I am using a 1/2" steel rod with a 1" bend in it at 90°and another 90° bend of 4" on the other end that I use as a handle. I am inserting it straight through the front grate of the ash door. I run it through each of the vertical slots and twist it as I push it all the way to the back of the stove. This seems it get all the ash off the bottom of the pile. I have tried a few times poking down through the bed but it doesn't seem as effective and I really messed up the bed.
I am loading the stove (without the grates) to the level of the bottom of the loading door. It's about 9" deep and seems to be enough to burn for 12 hours and heat 2 zones (71°downstairs and 60°upstairs with no one using it) and make enough hot water.
I'm still having the problem of slowing down the fire when I shake the ash down and add coal. I am going to follow you spidy and add a little layer of coal after shaking and then WAIT till it gets going before I add any more. The last few times I put a layer over the whole bed and it took a long time to get going again. The stove dropped down to about 100° and just wouldn't get going for about an hour.
I have no experience at all. Not even with a fireplace. so this is my first attempt at burning any solid fuel and I am getting a kick out of it! I really appreciate this site and all of you for adding your advice and comments. I can't believe how far I have come in such a short time and never would have known what to do without you help( get a barometric damper, a CO detector, using the rod for ash). So THANK YOU all.
After burning about 10 forty pound bags so far I am so pleased that I have ordered 4 tons to be delivered next week.
Note to Spidy: Yes, most of that creosote that was built up on the insides of the stove has disappeared!