GOULDSBORO, Maine — When most people think of coal, they envision dirty, messy black soot that covers the hands and surroundings in dust and is difficult to clean up.
But businesses in the state that sell coal stoves and other alternative heating units say a growing number of people are embracing coal as a way to reduce heating costs.
Although the number of Mainers who heat with coal remains low, Sondra Chaploney, co-owner of Downeast Coal & Stoves in Gouldsboro, said the 5-year-old business has “close to 300 customers using coal stoves.”
“Coal is not like it used to be,” she said. “We carry anthracite coal, which is a cleaner coal that is clean-burning. Gone are the days when it is all dirty and black.”
Bruce White, the owner of Center Farms Inc. in Easton, agreed. The family-run business has been selling coal from eastern Pennsylvania for 18 years.
“Anthracite coal is what we carry, and that is not the coal of the past,” he said. “Anthracite coal is not hard to handle, and there is no worry of creosote. We have seen quite a bit of interest in heating with this type of coal as of late.”
Both Chaploney and White noted that, unlike bituminous coal, anthracite coal is long-lasting, has a low sulfur content and produces no creosote. Anthracite has the highest energy content of all coals, according to the National Mining Association, and averages 25 million Btu per ton. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that anthracite stoves meet all Environmental Protection Agency emission standards.
Chaploney said that a modern anthracite stove burns up to 36 hours without tending, and there is very little cleanup involved.
“Coal is long-lasting and is a cost-efficient alternative heating option,” she said, adding that a ton of coal contains as many Btu as 186 gallons of heating oil.
In Easton, White said that he believes coal gets a “bad rap” because many people think of bituminous coal when they think of heating with coal.
“Bituminous coal is smoky and has a high sulfur content,” he said. “Anthracite is much different.”
Coal costs between $300 and $325 a ton in Maine, based on price averages calculated earlier this week.
When oil prices began soaring three years ago, Chaploney said, Downeast Coal & Stoves saw its customer base increase.
“A lot of people came in with questions about using coal to heat their homes right about that time,” she said. “Many of those people had old coal stoves and coal boilers in their homes that had not been used for years. When the price of fuel went up, many of our customers went back to using coal.”
Chaploney also said that close to two dozen of her customers have traded in their wood pellet stoves for coal stoves.
Still, the number of people heating with coal in the state is very small. The Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security estimates that coal is used by only 1 percent of homes in Maine.
White said one of the downsides to coal stoves is that some people still have older-model coal-burning units, which can be difficult to light.
“Starting an old-style coal stove is much harder,” he said. “Today, the stoves are so much better. The automatic stoves can be lit in five minutes. They are comparable to pellet stoves and are much more user-friendly.”
Even though coal has been slow to catch on, Chaploney said she believes it is becoming more appealing.
“Right now, we are having a very good season,” she said. “I think that more people are turning to coal, not just for their stoves, but they also are looking at coal boilers and wood-and-coal combination stoves. I think that as time goes on, more and more people are going to see the benefits of heating with coal.”