This NEPA forum has been the best resource for solid fuel appliance research and I only wish that it was around before I spent my hard earned money. I would have had a much better set up and a less expensive investment than the trial and error method which most that don't know any better end up going.
I also wish I had discovered this forum sooner and taken a few members up on their offers to let me visit and check out their coal-fired heating system. Here is my story about how and why I ended up with the heating system that I have now. Like many people, I started with out with a hand-fed stove...because that's what I could afford at the time (it was free). It did what it was supposed to do...it heated the area the stove was in (basement), but my house was not setup to allow for natural heat circulation. I still had to burn a considerable amount of fuel oil to heat the 1st floor on cold days, and the second floor anytime we had guests. It was nice having warm floors and it did take a bite out of the oil bill, but it didn't do what I wanted...which was to heat the entire house without fuel oil. After two winters with stoves (first with freebie, second with Hitzer), I made up my mind that it was time to take advantage of all the cast iron radiation in the house and get a coal boiler. I found one for a great price, but we got hit with some unexpected bills and I missed out on the boiler. As luck would have it, my wife and I ended up buying a different house that already had a wood/coal combination boiler installed. I thought I had it made...a coal-fired hydronic system already hooked up and functional. Wood was out of the question since I don't have a cheap supply and the boiler ate it like my dog eats popcorn (as fast as you can throw it)...so I went into the winter with a big pile of nut coal and high hopes. The hand-fed boiler did take care of the heat distribution problem, but I quickly discovered it needed a big dump zone to prevent overheating on warm days. As the weather got colder, I started waking up to the oil boiler running because the hand-fed was not keeping up after an overnight burn. I adjusted my shake and reload schedule to make it through the night, but when the weather got really nasty the firebox would get massive clinkers that had to be broken up. By March I had enough and just let the oil boiler take over. While all of this was going on, my dad was getting tired of heating only half of their house with his Hitzer stove. We talked it over, and decided that the best solution for each of us was to install a stoker boiler. The main reasons were as follows.
1. Central heating already installed. Like Doug said, how the house is setup plays a big role in what you chose. In our case, both houses were not setup to be heated easily via a free-standing stove, and each house already had a multi-zone hydronic system installed.
2. We did not want to burn fuel oil unless it was by choice. With dad’s Hitzer stove running, he was still burning fuel oil for a radiant slab in the breezeway, and the second floor. I was burning fuel oil during the fall when it was too warm to run the hand-fed boiler, in the morning when the fire had burned out, and again in the spring when it was too warm. (In total I burned 1000 gallons!) The only way for us to eliminate fuel oil consumption was with a real central heating appliance.
3. We wanted to produce a lot of domestic hot water. Dad’s existing oil boiler and indirect hot water heater were marginally sized for his home, and had a hard time producing enough hot water for back-to-back showers (and occasionally a soaker tub). He was ready to step it up and get something that would make a lot of domestic hot water. I was in the same boat, and also wanted to heat my pool during the summer.
The only coal burning appliance that could do all the things I listed above was a stoker boiler. Some people think they are too expensive…well, that depends. Refurbished units are about half the cost of new (or less)…and should last for decades without major problems. In my case, by being able to burn coal year-round and not burn fuel oil in the fall/spring, I save more money than if I was only supplementing the heat load with a radiant stove or a hand-fed boiler. According to my calculations, if I had just bit the bullet four years ago and bought a stoker boiler, I would be money ahead compared to the route I took with a freebie stove, a $1100 radiant stove, and the hand-fed boiler that came with the house I live in currently.
My dad and I chose EFM boilers because of their reputation for being efficient, durable, and quiet. I’m sure a Keystoker, AHS, AA, Van Wert, etc would also do a fine job.
About the only disadvantages I can think of are that the stokers require electricity to operate, and you rely on moving parts to product & distribute the heat. I have found the stoker mechanism and circulator pumps to be very reliable, and I deal with the electric part by having a generator on standby. We have a well, so the generator allows us to keep the heat/water/lights on. If I decide that we need more heating redundancy, maybe I will start looking for a budget-priced free-standing stove.