Friday, November 02, 2007

As oil prices rise, more warming to coal

Portland Press Herald

Coal is less convenient than burning oil, but it's much cheaper and less 'dirty' than years ago.

By SETH HARKNESS, Staff Writer November 2, 2007

Tim Clements' home in Buxton is 75 degrees or warmer all
winter long, and he hasn't paid an oil bill in years. Beside his
house is a large pile of coal, used to stoke an outdoor boiler that
heats his home and a nearby greenhouse.

"Ideally you make one fire starting in the fall when it gets cold
and that same fire goes through the whole heating season," he

Clements has burned coal for more than a decade. But with the
price of oil and natural gas soaring – crude oil prices briefly hit a
record $96 per barrel Thursday – more people are re-examining
what once seemed a fuel of the past as an affordable way to
fend off the Maine winter.

"I can't even keep up with it," said John Flink, who bought an
established coal dealership, Rings Coal, last year and heats his
own 7,000-square-foot Victorian home in Auburn with coal.

Coal was the primary means of heating homes and large
buildings in the Northeast from the late 19th century until the
mid-1950s, when oil, then selling for less than 20 cents a
gallon, became popular as a cheap and convenient fuel. The
number of people heating with coal in Maine today is very small,
but several coal dealers said their sales are on the upswing as
more people recognize that coal can be a viable alternative to
other fuels.

Pound for pound, no other heating fuel packs the BTU value of
coal. A ton of coal contains as many BTUs as 186 gallons of
heating oil. Since coal costs about $300 per ton in Maine and the
average price of heating oil in Maine is $2.85 a gallon this week,
heating with coal can provide considerable savings.

Coal is closer to wood in terms of cost and heating value. A ton
of coal is the BTU equivalent of 1.3 cords of firewood. But those
who favor coal point to its longer burn times – most coal stoves
can easily burn 15 hours or longer without refueling. Many
people also maintain that coal is easier to handle than wood
because it doesn't have to be kept dry and there's no splitting or

"You get the benefits of wood and it's a whole lot cheaper than
oil," said Bill Chaploney, who opened Downeast Coal and Stove
in Gouldsboro three years ago. In that time, Chaploney said he
has seen sales rise from 17 tons per year to 200 tons.

Many coal dealers say their product does suffer from an image
problem. The popular perception of coal is that it's a dirty fuel
that creates a highly polluting smoke during combustion.

That is true of the bituminous coal used to power most of the
nation's power plants, but the anthracite coal used for home
heating is the hardest variety of the fossilized plant matter and
resembles black glass. The smoke from this fuel is clear,
odorless and produces no creosote.

"I find it to be cleaner than handling firewood," said Wayne
Robinson, who started a business distributing coal from his
home in Freeport this year and now has about a dozen

Coal does have a few inconveniences of its own, and there's a
learning curve when burning the fuel. It is more difficult to light
than wood and produces a large quantity of fine ash. Twice a
day the ashes have to be shaken out of a coal stove to maintain
the fire. With the passing of the generations that knew coal as a
standard heat source, these techniques are something of a lost

As part of their business models, several of the entrepreneurs
who recently started selling coal also offer guidance on tending
a coal stove. Robinson helps new customers light their stoves as
part of his delivery service, and Flink said he plans to run coal-
burning clinics from his home in Auburn.

Contact Staff Writer Seth Harkness at 282-8225 or at:

Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers

1 comment:

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