12 September 2008

Quakers in the Country: The Tuberator

There's a monster in my cellar. Huge, ancient, and fire-breathing, he squats under my living room floor in the darkness and waits to be fed. His hunger is voracious, and through the winter is never-ending. He has a name.

He's the Tuberator.

He's actually benign, as monsters go. We couldn't live without him, and on the winter nights when we neglect his diet of large pieces of fossil fuel, we all wake up in the morning cold and shivering. The Tuberator is my furnace, and he eats the coal that I shovel into his mouth every hour in cold weather.

The Tuberator is typical of the early 20th century coal furnaces that everybody used to have around here in the eastern United States. He came from the Wheeling Furnace Works when my house was built about 50 years ago. The house must have been built around him, as there's no door big enough to take him back out. He's made with a heavy iron firebox, riveted together, and hidden inside a sheet metal galvanized can that's almost six feet tall. In my house up above, there are two floor grates that lead into the can through 16-inch sinker ducts. The cold air from my floor drains down into the can like two invisible waterfalls, where it is heated up on the outside of the iron firebox. When the heated air rises, it heads back upstairs through four 12-inch risers that lead into the four ground floor rooms. It warms us all up, and then when it cools, sinks back down to start the cycle over. No fans, no wires, no thermostats, no switches--no controls at all, in fact. When you're cold, you feed the the Tuberator more coal. When you're too hot, you starve him a while. The convection circuit is strong enough to make my daughter's hair blow straight up when she leans over a vent. The Tuberator's name is cast into his iron firebox door, and refers proudly to the six iron tubes that penetrate the box and expose even more surface area to the flames of hell inside.

Here in Appalachia, everything runs on coal. Until very recently, coal mining was the leading industry, and it was coal that paid everybody's grocery bills. About 88 percent of all our electricity here is generated in coal-fired plants near the Ohio River. The electricity runs the lights, powers the laptops, plays the stereo, charges the cell phones, cooks the food, and heats the houses. Except for mine, because I burn the coal directly, delivered to my door from the local strip mine. It's the cheapest way for us to go, because coal doesn't cost us much up front. At about $60 per ton, I get two months of heat for about $250, plus another $75 to Donny for delivering it in his seriously overloaded truck. Oil or electrical heat is cost-prohibitive for us, because we'd have to retrofit the whole house. Natural gas is miles and miles away, and propane would cost about four times as much as the coal. We have about 10 acres of hardwoods down by the creek, but hauling it up to the house from way down there through the snow is pretty daunting to me. So we made the choice to run what we brung, and I shovel coal when I'm cold.

I think about this decision whenever Donny drives up with another load from the strip mine. And also when I look at our chimney, belching black acidic smoke like a locomotive into the otherwise clean country air. It's not the ideal environmental solution, obviously, but it's what we have. The coal we buy is high-sulphur, because that's what's underneath us here. You can pick it up and see the iron pyrite crystals--fool's gold--tracing like yellow lace through the black carbon. This makes sulphuric acid when it gets wet, which is one reason the Tuberator goes down now and then, as he eats his chimney pipes away about every year and I have to make him new ones.

At a larger scale, this sooty smoke is what causes acid rain, and the waste ash from the power plants is equally nasty. Our chimney has no scrubbers, catalysts, or cleaners of any kind, being a simple tube through the roof. And we shovel out the ashes into buckets, which we use to make paths, fill potholes, and dump out in the road for traction on the snow. Again, not a problem on a small scale, but not where an increasingly crowded world needs to go. People always seem to choose the cheap and expedient solutions over the better choices that take more effort and money right away.

There are other costs associated with coal that affect us directly. Our property has already been strip-mined, maybe thirty years ago. But about 300 feet down is the Pittsburgh Number 8, a nice thick coal seam that spreads through this countryside like the Pennsylvanian swamp that created it some 200 or 300 million years ago. When the miners take that coal, they let the ground collapse behind them as they work. Wells go dry, groundwater disappears, buildings lean and settle, and in general people up above are unhappy. But we all make the choice to support it whenever we turn on the lights.

The Tuberator isn't going to last forever. His acid breath finally ate away his lower flue pipe last year. Black smoke from the burning coal began to float up into the living room. But his far-sighted designers had equipped him with a spare flue exit that had never been used. I spent a cold afternoon with the sheet metal tools, and now, the Tuberator is set for another 50 years. I'm not planning on being alive by that time, so maybe my kids or grand kids can solve the next problem. That's how it's done, after all. Isn't it?

Oops. As I write this, the Tuberator has sprung another leak. I can smell the coal smoke all the way upstairs. Oh well.

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