Comfort, risk and coal-fired furnances

When I was a schoolboy, one of my chores after I walked home from school was to stir up the coal in our furnace, so that the fire, which had been banked during the day, would flare up start to warm our house again.

Both my mother and father worked outside the home for pay, so there was no sense burning coal unnecessarily when nobody was home.

furnaceThe coal was in a huge pile in our basement, delivered by the coal company through a chute.  We had to remember to shovel new coal in the furnace at regular intervals, especially just before we went to bed at night, lest the fire go out.

Restarting a furnace fire was a major operation.  What we should have done was to start a fire with newspaper and kindling wood, then add more food and then, when the fire was going strong, add coal

What my dad actually did was to splash kerosene onto the coal, toss a lighted wooden match into the furnace and then jump back.  I do not recommend this.

The coal burned down to ashes which collected in the bottom of the furnace in big metal tubs.  Another one of my chores, when I was big enough, was to help my father carry the tubs out to the curb to be collected.

I imagine my father thought having a furnace at all and having coal delivered to the house was a great advance.  He grew up in a farm with only a stove in the kitchen for heat.

I myself have a gas furnace which I control with a thermostat.  That’s a lot easier than shoveling coal.  But on Saturday night, my furnace failed—with temperatures outside below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

I phoned Betlem Heating, and a service technician came by a few hours later.  He quickly diagnosed the fixed the problem—a failed thermocouple—and was on his way.

He told me he had many calls that night, each one to a place 20 or 30 miles from the one before.  But he said he didn’t mind.  That was his job.

I have a much easier life than my father and grandfather.  But compared to them, I am much more dependent on complex systems that I don’t understand—not just the furnace, but the whole interdependent web of people and institutions that bring the gas to my house.

There weren’t many things that  could have gone wrong with my father’s furnace or my grandfather’s stove, and my father and grandfather had the homesteading skills to fix them.  I am dependent on the competence and hard work of others, most of whom I don’t know.

I like my comfortable life.  I am not willing to give it up. The price I pay is helplessness in the event of a crash of the complex systems that I depend upon.

I hope that the unknown people upon whom I depend understand and monitor the inherent risks of complex systems.  I hope they and their function are respected.  I hope they are not thwarted by bosses more interested in short-term profit or short-term political gain.

Links about technological risk

Why Nothing Works – Part I by Steve Naidamast for The Contrary Perspective.

Why Nothing Works – Part II by Steve Naidamast for The Contrary Perspective.

How Laws Restricting Tech Actually Expose Us to Greater Harm by Cory Doctorow for Wired.

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3 Responses to “Comfort, risk and coal-fired furnances”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    Phil, I had the same experience although we had moved from a home in the city with a furnace to a farm with just a pot-bellied stove that we sometimes used corn cobs to heat. I remember standing with one side of my body to the stove and then turning around to warm the other side. Lots of turning. When we got a furnace we did dress over the register in the kitchen after sleeping in a bedroom upstairs that had one register that allowed heat from below to rise. Like you, I am dependent on a thermostat and am glad for that.

    Thanks for the memories.


  2. Jane Hickok Says:

    I also can relate as I too grew up in a house with a coal furnace, When I was a teenager I also had to shovel coal into the furnace when I came home from school. Lack of a thermostat meant that if we were away from home, say for a week, in cold weather, we had not heat until the furnace fire was started again. We did have a gas firlplace though and I remember taking my clothes out to that room to dress in front of the fire in winter.


  3. simonandfinn Says:

    Great post. This made me smile: ” I do not recommend this”, and this made me think: “The price I pay is helplessness in the event of a crash of the complex systems that I depend upon.”


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