Are You Thinking About Wood or Coal? Here's One Woman's View
I live in rural northwest Pennsylvania and in my house we heat and cook with wood and coal for about 8 months out of the year.
We don’t burn much coal and for the most part wood works well for us. Only during the hardest and coldest part of the winter do we use a bit of bagged Anthracite coal for heat.
Solar heat or energy is not possible for us because we have too many cloudy days here. When given a choice I’ve always preferred affordable low tech options that I can easily understand.
IT’S A TRADE OFF
Where we live wood is very plentiful and there are few state regulations that govern the operation of solid fuel appliances. There are certain building codes and federal regulations regarding wood or coal-burning appliances but they are often ignored at the local level whenever possible.
Wood and coal have been an affordable energy alternative for us when compared to natural gas, electricity or petroleum.
Over the years we have literally saved tens of thousands of dollars. Our wood and coal stoves have paid for themselves at least four or five times over – and that’s including the cost of the expensive cook stove in the kitchen. This year alone we will save between $3600 to $3800 in heating costs contingent upon how cold and long this coming winter is.
What we will save this winter in heating costs is the price of a middle to top of the line wood stove or furnace and it’s much more than half the price of the most expensive cook stove that I know of.
So depending upon the brand and model chosen, a solid fuel stove at today’s prices will pay for itself in saved energy costs within the first year.
The money that we will save in heating costs does not include the money that will be saved over the next 6 months because the LP propane stove will not be used regularly for cooking again until next summer.
Back in the days when I had an electric range the savings averaged about a quarter of my total electric bill every month.
Here in rural western Pennsylvania free wood can often be had if families are willing to spend a month of long hard Saturdays or Sundays cleaning up slash wood from commercial logging operations. Gathering free firewood always seemed to me a better use of family time and resources than shopping, watching TV, going to the gym or hauling children to extracurricular “activities”.
All it takes is a few phone calls, the cost of a chain saw and a willingness to work hard.
For those who cannot cut their own wood, seasoned fire wood at present in my area of the country is running about $150 a cord delivered. Fire wood is measured in “cord wood”. A cord of wood is a stack of wood 4 feet deep by 4 feet high by 8 feet long. It takes 5 – 7 cords of wood for my house to make it though a winter.
My husband cuts and splits all the wood for our home.
It’s a big job for one man and usually takes him about 3 or 4 complete weekends working 12 hours a day.
Time can be saved if the trees are already on the ground. But if the trees need to be dropped it can take much longer. Felling trees and removing the branches takes time and planning. It can be dangerous, hot and dirty work.
The freedom of not being dependent upon the big energy companies and good weather for a hot meal and a warm home is a source of comfort and security for my husband and me.
Fact is nothing keeps you as warm as wood or coal heat.
But heating and cooking with wood and coal comes with other costs that are often unseen and unknown to the general public who are used to easy energy.
In my life there have been real tradeoffs in terms of time, labor, convenience and lifestyle.
No matter how you look at it – there’s no free lunch.
You either have to go out to work for someone else to earn the money to stay warm with easy energy if you live in a cold climate, or you have to be willing to adjust to a lifestyle of labor and discipline that many people find confining and sheer drudgery.
WOOD or COAL
We have three wood stoves in our house and two of them have small fireboxes.
So that means that during hard winter I can’t be gone from home for more than 3 or 4 hours unless I’m burning coal because the fires will begin to go out.
In the early 19th century when wood was the only option for most of rural America, someone usually had to stay behind at home “to keep the home fires burning”.
These days, to re-start a fire is not a hardship because of matches and newspaper. But before the advent of matches it was a small household crises to have a fire go out.
It usually meant having to strike a spark from flint and steel and hope for good luck. Often a child was sent to the neighbor’s house to bring live embers home with sometimes disastrous consequences. Many a child was seriously burned due to immaturity or carelessness while carrying hot embers.
Back then, to have a fire go out meant waiting in the darkness and cold until the fire could be started again. Without a fire there was no cooking or hot water for cleaning or personal hygiene. It could take an entire day to remedy the situation and get the household running smoothly again.
Now if I chose to burn coal I can be gone from home for a longer amount of time.
But bagged Anthracite coal costs money. At present bagged Anthracite is about $6 a bag or around $300 per ton.
If I were to choose to only burn Anthracite coal for heat I would use no more than 1 ½ tons of coal a year.
So this year my heating costs would be around $450 if I only burned coal.
If I were to select Bituminous coal my heating costs would be even lower. Bituminous coal is dusty, smelly and does not burn as clean or as hot as Anthracite coal; but it is readily available here in western Pennsylvania. In fact my farm has been mined for coal in the past and two generations ago a small family drift mine was in operation here.
If I supplement my wood burning with coal, I will typically use between a half to one full bag of coal a day depending upon how cold it is outdoors. The closer the thermometer gets to 0°F the more coal I would have to use.
But even at the price of $6 a bag or $300 a ton, coal is a considerable savings over fuel oil, electricity or natural gas.
If I lived in an area where wood was not readily available or if I worked away from home all day, I would choose coal as my primary heat source.
Because of my small fireboxes there have been many times that I have had to cut a trip away from home short because I needed to return to feed a fire. Those moments are inconvenient. But I’d not be telling the whole truth if I didn’t also mention that there have been times that I have also used the excuse of tending to a wood fire to leave a tedious social situation early.
WHAT A DAMN DIRTY MESS
Heating and cooking with wood has many benefits. But one thing I have never been able to get used to and I consider a disadvantage is the sheer amount of dirt, snow, mud, bark, wood chips, insects and debris associated with wood that end ups in the house.
Coal is not so bad. But it takes a good started wood fire to make a coal fire. So there’s no getting around it.
Wood has had a direct impact on my housekeeping and has authored the interior design of my home.
Let me explain:
I’m a fussy housekeeper and to my way of thinking, trails of wood chips, piles of fly ash, bits of bark and soot left unattended are nothing less than a declaration of war.
Dirt and disorder are battles to be won, and victory is achievable with buckets of hot soapy water, a scrub brush, clean rags and a mop.
But some household wars can’t be won – even for a Pennsylvania German Farm Wife.
Wood and coal are very dirty alternatives to electricity, fuel oil or natural gas; but wood and coal are an important part of my everyday life.
So in terms of housekeeping if I want to stay completely happy and sane, the best I can do is manage the mess and realistically accommodate the life I chose to live.
Years ago I had to decline to follow the style of many middle class American homes.
That means scrubbable painted walls, no carpeting or drapes, washable upholstery, very little glass or bric brac and a big red fire extinguisher in all almost every room of my home.
I try to sweep my floors every day and two or three times a year all the walls in my home must be washed.
Windows must be washed at least 6 times a year and soot smudges from fingers that end up on woodwork, the bathroom sink or on the refrigerator are a constant battle.
Soot transfers very easily and can be hard to remove. I keep cleaning rags and a spray bottle of ammonia and water handy for that purpose.
THE HOUSE CAN GET TOO HOT or TOO COLD – SELDOM JUST RIGHT FOR TOO LONG
Heating with wood or coal is not as convenient as simply flipping a switch or turning up a thermostat.
The heat from a solid fuel appliance is much more creaturely comfortable, but is not as stable a heat as modern natural gas, fuel oil or electric heat.
Wood heat always needs to be fiddled with.
Wood or coal heat is a very dry heat. No matter how many pans of water I set out the relative humidity in my house rarely rises above 28% during hard winter.
That kind of desert like dryness takes a toll on wooden furniture, books and on skin.
Most days when I’m busy about the house I work in a tank top because the house seems over hot to me with temperatures averaging around 80°F -85°F. I’m most comfortable with interior temperatures of about 62°F when I’m active.
But on winter mornings when outdoor temperatures are in the single digits or lower, and the house has lost temperature overnight, it sometimes is so cold in my bedroom that I can see my breath.
When I first get up in the morning it reminds me of camping in the mountains in October. Except it is no vacation – it’s normal daily life during the winter months.
Leaving a warm bed behind on a frigid morning to rekindle or re-light a fire has often been a real personal challenge of will for me.
Many mornings I’ve lain in bed hoping in vain my husband or the Wood Fairies would get up first to get the fires going again.
It’s mostly mind over matter.
To get out of bed on a cold morning takes courage.
I prepare myself first before I throw back the blankets. I take a deep breath when my feet hit the floor and grab a wool shawl as I head towards the kitchen to light the cook stove and start about the business of living another day.
I WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY
Usually by the end of February I’ve had quite enough of wood and coal and all the things that go with them.
The end of March and April are challenging months to heat with wood because of the approaching spring.
Often the weather is very cold only in the morning and in the evening and fires do not need to be going all day. So that makes for starting two and sometimes three fires a day in the same stove.
When the weather is cold or rainy it can be a challenge to know how long or how hot or how many stoves need to be fired.
When I first started to heat with wood it took me about three full years to understand all the variables in stove operation, in the weather, in my house and in my own personality and character.
When heating with wood or coal nothing can replace personal experience. You must live it to understand it.
In the beginning I had to learn a new way of living.
I had to adjust my attitude and outlook to a new cycle of life centered around tending a fire. The notion of hearth and home took on deeper meaning for me.
Many years have gone by since then.
Now I’m old and well-seasoned just like good firewood and I have been heating with wood for so long I can hardly remember any other way of life.
In spite of the labor and mess involved and the sometimes terribly cold mornings, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Heating with wood and coal are right for me and my circumstance. It has made good economic sense over the years and brings with it a measure of independence and energy security that wasn’t found back when I was a helpless slave to the energy grid.
But believe me, all that said – the spring is always welcomed here.