Some Seward residents have been turning to coal because of its availability and cheaper cost when compared to wood, and certainly to the costs of fuel oil and electricity these days. There has been some debate at the Seward City Council level, and on Seward City News recently about residents complaining about its smell, health effects, and about how to get people to burn it properly, in the right stove.
The Alaska Division of Fire and Life Safety has just issued a warning to all Alaskan’s to make sure that when burning “alternative heat sources” such as coal or wood to heat their homes, that the type of material that they are using follows their stove’s manufacturer’s guidelines. Furthermore, the state division said consumers should be sure that your wood or coal burning stove has been tested and approved by a third party testing laboratory such as UL.”
“New technologies have improved the efficiency and safety of these old standby heat sources, but improper use and the failure to follow manufacturer guidelines can result in a disaster for the occupants of the home,” the division stated in a press release issued over the weekend.
“Just as it is important to use dry seasoned wood in a woodstove to prevent the buildup of creosote in the chimney, it is important to check the moisture content in the type of coal that you are burning,” it adds.
The problem these days is that more people are starting to burn the softer, lower grade bituminous coal with a higher moisture content in their coal stoves, often against the manufacturer’s instruction that may specify that they burn anthracite, the harder, higher grade coal, said Mahlon Greene, the State’s Division of Fire and Life Safety’s Education Officer. As the bituminous and sub-bituminous coal has much higher moisture content, burning it in a coal stove intended for the harder variety can cause dangerous build up in the stove or chimney, it can explode or cause the stove to fail, or the chimney stack to catch fire, Greene said. There have already been some examples of this occurring around Fairbanks, he added.
Greene also suggested customers ask their own supplier what type of coal they are selling, and make sure it fits within the manufacturers guidelines.
According to a new research report that Clean Air Fairbanks issued October 26th, 2013, the coal presently being sold to customers throughout Alaska is the softer variety of coal, sub-Bituminous coal mined in Healy by Usibelli Coal Inc. Coal stoves are typically designed for coal types such as the higher quality Anthracite, and occasionally Bituminous coal not available in Alaska, however, the report said. High-moisture coal burns with higher emissions, and thus carries a higher risk of explosions, chimney fires and structure fires.
Anthracite coal typically comes from locations far from Alaska, primarily Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Risks to safety and property losses are why manufacturer warranties restrict fuel use to low-moisture coal, Clean Air researchers said. UL certification is limited to fuels approved by the manufacturer. To misuse a stove with improper fuel‒even just one time‒voids the warranty and UL certification. UL certification is in the fine print of insurance policies, mortgage agreements, leases, and other contracts pertaining to property and liabilities. Therefore, the use of Alaska coal for heating raises significant, unrecognized liabilities for consumers.
The Clean Air Fairbanks report* also has includes a list of a variety of coal stoves commonly found in Alaska, chiefly five Harmon brand stoves, and their recommendations regarding the type of coal they should burn. Some of the information it contains was solicited specifically from the stove-companies.
The report also points to the Alaska Fire Marshal 2012 report that states that the most common cause of residential structure fires was heating (28%). The largest reported heating fire source was operating equipment (26%). Coal fires were not broken out as a subset, however.
Usibelli coal from Healy is shipped north to Fairbanks for use in the four small coal-fired power plants in the Interior, or transported on the Alaska Railroad to the Seward coal loading facility for shipment via Aurora Energy Services directly to markets in South Korea, Chile and Japan. There it is blended with higher-quality coal to reduce sulphur emissions and to comply with air quality regulations.
Some coal is sold directly to local Seward customers, mainly as a service to the local residents who can’t afford the high fuel oil prices, said Mike Hanson, Aurora Services Facilities Manager. Hanson hasn’t noticed an increase in coal sales to these local customers who actually make up only a tiny fracture of the overall business. His company doesn’t, and legally isn’t allowed to recommend a certain brand of stoves for customers to use with its coal, and isn’t aware of what’s on the market in that regard.
The real issue that the public should be discussing, he said, isn’t the pros and cons of burning coal, it’s that whatever “alternative fuel” folks are burning, they are burning it correctly, and maintaining their equipment as instructed by the manufacturer. There are some people burning wood in wood stoves, and fuel oil stoves that are also stinking because they are not being correctly used or properly maintained, Hanson said.
Reported by Heidi Zemach for SCN
(*edited for clarity as to which report was being described.)