Old King Coal regaining New Englander's loyalty

The chips are down, the chunks are up in New England hearths and homes. Coal is staging a quick comeback in this oil-dependent region where already one in five homes now burn wood as a primary source of heat.

But, says Martin Farrar, who has sold coal and oil in New England for over half a century, "People are getting tired of cutting up wood and tending the fire. With coal, they get a longer burn.

"The cost of wood has become very expensive -- $175 for a cord of hard rock maple in most areas," he adds. "That's equal to about 200 gallons of oil, which now cost $1.03 a gallon." A ton of anthracite coal, which would fill about five large barrels and heat a large room for the season, costs $120 to $125.

Shipped from Pennsylvania mines by truck and rail, home coal is in such demand that suppliers have a month backlog on orders and few are taking on new customers. The region's largest home coal supplier, H. N. Hartwell of Boston, reports its business doubled last season and mor than doubled already in 1980. The company's oldest salesman, Mr. Farrar, says coal's relative low cost is one factor, but that "it's also a matter of how long the Persian Gulf will continue to upset people."

In Vermont, for instance, state energy officials report that coal dealers have tripled in number from two years ago. The state's home coal use dipped to its lowest in 1976 -- 5,183 ton -- but climbed to 8,019 last year and is expected to go even higher in 1980. In New Hampshire, official surveys reveal nearly 3,000 homes now use coal.

"It is something that's really taken place as a second wave to the wood resurgence. Coal followed on the heels of the air-tight wood stove," says Dan Cooper of the New Hampshire Governor's Council on Energy.

While purchases of wood stoves have leveled off after a high demand since 1974, ales in coal-wood stoves are a hot new market, especially newer designs with thermostatic, control. "People come in every day, and say, 'I don't want my wood stove.' Most customers regret they did not get a stove that burns both coal and wood," says edward Fafard, manager of Williams Coal and Oil Company in Braintree, Mass.

"You can't just flip a switch like an oil furnace. But you get a different feeling from a coal stove. It's more homey. You can put a pot on it. You can leave it for half-a-day and you don't have to haul in heavy logs or have the creosote build up on the smokestack," Mr. Fafard said.

Such justifications, however, may help increase coal use, but officials do not expect wholesale substitution of coal or wood for the dominant use of oil and natural gas in NEw England.

And, in fact, coal and wood pollutants from home fires are under investigation by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, an EPA report found that total pollutants from residential coal- and wood-fired heating units contributed less than 0.1 percent to the national level. In at least 19 states, however, such pollutants exceeded 1 percent of the state's total sulfur oxide levels. Localized coal "smog" is also under study.

"The new coal use caught a lot of people by surprise," Mr. Cooper says, "People think this is the panacea to high oil costs. after several years of cutting wood for the same purpose, it's still tough for the consumer to figure it all out."

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