Thousands of homeowners from Maine to Maryland have "discovered" the coal stove over the last couple of years. They make their neighbors envious with stories of how the unassuming little black fire box sits in the kitchen, living room, or even the cellar filling the house with 70-plus degree warmth.
It's the Alladin's lamp of the 1980s -- but some of the magic has gone out of it this winter.
An estimated 300,000 coal stoves have been installed by people in the Northeast to cut down on use of expensive oil and wood, and this has caused a shortage of anthracite.
The shortage of this "nut-sized," shiny, hard coal, which produces lots of energy with a minimum of soot and smoke, is assessed at about 50,000 tons for the balance of the heating season in the Northeast, state energy officials say. But other energy experts put the shortage as high as 150,000 tons.
Help for an estimated 10,000 households heated only by coal is on the way. Lt. Gov. William Scranton III of Pennsylvania arranged an agreement between anthracite producers in his state and energy officials from New England, New Jersey, and New York, to assure those homes of adequate supplies.
But the majority of households that use anthracite to supplement oil heating systems will be forced to switch back to using oil when the coal runs out. Producers, although elated by the revived use of anthracite, a popular heating fuel of the 1940s and '50s, say they can't promise immediate relief from the overall shortage.
"We know we can increase the tonnage dramatically, but we can't promise to increase it overnight, or even in a year," says attorney James Curran, vice-president of the Reading Anthracite Company in Pottsville, Pa. "Getting new mines going is not something you can do fast."
Coal producers in eastern Pennsylvania, which has reserves of anthracite estimated at 7 billion tons, say they need evidence of a long-term, reliable market before they can get bank loans to open up new mines. It costs between between $60 million and $75 million to start up a mine.
Abe Frumpkin, executive director of the Anthacite Development and Utilization Association in Pottsville, says shortages could be avoided if distributers banded together to buy from producers on long-term contracts. "It would help stabilize the market, assure adequate supplies, and give us bank credibility."
Mr. Frumpkin says this year's shortage resulted from lack of communication between consumers and distributers. "We've got the coal resources but producers didn't get the signal early enough."
It turns out that the bulk of consumers -- many first-time coal users -- didn't order their coal until after the cold weather set in. Steven Callander, who owns a 16-room house heated only by coal in the Boston area, says, "I stockpiled last summer when no one else was buying it. But everyone else seems to wait until the last minute, when it gets really cold."
Although producers added double shifts to try to meet the demand, below-freezing temperatures hindered the mining process, in which water is used.
With continually rising home heating oil prices, more and more consumers are bound to opt for coal in the future -- if they can be assured of supplies. Currently, home heating oil costs about $8 per million Btus; coal costs $3 per million Btus.
Energy officials in Northeast states have assessed next year's need at about a million tons of anthracite and have agreed to apply pressure to coal dealers and distributers to stockpile this spring to meet the demand next winter.
Jerry Pell, an anthracite specialist at the Deparment of Energy in Washington , says, "An indication of magnitude of the [coal] renaissance is that in the first 11 months of 1980 the total production of anthrac ite coal was up 16.5 percent over the same period in 1979.