burning pure bituminous coal.

    My plan to use bituminous coal to light the anthracite worked perfectly. Within about 20 minutes there was no smoke coming out of the pipe at all, and it was ripsnorting hot.

    The stove comes with 4 sections of pipe about 2′ long each, and two elbows. The Chinese have an interesting way to insure a tight fit of several different sizes of pipes. They make the exhaust a conical oval, so you jam the pipe on and it bends to shape.

    It also comes with tongs, a shovel, a lid lifter handle, and a picker. There is a glass window, and the door is fully insulated from leakage with thermal rope.

    The only thing hinky feeling on the stove is the latch. It kind of hangs and is not screwed in all the way so that it can exert leverage to the door as it closes for a good seal. I understand why they did it like that, but there were more elegant solutions. It comes fully assembled, and the stove pipe and tools come in a separate box.

    Being such a tiny stove, you have to fill it more often than you would with a whole house sized stove, which are known to burn for upwards of 36 hours on one fill. I got about 4-5 hours out of this load, probably 4/5ths full in the stove. And I forgot to shake the ash down or pick it. I think with a full load of larger nuggets that 8 hours is not unreasonable for this little guy. There are two larger sizes I have not yet tested, but which are available at the link below. These stoves are used all over the Chinese villages, so they are very mature and consistent products. If you want to know how to live off grid, look at people who live their whole lives with no grid.

    As always I try to have some of this stuff in the country and in-hand when I cover it. So there is a very limited supply of this smallest option available at Star & Bullock Hardware. After those are gone, we have arranged to direct ship them from China, via either air or sea.

    These stoves were not meant for shipping around the world individually, but they are packed well and the ones we do have came individually with no damage at all. It is must more expensive the quicker you want them. All three sizes are available, and should arrive well within the stated times. I have a friend in China who is personally sending them, and he has been extremely reliable.

    Needless to say, winter is coming. All evidence I can see points to a confluence of factors that are all converging now. And part of that is probably that we will be at war with China, so please, get in on this incredible stuff while those fools are still taking monopoly money dollars for their hard work and resources. I can assure you the party is not going to last.

    Chinese Villager Coal Stoves – 3 sizes – at Star & Bullock Hardware

    Paul Helinski

    Leave a Comment

    • Thomas McWilliams October 3, 2022, 10:22 am Reply

      Are there problems with corrosion when using coal? I have read that it will damage metal roofing and stainless stove pipe. My triple wall pipe manufacturer recommended against its use.

      • Paul Helinski October 3, 2022, 10:34 am Reply

        I have not seen anything in the coal stove videos about it. We are kind of talking about something where all warranties would have expired anyway lol. My guess is that the smoke from bituminous coal is probably pretty corrosive. Anthracite really has no smoke at all. I have read that you can even cook over it like propane. But I haven’t tried that yet.

        • Thomas McWilliams October 3, 2022, 11:16 am Reply

          We heat with a wood/coal Esse Ironheart cookstove in the house and will be using a restored Glenwood Cottage wood/coal cookstove in an outbuilding. Just brought in a ton of Anthracite for backup use.

          • Paul Helinski October 4, 2022, 1:08 pm Reply

            I really wish more people would understand how much of a score being able to store coal is, and how having a tiny stove like this makes it last. Everyone who read this should have gotten a line on coal and scored a stove, then forwarded it to all of their friends. But not the case. Those cookstoves are huge scores. For most people all of this is still infotainment.

    • Dave October 5, 2022, 7:51 am Reply

      Great article, good information for those who don’t know.
      I think most of us are a little lax in some area of being prepared.