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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plenty of action down the cellar

This story about the resurgence of coal as a home heating fuel in some parts of the country brought back memories of my early childhood, when coal furnaces heated the steam radiators in the fourplex in which I grew up on the east side of Newark. These furnaces were lit, loaded, and cleaned by hand, and all the grownups got in on the action.

Every few hours during the winter months, somebody would have to head "down the cellar," get the big shovel out, and throw some more coal onto the fire. The level of heat was controlled with some sort of boiler or other contraption right on the furnace -- no apartment thermostats in those days -- and every now and then hot ash would have to be emptied out of the bottom. Knee-high, heavy metal cans, which had previously held some chemical substance or other from a nearby manufacturing plant, were recycled as ash cans -- just as larger versions of said cans were used to hold our garbage.

We kids were allowed to come down and watch the furnace-tending, but never to get too involved in the process. The grownups all had their own styles of heaving the coal into the furnaces, whose burning chambers were about waist-high. Some took a half-full shovel and tipped it to let its contents slide in gracefully; others loaded the shovel over the brim, stood back a step, and gave the coal a good heave-ho. The furnace doors were heavy metal things that made creaking noises, and there was some sort of handle toward the bottom of the unit that you turned or pumped to get the clinkers to fall into the ash bin. There was an art to getting the intensity and duration of the fire just right.

It was a dirty process, to be sure, and it took arm strength. Just the other day I was wielding that same type of shovel to clear snow and ice from around our house here in Portland. Even the modern-day version of this tool is not light; one can only imagine how much they weighed 50 years ago.

Now, did every unit in the fourplex have its own furnace, or were there only two? Perhaps it was one furnace for the right side of the complex, and one for the left. There were at least two.

Once in a blue moon, we kids would be allowed to climb around and get filthy in the coal bins, which were small rooms in the corners of the cellar with small, high windows that opened to the outside. Through these windows the coal would be delivered every now and then, down long chutes -- tons at a time, in big truckloads from the Koppers Coke Company, which had an office up at the east end of Market Street. If I am not mistaken, coke is a byproduct of some awful process that is done to raw coal after it comes out of the ground in Pennsylvania. I'm sure that playing on it as a kid was not the healthiest thing in the world, not to mention breathing the air around the hundreds of homes and businesses that were burning it in those days. But it beat freezing to death.

At Christmastime, the abundant fuel supply right downstairs from the holiday tree made it easy for Santa Claus to leave coal in the stockings of naughty boys. Every year my brother and I would find one piece at the very bottom of each of our stockings as a reminder that although basically good, we weren't perfect. One year, when we were driving everyone particularly batty around the holidays, we each received two lumps of genuine Koppers Coke courtesy of Saint Nicholas.

Sometime in the early '60s, we abandoned coal as our heat source. A more modern furnace, which I believe burned oil, was installed, along with magic thermostats. The coal bins were taken out, the ash cans were put away, and nobody had to head down the cellar to stoke the furnace any more. For that, life was much better.

Comments (21)

My grandmother and her sister owned a four-flat building in SE Portland that had coal furnaces. It was a pretty modern affair, though, with an electric conveyor belt from the coal bin (also in a corner of the basement on the street side, of course) to the fire box. I remember the clinkers. At our house, it was sawdust -- a bin full of it in the basement, and a big hopper on top of the fire box, fed by hand (sawdust isn't as heavy as coal, but is more welcoming to small creatures). We converted to oil in the early fifties.

"Isn’t it rather embarrassing that we are falling back on 19th Century dirty technology while the Europeans are embracing 21st Century methods of keeping themselves warm?"


Germany's pretty far ahead on conservation and emissions -- enough so to earn a lump of scorn and derision from Karlock and the others in denial.

I know Germany seems to be a leader in solar tech. Now, I don't think of Germany as being overly sunny, do you? Why do they have more solar "farms" than Arizona? Why are major solar firms in the US doing all their manufacturing in Germany?

The handle you mentioned was used to shake the grates and pass the clinkers.

Don't forget how coal ash was used for traction on ice and how most drivers kept a bucket full in their trunk.

What I like is how people in the NE still wear dark clothing in the Winter and that custom driven by an old need to avoid coal soot stains.

Today, that custom only serves to spot tourists in NYC who don't know better.

Don't forget how coal ash was used for traction on ice

Kind of a light gray-brown, as I recall.

Allan L.: Germany's pretty far ahead on conservation and emissions -- enough so to earn a lump of scorn and derision from Karlock and the others in denial.
JK: Hey!, ****, when did I ever criticize genuine conservation measures that work and don’t cost a lot?

I criticize BS that does not work or is so costly that forcing people to use it will leave them short of money to feed their families. Do you object to that?

I know there are a large number of scientific illiterates that jump on every good sounding idea, even if it is guaranteed NOT TO WORK by the basic laws of nature, of which so many people are ignorent. And any real wold definition of work includes economically viable. That is why solar electric does not work. That is why compressed air cars do not work. That is why building better homes DOES work.

Al Gore comes to mind as the classic example of an illiterate jumping on a good sounding ides, but now we discover that he is getting in on the ground floor of a new TRILLION dollar industry: forcing you to give him money to get permission to heat you home.
See: financialpost.com/magazine/fp500/story.html?id=532840


Germany? Yes, they may be investing in green technologies in other countries because they know it makes more sense than turn their backs on the cheap coal available in their country and other places such as Poland and South Africa.
A quick google search showed that in 2007 Chancellor Merkel signed off on a plan to build 26 new coal power stations to be up and running by 2010.
Germany may be green but not in their own backyard.

Cleaning burning coal fired plants could easily help greatly in bridging the gap to future technologies and energy sources. And we have plenty of it.
If the next 50 to 100 years advance like the past 50 & 100 we'll be seeing
continued cleaning of oil, coal and natural gas use as well as incredible advances in the emeging alternatives.

I had a friend who occasionaly burned coal in his fireplace in the west hills.
I seem to remember it took a wood fire to get it going but then the coal is an impressive burning hot fire.

Is there anywhere to get coal now in the Portland area? Is is legal to use in your fireplace?

Coal is good.

When my elder brother went off to college, I inherited the nightly task of filling the bunker, opening the door to check the fire, and removing any accumulated clinkers with the claw. The clinkers let off a distinctive coal aroma.

I was never much impressed, although it kept us plenty warm. I was very impressed when the gas heater was installed. It took about a sixth of the room of the old coal burner, and didn't smoke and stink.

Here are some other people who have coal in the basement.

Jack, I remember my grandmother's old Iron Fireman furnace in Parkrose that ran on coke. That thing looked like a hulking octopus crouching in the basement; it took up a LOT more space than its replacement. When we were little, we used to dare each other to go down there, do a circuit and come back up the stairs. The Iron Fireman logo was pretty spooky, too.

Re. the German passively heated homes . . . I read in the NY Times that they were sealed tight to conserve body heat and heat generated by appliances. ??? I thought it was understood that houses have to "breathe" to maintain healthy air quality.

Loved the coal story! Brings to mind my teen-ager job at the
old Portland Gas and Coke Gasco plant. There, we burned coal to manufacture gas and the naptha-like residue was transported from furnaces and turned into briquets for home heating. My job in the bowels of the plant was to keep the residue on conveyer belts. No gloves, no goggles, no face mask. (Do you suppose that's what's wrong with me 60 years later?)

I thought it was understood that houses have to "breathe" to maintain healthy air quality.

From the Times article:

"Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency."

My great Aunts over in Baker City had coal furnaces in their homes. Used to go down in the basement and watch them when I was a little tyke and we were over there for Thanksgiving.

Oh, NW Portlander. I have an Iron Fireman ashtray. It has the Iron Fireman with his shovel standing over the butt repository. I think it is pewter.


They're still in business!


Way cool! I'll have to take a picture of the ashtray and send it to them. Thanks for the link.

Electricity is the most sublime of all energies. It can run civil toilets and carry cell phone text messages.

A tremendous amount of our energy is used to change water at 40 degrees to water at 105 (baths) or water at 210 (espresso). What waste to use wonderful electricity to heat water and to warm air. Coal is perfect for the task.

What I remember from apartment living just west of Newark is the janitors rolling out can after can of ashes for disposal. Somewhere in NJ Jack, someone has built luxury condos on a landfill that also holds our family ashes.

Did the garbage guys throw the ashes in with the rest of the garbage?

There Will Be Blood finally came in at the library and the second disk has got a 1922 Bureau of Mines promotional film on The History of Petroleum. Coke is a petroleum byproduct. In the film, they claim that Coke accounted for 0.7 of petroleum products processed in the US at the time with Fuel & Gas Oil accounting for the largest percentage at 45.9. The US was then the largest producer of petroleum products in the world. Interesting . . . I didn't realize. Watching the film made me glad I didn't have to live in an area thick with derricks and processing equipment. It looks - literally - like hell.

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