Even in the 1940s, the coal company my father worked for was in decline. Its clients were turning to oil and gas for heating.
There are, of course, disadvantages with all of those energy sources. Coal, oil and gas are nonrenewable energy resources. Not only are they being depleted, but they are becoming increasingly costly to access.
More important, coal is a polluter. Today we think primarily of its health effects, but it also causes smog, soot and acid rain and contributes to global warming. My mother, not generally a complainer, saw it as just plain dirty. She confronted it every day to keep our house clean.
But Dad stayed loyal to coal. We had a coke-burning furnace that heated our house by air convection, and we even had a small stove that burned pea-sized coal to heat our water.
When I was in middle school and my older brother left for Purdue, I was promoted to second-in-command in our basement. Dad showed me how to build a furnace fire, a task not unlike building a large campfire. He also showed me how to act as stoker, shoveling coke to keep the fire blazing.
I offer that long introduction to a pleasant experience I had a few weeks ago visiting Tom and Vivianne Szulist’s Singer Farm Naturals retail store and home on Lake Road in Niagara County. There they specialize in cherry and garlic products.
I was there because Tom and Vivianne spoke briefly about their conservation measures at a meeting I had attended. Others talked eloquently about the need for these measures, but this couple were clearly making a major commitment to them. I wanted to see first-hand what they were doing.
Tom had no sooner greeted me when he announced, “I’ve waited to start our boiler, because I want to show you how simple it is.” He then demonstrated how each morning he lights his top-of-the-line, wood-fired gasification boiler. Although this is a remarkably modern installation, I felt as though I was back with Dad learning how to light a furnace fire.
But there are significant differences. This is not the cellar-filling spider-like monster Dad tended; it is an attractive boiler similar to and only slightly larger than our upright freezer. Second, this furnace heats water rather than air, distributing hot water to the building by pipes and storing still more in a 1,000-gallon tank. And third, this furnace burns wood, a renewable resource.
But the firing-up process was quite similar. Tom tossed about a dozen fireplace-sized quarter logs into the hopper, added a few pieces of lumber and some paper as starter fuel, and set the mix on fire. As soon as he closed the hopper door, technology took over. This is important because, although wood is a replaceable resource, wood smoke is a pollutant. We no longer even burn leaves. However, this boiler is so efficient that, once it got going, it added virtually no pollutants to the atmosphere. The usual wood fire-created smoke was redirected and burned, reducing the emissions to near zero and creating at the same time greater heat.
Interestingly, when Tom was showing me the outside boiler chimney emitting no visible pollutants, I could see in the background the Kintigh Generating Station stack a mile away putting out clouds of smoke.
So efficient is Tom’s system that his five-minute fire-tending was done until the next day. The fire would slowly burn out, but the heat stored in that tank would continue to keep the building warm. The ashes produced add potassium to their gardens.
Although I found this the most interesting aspect of the Szulists’ conservation program, they also use solar panels, have a private windmill and the walls of their building are double-framed with hay bale insulation.
Tom and Vivianne are fiscally responsible business people. Just as they move rapidly toward complete energy independence, they save thousands in costs. We should learn from them.