The old warning that naughty children would only get a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings never had much effect on me. We really did not make a big deal about the whole stocking thing in my house when I was growing up. But then, we also exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve, a Norwegian tradition. Or maybe just out Norwegian family tradition. But now, getting coal in your stocking for some folks is a score, not a penalty. The use of coal for residential heating is on the rise.
Burning coal at home was once commonplace, of course, but the practice had been declining for decades. Coal consumption for residential use hit a low of 258,000 tons in 2006 — then started to rise. It jumped 9 percent in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration, and 10 percent more in the first eight months of 2008.
Online coal forums are buzzing with activity, as residential coal enthusiasts trade tips and advice for buying and tending to coal heaters. And manufacturers and dealers of coal-burning stoves say they have been deluged with orders — many placed when the price of heating oil jumped last summer — that they are struggling to fill.
“Back in the 1980s, we sold hundreds a year,” said Rich Kauffman, the sales manager at E.F.M. Automatic Heat in Emmaus, Pa., one of the oldest makers of coal-fired furnaces and boilers in the United States, in a nod to the uptick in coal sales that followed the oil crises of the 1970s.
“But that dwindled to nothing in the early 1990s — down to as many as 10 a year,” he said. “It picked up about a year ago, when we moved about 60 units, and then this year we’ve already sold 200.”
When my wife and I lived in New York, we bought a lovely, old cobblestone house. It was built somewhere around 1827-1835. It was not a “fancy” cobblestone, with meticulous herringbone stone patterns and had been unoccupied for a number of years before we bought it. It wasn’t all that big, but it was well built with massively thick walls. It also had no central heat.
At some point, a previous owner had installed electric baseboard heaters in the rooms of the house. These cost a fortune to run in winter. My wife and I installed a coal stove insert in the old cobblestone part of the house in the main fireplace and a pellet stove in the newer addition that had been put on at some date.
They worked great. A lot of work, but heat was not a problem. Because of the house layout, natural circulation kept the house nice and warm, no matter how cold it was outside. That coal stove put out some serious heat, too. (We had to have a stainless steel liner installed in the old stone chimney to accommodate the stove.) I burned pea-sized anthracite in the stove. A ton takes up a surprisingly small volume and I built a smallish bin to hold it. Yeah, I had to lug coal and ash on a regular basis, but it wasn’t all that bad. It also kept the house comfortable.