Letter Re: Coal–The Other Black Gold

I was in a bad pickle this summer.  A housing opportunity came by and my family moved to a nice country home in Minnesota farm country.  It’s low traffic, well sheltered from the wind on all sides by mature trees, and safe for outside pets.  There is ample space for a large garden that will produce a surplus while feeding the entire family.  Yet there is one problem.  The house, while well kept, is a century old.  It is not very well insulated, and we knew from the previous tenant that it is difficult to heat in the winter.

The heating system we inherited is a central heating oil furnace.  It is a good backup unit and we did fill the tank completely, but we knew that trying to heat the house that way would take most of our spare money and prohibit us from expanding other necessary preparations.  So before the weather got bad we decided to get a wood burning furnace.  I decided we should get a coal/wood stove, just to have additional options.  It must have been the Lord’s providence because that decision is now proving critical in this bitterly cold winter season.

We started heating the house with wood.  We got the place too late to properly harvest dead trees around the property, so we bought $500 worth of wood at $125 a cord.  Even before December we had burned through about $350 of it.  So we decided to try something different and searched for a source of coal.  About four hours away in North Dakota we found a source for lignite coal at $35 a ton!  And it’s been an absolute godsend.  Where we got 3-5 hour burn times with wood, we get 6-10 hours with coal, and it’s been a bitterly cold December!  We’ve often been in the single digits, and lows are commonly in the -10F to -24F range.  In fact the forecast is predicting three straight days of subzero temps with lows in the double digits!  Throughout all of it, we have kept the house a cozy 70F during the day and 65F at night.  And instead of $500+ a month for heating oil or $300+ for purchased firewood, it will be about $100 a month for coal!  That’s even including our inefficient purchase of only 4 1/2 tons of coal that we had to truck 8 hours round trip.  In the future we plan to get a larger rig together or hire a trucker and take a much larger delivery of coal.  I’m sure we can get the cost down to $45-50 a ton, delivered!

After my experiences I’ve been pondering how your American Redoubt region has been especially blessed with two great heating sources, wood and coal.  If you have the access and physical capabilities, nothing beats the price of your own harvested firewood.  For many that don’t have access or are up in age, coal is going to be a better choice.  Laying in a nice supply of coal would also be good insurance even if you are well situated to harvest lumber, in case an injury prevents you from harvesting.  There are large coal mines in Wyoming, Montana and Northern Colorado.  A friend of mine informed me that the prices in Montana and Wyoming are about double that of North Dakota coal, but the heat output is even better and there is less ash production, so it’s still a great bargain.   For those of you that live near Pennsylvania, Virginia/West Virginia and Kentucky, there is even higher quality [hard anthracite] coal available!

I have personally chosen a manual feed furnace as it will provide convection heat throughout the house even without electricity, and it can burn wood if I run out of coal and cannot obtain more.   For those that don’t have the time or inclination to run a hand fed stove, there are stoker coal furnaces that will automatically feed the fire from a large hopper and using a computer they will perfectly regulate your home temperature.

I find myself driving and using gasoline less and less and spending more time working on the farmstead, so coal has definitely become the “Other Black Gold” for me!  With the money I have been saving using coal, I will be able to afford to buy some yellow gold very soon!

A handy web site has a cost/BTU calculator as well as a calculator that will let you input your current monthly costs to compare what it would cost with other heating sources.  I invite your readers to check it out and see what they might be able to save by heating with coal.

The same web site also has lively and very informative discussion forums on modern and antique coal stoves and furnaces, with links at the top and bottom of the page.  Please keep in mind that the majority of members are from the Eastern States, so I do recommend keeping political talk to the proper sub forum.  My experience is that most are rough cut but good natured blue collar workers, probably many Reagan Democrats that feel abandoned by both political parties.  In that regard they are no different than many of us.  Also, many in the forums experienced the full brunt of Hurricane Sandy, and it was the push they needed to start making good preparations.  It could be that God lets such disasters occur to wake up his people to what greater tragedies may befall us in the future, and to allow us to get ready before it is too late. – Mark in Minnesota