ShareThis Page

Coal-fired furnace did a great job heating the house

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

We closed our cottage at Conneaut Lake, for the winter the last weekend of October.

It is always a little sad when we acknowledge that our summer season is over, but below-average temperatures the last few weekends provided a proper incentive.

The cottage has no heat except for the fireplace, two portable electric heaters, and the kitchen stove. Cold nights there reminded me of my youth, when we relied on a coal furnace to heat our home.

By modern standards our house was poorly insulated, particularly at the windows. Nonetheless, it was quite comfortable during the day.

Like everyone else in our neighborhood, we had hot water heat, using large radiators in every room. Although they were unattractive, they certainly were effective. Best of all, they avoided the problems associated with hot air – furnace filters, air cleaners and the related problems stemming from recirculating air filled with dust and pollen.

We had a coal-fired furnace that did an excellent job of heating the house, as long as it was properly attended. Someone had to check it periodically and shovel in coal whenever the fire got low.

Especially important was the process of “banking the furnace' each evening before the last person in the family went to bed. This consisted of closing the vents, to limit the amount of air available for combustion, then covering the burning coal with a layer of new coal.

If this was properly done, the fire would smolder overnight, but not go out because all the coal had burned.

The first chore in the morning was to open the vents, poke the coals to promote combustion, and then add more coal. In 10 or 15 minutes, we would begin to hear the radiators ‘bang' as steam began to circulate. One became accustomed to waking up in a cold house and lying in bed until it began to get warmer. The kitchen was always a particularly cozy place as my mother would have the stove on and be preparing a warm breakfast – pancakes, or French toast, or fried cornmeal mush.

We had our coal delivered by truck, four tons at a time. It cost $4 a ton delivered, plus an extra dollar a ton if Mr. Schneider also shoveled it into our coal cellar. Once I got old enough to do odd jobs, shoveling the coal into the cellar became an easy way for me to earn $4.

In retrospect, it wasn't really that easy. He would dump the coal in our driveway, as close to the coal cellar door as possible. I remember that it took me most of a Saturday to transfer the coal from the place where it had been dumped, into the coal cellar.

The coal could range in size from very large lumps – as big as 12 inches on a side – all the way down to dust. The big lumps had to be broken up before they could be fed into the furnace. At any rate, I acquired a real appreciation of what a ton of something is – a good 90 minutes of hard work.

An interesting alternative for manual feeding of a coal furnace was the “Iron Fireman” continuous stoker. It automatically fed coal into the furnace at a predetermined rate, 24 hours a day.

“No more banking the furnace at bedtime – let the ‘Iron Fireman' work while you sleep!”

I was always intrigued by the ads that showed a bright red robot shoveling coal into a furnace. In reality, the device was a screw conveyor that transferred sized coal from a bunker into the firebox, whenever more coal was required.

All the owner had to do was load lumps of coal of the proper size into the bunker several times a week.

In addition to heat, the furnace produced two by-products – ashes and clinkers. Disposing of them was another odd job for teen-aged boys. The ashes were coveted by gardeners; mixing them with cohesive soil produced dirt that was friable and much easier to work. The clinkers were a nuisance; the best thing you could do with them was break them up and spread them in the alleys.

I have always enjoyed having a fire in the fireplace; I can't imagine having a home without one. There is absolutely nothing like a briskly burning log fire to make a cold winter night seem special.

I am quite happy these cold mornings when I wake up and realize that our thermostatically controlled gas furnace has kept me comfortable all night and provided me with a warm house when I get out of bed.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.