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We need some heat in here

POSTED December 22, 2009 8:06 p.m.
The recent massive snowstorm that moved from California across to New England certainly got the nation’s attention. While some Americans dealt with snowfall measured in feet rather than inches, my part of the Northwest simply endured temperatures near zero, night after night. (Where I live, we think of ourselves as human weather stripping, nobly protecting states to the south from Canada.) Either way, we all had a moment, I’m sure, to reflect on the fact that a major change in the weather in late fall will mean a major spike in our heating bills in January.  
The good news is that for folks who are lively and quick, there are two forms of fuel that can be quite cheap. Both require physical work — loading fuel into a heat stove or furnace. One fuel is geologic (rah, team!), the other merely botanical. Both are filthy, which is kind of glorious if you look at it the way I do (although normal people often view such matters differently). Still, let me run them by you as you consider not just this January’s bills, but those you’ll face again and again in all the winters to come.  
Even if you decline to ever depend on these two fuels, the thought of possibly having them in your house may make the utility bills a bit easier to bear. That’s my holiday gift to you.  
Here’s the two-part picture I’ll paint:
I have a woodstove in my living room. It’s not my only source of heat (the backup is a natural gas furnace in the basement). But when it’s zero degrees night after night, I burn a lot of wood. Only if the fire burns out, or the stove just cannot “keep up” with the cold, does the furnace kick in. So, quite simply, I keep my natural gas bills down to reasonable levels by increasing the amount of wood I burn.
There are two routes to getting wood cheaply. One is to use our National Forests as a supply source. (In Europe, as I understand it, you can’t just go cutting down trees in the countryside for your own use. We should never forget how lucky we are to have natural resources we can all access in many parts of this country.) The other free supply is begging wood from your more physically fit friends and relations. That’s my sneaky approach — which works only because those around me are truly decent and kind souls who want to help an old lady with arthritic knees.  
The second cheap source of heat doesn’t require so much physical fitness because it can, depending where you live, arrive at your doorstep by a delivery truck. It is the (rather surprising?) old fuel of King Coal. Don’t laugh: coal keeps many an Amish home warm today, and it’s used by a few other sturdy citizens in several parts of the country.   
If you have access to coal and can meet your local codes, coal burning in modern coal furnaces can be a good way to beat the high cost of heating a home. Coal is cheap heat. And heating with coal is much easier in terms of physical labor than heating with wood, principally because coal comes in smaller pieces than trees do.  
If you seriously consider coal for heating your home — as I did before I put in my woodstove — check out the availability of anthracite coal near you. Anthracite is hard, high-grade coal mined in parts of Appalachia. It’s not so filthy to handle, like Midwestern and western soft coal.  It’s shiny, a bit like graphite (the “lead” in a pencil).   
Anthracite is coal that Mother Nature has (very kindly) heated for us over long pieces of geologic time. The “heat treatment” drives out impurities that we don’t want, so anthracite becomes much better fuel than soft coal. Anthracite burns hot and long — a clear positive when it’s zero outside.   
My pine wood pile (plus labor) kept my place warm during the week-long cold snap — but only just barely. A few bags of anthracite and a sturdier coal stove would have been welcome. Perhaps I should have mentioned that to Santa.
— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science for future Rock Docs can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

      
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