Posted by Karen Duke on 10/21/2019 to Tech
A COAL FIREPLACE is not designed just to burn coal, it is designed to burn solid fuel. Both wood and coal are solid fuels, so a "coal fireplace" could burn wood as well as it can burn coal.
The question really is
CAN I BURN WOOD IN MY COAL FIREPLACE?
CAN I BURN WOOD IN MY COAL FIREPLACE?
The short answer really is to call a chimney sweep to clean and inspect your fireplace. Chances are great that he's going to recommend against using it with either wood or coal. That answer is going to leave you frustrated, so let's delve a little deeper to understand why.
WHAT IS A COAL FIREPLACE?
A coal fireplace is a very small masonry fireplace, most often found in homes built between 1880 and 1930. A coal fireplace is small - typically around 20" wide or less, and smaller than 12" deep. They are generally taller than they are wide, exactly opposite of how fireplaces are built today. Because coal burns so much hotter and longer than wood does, you only need a small amount of coal to create a large amount of heat. Back in the days before central heat, nicer homes had a coal fireplace in virtually every room to heat that single room. And such a house would also have commonly had servants to light and replenish the fires to keep the rooms comfortable for you all winter.
Like the fireplace pictured at left, a coal fireplace generally has a cast iron frame that once supported a hanging grate and included a door, or "summer cover" to close off the fireplace when not in use.
Because coal burns so much hotter, a masonry fireplace built to burn coal could also handle a wood fire BUT the wood has to be cut into very small pieces and you'll need to feed those little logs to it almost constantly to keep a fire going.
Now it's time for the bad news. If you have an original coal fireplace, your house is likely 100 years old or so. Chimneys in houses of this age are most often unlined, and it's for this reason that burning anything in it - coal, wood logs or even the prefab grocery store logs - is generally going to be a very bad idea. Contrary to most opinions in the chimney sweeping world, having an unlined chimney doesn't mean you're forbidden from burning it because we'll assume your house was built to the codes in effect at the time your house was built, and that may have been before clay tile chimney liners were invented, or it was built before chimney liners were required. So essentially an unlined chimney is "grandfathered" as being compliant to the codes at time of construction. It's not that building codes say you can't (in most cases). A chimney sweep may tell you this because they hope that will give you reason enough to not use it; it's a shortcut to the final outcome.
SHOULD you burn solid fuel in an unlined chimney?
Absolutely not, I do not recommend it. Clay tile liners create an extra safety barrier to protect the wood framing in your house from smoke leaks, carbon monoxide, soot, creosote and sparks from a chimney fire. An old chimney without chimney liners makes your home so much more vulnerable to fire damage, most especially because the old mortar begins to turn into sand and the brick walls may no longer be held firmly into place. Contrary to what you may want to believe, the fact that the chimney has stood for 100 years doesn't mean anything. It's not that code prevents you from burning it, it's that logic and concern for your family's safety says not to.
BUT I WANT TO BURN WOOD, OR COAL, OR PREFAB GROCERY STORE LOGS!
Then please have the chimney lined. For solid fuels this will be a stainless steel chimney liner or equivalent. It's a small investment for somebody who wants to enjoy a real fire, so commit to spend the money - a starting price of $4k or so - and be confident that you're being as safe as possible.
I don't know it all, but I've brought the joy of fire to folks for 40 years. When we were younger we heated our house with a wood stove for several seasons. Then we had wood fires more occasionally. When I got a gas fire in my house the first time, I felt like I hit the pinnacle of fire happiness, so that colors my opinion. I just thought it was the greatest convenience ever to walk in the house on a rainy chilly evening and there was an instant fire to settle in next to. You may want your years of burning wood so that you can really appreciate a gas fire later. But if you're on the fence about burning wood or burning gas in your little coal fireplace, then do some thoughtful consideration.
For about the same price as lining a chimney to burn wood fires, you can install a gas insert. The main reason that the price is so competitive has to do with the chimney liners.
- Wood fires need expensive stainless steel liners while gas inserts can use an inexpensive aluminum chimney liner.
- In most areas, natural gas is actually LESS EXPENSIVE than buying firewood
- Burning wood in an open fireplace results in very little heat, while even a small gas insert can heat 800-1200 sq. ft. or more
- You have a great choice of options - from vintage to contemporary - to suit the decor of your home
- You will learn to love not cleaning out ashes or hauling in wood at some point
You can also install an electric fire in your little coal fireplace. We've made it our mission to find the small models that fit. And they're about as difficult to install as a toaster - set it in place, plug it in, turn it on and enjoy!