The Heating Season is Full On
As longtime readers of CRS know I’ve been an advocate of not only alternative fuels but diversified heating sources as well. I’ve got electric and propane space heaters and, in addition, I also have a couple of kerosene heaters as well. Together with my conventional domestic oil-fired, hot-water baseboard power plant this allows for the greatest flexibility in periods of shortage of one fuel or another.
Ironically, though I am calling coal and wood non-traditional fuels, in fact, these have been and remain the primary sources of energy for many parts of the world. Apart from animal dung, wood is probably the oldest and most utilized fuel in the world. Wood is renewable, and as pointed out previous issues of CRS, a properly managed woodlot should last for generations of family. Wood provides excellent by-products and when properly aged is highly efficient in heat production. Some rabid environmentalists think wood is highly polluting, and as a result restrictions and additional equipment have been imposed, driving up cost and infringing on your freedom of choice. Meanwhile, wood is cheap, even free. Most states hold lotteries for those wishing to help glean the state forest of scrub trees for a small fee. Contact your local conservation department for more information on this program. Industrial pallets, which are made of hardwood, are free for the hauling in most areas, are also a good source of fuel. A truly innovative and ingenious homesteader can come up with all kinds of ways to get his winter supply of wood.
Hardwood of course is best, as softwood leaves a residue of creosote from the cooler burning and the tars and pitch in the wood itself. Wood like oak, maple, beech, walnut and apple burn with the highest temperatures and give the highest Btu’s per pound. If available, softwoods can be mixed hardwood to help reduce creosote but this does lower the temperature somewhat. Wood is available in most areas of the country and has the most potential for individual energy independence.
Coal is an excellent fuel and the United States has abundant reserves, at last count we have five hundred years’ worth at current consumption levels. I am partial to coal because I worked in the industry for two and one-half decades and I have seen the care the miners take to restore the mined out areas and I also use coal as a heat source in my current home. The magenta glow of the flames and coals is quite relaxing and the warmth is sustained with less attention than wood. Being in the southwest of New England, (only about 120 miles from the anthracite fields), coal is relatively inexpensive. Coal also produces an ash by-product but it is not recommended for garden use because the combustion of coal concentrates heavy metals. It does, however, make an excellent substitute for damaging salt on walkways and driveways as it provides traction. A coal fire can theoretically burn from Halloween until Saint Patrick’s Day. I prefer, however, to let it burn out about every six weeks, so I can clean out the accumulated ash as it does insulate the stove greatly restricting heat flow.
Pound for pound the Btu output of coal is far greater than the hottest burning hardwood. This is due to the Fixed Carbon content of the coal. The Fixed Carbon is the measure of the inherent carbon content, the chief combustible constituent of the material. In anthracite coal the F. C. content is between 83% and 89%. Coke, a processed product of bituminous coal, (similar to charcoal / wood relationship) is approximately 94% to 99% F.C., virtually pure carbon. The Fixed Carbon content of wood is much lower than anthracite and bituminous coal or coke. Coal is about 80 to 85% of the equivalent of wood. In other words, if you require five cords of wood per season to heat your home, you would need only four to 4.25 tons of anthracite. The real test of coal versus wood is its heating cost. Mixed hardwoods are equal to 24 Million Btu’s / cord; anthracite coal is about 13,500 Btu’s / lb.; therefore one net ton (2,000 lbs.) is 27 Million Btu’s. If the cost of a cord of mixed hardwood is $135 / cord than the cost is $5.63 / mm Btu’s. Coal would be $5.56 / mm Btu’s at a $150 / net ton. Keep in mind that coal is also officially weighed and a weight certificate is available. The trouble with wood is, it is very subjective about what makes up a cord. You generally take the deliverer’s word that his truck has a capacity of exactly one cord. Nevertheless, a cord depends on the size and cut of each piece and the way is loaded. Most often when you receive a “cord” of wood you get between 75 and 90% of what a true cord should be. A cord of wood should measure 4″ x 4″ x 8″ stacked tight; most wood is delivered in a random pile in the truck, when stacked tight, as a cord should be, it never equals these dimensions. Therefore, the true cost of a cord is 25% higher or $168.75, making the comparable cost $7.03 / mm Btu’s.
As pointed out there are two types of coal, anthracite and bituminous. Anthracite being a higher carbon content has little extraneous matter compared with bituminous therefore, it burns “cleaner”. Bituminous inherently contains other elements in its structure and therefore burns “dirtier”, hence the bituminous term, which means smoky. Coke is a processed form of bituminous coal that bakes out all impurities, leaving a pure carbon product. Coke is generally used in heavy industry, like steel making, but can sometimes be had on the retail level for home heating purposes. The processing of coke adds to the cost and therefore, is cost prohibitive for the homesteader. Between bituminous and anthracite, coal is widely available throughout North America. I would recommend its use not only because of it efficiency but because of its flexibility. Wood, to burn efficiently, must be seasoned for a year or more, and stored out of the weather. Coal on the other hand is stove-ready as delivered and although it will perform well if exposed can be easily sheltered in a bin.
Other forms of combustion stoves are available, like pellet or corn but these are exclusively designed by the manufacturer to burn only these fuels. In a greatly reduced society these items, being specialties, may not be available. Coal / wood combination stoves, on the other hand can burn anything combustible, even furniture if it should become necessary for survival.
If you obtain your wood from your own woodlot, the cost is nothing and radically changes the above equation in favor of wood.
The key to deciding wood vs. coal is distance to the “breaker”, “tipple”, or mine. That is why I suggest that you locate in or around a coal producing region.
Solar energy as a heat source is highly efficient, costs nothing to operate, (though it does have a prohibitively higher installation cost) and can theoretically be your sole heating source depending on where you live and how vigilantly monitored. Passive solar is more effective if used with other heat sources.
An energy source in its infancy ideally suited to solar partnership is geothermal. Geothermal is primarily a heat pump. This is a technology used quite extensively in the South. The heat pump there uses air to air exchange for both heating and cooling. However, in the colder Northern states this has not been practical. Now however, geothermal is being used as the means of exchange. The system uses the earth as the heat source by placing pipeline containing the exchange fluid as least 4 feet into the earth. At this depth the earth has a stable temperature of about 60 degrees year round. The heat pump uses this stable medium to exchange heat or cold on demand. This promises to be a lucrative energy source. It is renewable, completely clean and environmentally sound. Best of all it originates on the land of the person using it and is ideal for the homesteader. Some electricity is needed to run the system but with solar electric, wind or hydro power, this could conceivably be a completely free and self-contained form of energy. While it is still in its infancy, it is worth keeping up with geothermal technology to determine when being the most feasible for you is likely.
To summarize, the most efficient means of space heating is still the old standbys of solid carbon fuels, coal or wood, despite what Al Gore and Company may say. The problem is that these clowns are constantly putting obstacles in front of what should be an easily resolved problem of home heating alternatives. I would encourage all readers to look into these traditional and “go to” fuels, most especially when the Schumer Hits the Fan.
Richard of Danbury, D.S.G.