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Somewhere between the last scorching day of summer, and the first frosty morning, people who live in Bullhead City and the Colorado River Valley place a call to AIRzona Comfort Solutions and are assured of having a comfortable oasis throughout the winter. There was a time not so long ago when heating a home, and preparing for winter, was a dirty and time consuming task.

From the late 19th century through the mid 20th century many homes were heated by coal. Most coal furnaces were located in the cellar and were cast iron, shaped like a big bellied pot.  These furnaces had two doors, the fire door and ash door.  In between was a “shaker rod” used to move ash into the lower chamber for clean out  Above the fire door was a damper lever to direct heat flow.  In the back, an opening fit a flue going to the chimney with a damper that directed smoke and kept it from flowing into the house. At the top and sides of the furnace there were openings that were connected to duct work. On some furnaces there was no blower which meant that some rooms could be unbearably hot while others were chilled. The addition of electric blowers enabled a more uniform flow of warm air but as the furnace was not thermostatically controlled, often a window would be kept partially open on the second floor to keep the house from getting to warm.

Obviously uninsulated ducts were not efficient. They also posed a fire hazard. And so they were often covered by asbestos with a heavy treated paper covering. As asbestos cracks and breaks ducts needed to be inspected and repaired annually. Each duct also had a metal damper lever to control heat flow. This allowed the homeowner to ensure certain rooms were warmer than others.

In the cellar ducts were supported by wire hangers suspended from the floor joists. Due to vibration these hangers needed to be inspected annually, and repaired as needed. Upstairs the rooms had at least two types of registers. The most common was a floor register connected to the ducts beneath. These had a lever which turned slats built inside the metal register. The slats could open fully to allow the most heat, open slightly, or be closed completely.  The register was the cold air return. On furnaces without electric blowers furnaces heat would rise into the rooms which pushing cold air towards the floor and through the cold air return register in the floor. Block registers could result in over-heating of ductwork and floorboards, and lead to fires.

An average home would need about two tons of coal each winter. The coal company would bring the coal (it came in various grades), and shovel it into a coal chute that led to the basement coal bin, a cement or stone storage room. The dust from coal delivery as well as the furnace would require an extensive spring cleaning of the entire house. Often the boys in the household would be tasked with assisting the coal man by shoveling the coal to the back of the bin as the driver shoveled into the chute. For obvious reasons the coal was stored as far away from the furnace as possible. When needed it was brought to the furnace by wheelbarrow.

To build a fire in a furnace coal was shoveled into the furnace onto kindling (small wood shaving s and paper that was often soaked in kerosene). The damper was used to add air to the fire and then to keep it burning. And of course there was the need to clean out the fire box often. First clinkers, unburned coal, was removed from the firebox. Then the crank was used to shake ashes from the grates. Next the ashes were shoveled into a wheel barrow or buckets for removal.

In a year such as 2020 it easy to slip into nostalgic thoughts about simpler times. Obviously the good old days weren’t so good when the winds of winter were blowing and it was time to go to the cellar and stoke the furnace with coal.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America


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