Posted by .

We’ve been discussing fuel storage for quite some time now.  We’ve looked at storing gasoline, propane, kerosene, white gas, and butane.  Today we’re going consider wood and coal as emergency fuels!

Wood and coal are still a pretty common way to store fuel.  If you have campfires or barbecue much, you may use them pretty regularly.  Some older homes and cabins still have wood-burning stoves.   After we bought our house, we discovered a whole bunch of coal in the crawlspace beneath the house, plus a bunch more out in one of our barns.  When we talked to the previous owner, we discovered there used to be an old stove that burned coal in the middle of the home.  We thought it was very interesting.

Here is some information about storing each.

Wood

If you decide to store wood, you’ll want it to be dry (or “seasoned”).   New wood can be composed of up to 45% water, and it is called “green.” It usually takes anywhere from six months to one year for wood to dry if you store it outside, but once it is dry, the wood will be easier to start fires with, it will produce more heat, and it will burn cleaner than green wood.  Wood is typically measured by the “cord,” which is a pile of wood that is 8’x4’x4’.  (Alternatively, you can store wood pellets, which work especially well for wood-burning stoves.)

As far as storage goes, you’ll want to keep your wood off of the ground—otherwise, the bottom of the pile will stay wet and it will not really be usable.  Don’t keep much wood near your house, or you may attract termites.  The best option would be to store wood inside a shed; the next best place to store wood is in a sunny area, but then you’ll need to cover the wood when you have bad weather, because you don’t want any rain on your wood.

NOTE: Do NOT burn painted wood, treated wood, or soft wood, because they can make people sick.  Also, remember that manufactured logs will work for heat, but you will not want to cook anything directly in those flames.  (It makes your food taste like chemicals.)

Benefits of storing wood: it works without electricity, and is readily available.  Wood will work for both heating and cooking, and it is pretty safe to store.  Stored properly, wood can last for a very long time.

Downsides of storing wood: you’ll need somewhere safe to burn it; do you have a fireplace?  Otherwise you’ll need to buy a wood-burning stove (they cost a few hundred dollars and take up space) or plan to build some sort of fire pit (but then you’ll lose a lot of the energy).   For storage purposes, wood takes up space.  Burning wood creates smoke, which may be a disadvantage if you don’t want to be sending out a signal like that.

Coal and Charcoal

Coal is another fossil fuel, so it is not environment-friendly. There are three main types of coal, and they are Lignite (25-35% carbon, brown, and the softest), Bituminous (60-80% carbon and black or dark brown), and Anthracite (92-98% carbon, shiny black, and the hardest). Anthracite is the stuff people used to heat their homes with, but it normally costs 2-3 times as much as regular coal.  “Forge coal” is a type of Bituminous coal that is also really good because it is as free of ash, sulfur, and impurities as possible (of course, it is also more expensive).

The main advantages of storing coal are that it is very cheap, and it can be used without electricity. Coal can last indefinitely if stored properly.  With coal you can maintain a very hot fire that will last six to eight hours; it can be used with coal-burning ovens, dutch ovens, or barbecues.

The main downside of coal is that it produces a lot of CO2 when burned, so it needs a lot of air.  This means it cannot burn in all types of wood burning stoves, and, without the correct type of stove, coal should only be used outdoors.

If you decide to store coal, the most important thing is to keep it dry.  It is safe to store some coal inside your house in 5-gallon plastic buckets.  For storing coal outside, 55-gallon steel drums with tight lids are good option.  Some sources recommend burying coal, although I’m not sure which precautions must be taken if you decide to do that, so you would need to look into that.

What about charcoal?

Lump charcoal, as it is called, is basically impure carbon that is made by removing water and other things from previously-living substances.  You can make charcoal by slowly heating wood, or whatever you’ve got, in the absence of oxygen.  When you’re done, you’ll have something that looks kind of like coal, except it will be lightweight, brittle, and dark grey.

Surprisingly, if you buy “charcoal briquettes,” they may or may not actually have charcoal in them!  Briquettes usually have a mixture of different things like low-grade coal, sawdust or wood-byproducts, wax, borax, limestone, and a starch that binds the ingredients together.  Then they compress those ingredients.

You can store charcoal (or briquettes) for an emergency!  Of course you would be able to cook with it, but it would also produce a slow, even heat if you burned it in a wood stove.  Charcoal lasts decades if kept dry, but if it gets damp or wet it can spontaneously combust.  (Regular coal is safer, but not immune.)  So you would want to be careful about that.

The main disadvantage of charcoal briquettes is that you would need a whole lot of them.  It would likely be cost prohibitive to use them for any serious amount of time.  For limited use they are not a bad choice.  If you do want to store charcoal briquettes, you can get the best prices if you buy them at the end of summer.

Well, that’s it.  If you want to store fuel as part of your emergency preparedness, you have several options.  Each of them has advantages and disadvantages.  Whichever fuel you decide to store, be sure to stay safe!

5 Responses to “Storing Wood or Coal”

  1. Beverly

    Question on your water storage – In the city where I live we have a lot of artesian wells and the water is wonderful – my question is about storing of this water as opposed to tap water that has been *processed* by your method

    • Emily

      Beverly, I think that would be fine. You would still want to “process” the water either by adding bleach or by adding the other additive Rock mentioned on his posts about water storage. The reason you would want to do this is because if you do not, bacteria and gross stuff will begin to grow in the water if you just leave it sitting for a while, and your storage containers would likely end up with algae inside them; they would get to be pretty scummy. If you have a well on your property, though, I would feel pretty fantastic about that, because in many types of emergency you would still be able to access that water, even if tap water may not be usable. (Of course, not all emergencies are that way, though, and you’re right to still store water.)

  2. Bankie

    I’m concerned about losing electricity. I recently got a quote to solar power our house and it was $22,000 only to find out that it still requires electricity to run it. To be totally electric free in the event of an EMP requires an additional battery system that would cost another $15,000, an amount I am not willing to spend.
    I figured we at least needed water so I got an estimate on a windmill to power our well pump ($18,000 not including all the pipe, labor and the 1000 gallon water storage tank which needs to be in a storage building of some sort, another cost-prohibitive option. Then, there is also the issue of heat. We live in an 1840-built home with 5 fireplaces but my husband is adamant that we will not burn them due to possible safety issues.
    My question – Is there a feasible, reasonably-priced system where we could run our well pump, two single electric burners or a crock pot (in order to prepare meals), a refrigerator, one window unit AC, and the hot water heater? We also need to address heat needs. Surely there are some smart options to maintain some semblance of normalcy but on a much smaller scale.
    My husband wants to get a “whole-house” generator ($8-10,000) but my question is, how would we store enough fuel to run it if needed for the long-haul. Even if we could get a 1000 gallon tank and store it in a barn, I understand that fuel starts to break down over time and is eventually rendered useless.
    It’s a lot to consider. I wouldn’t mind spending $15-20,000 but want the most prudent and long term options for my investment.
    What are your suggestions? Thanks for your help.

    • Emily

      Bankie,
      Someone else may be able to give you a better answer than I can, but let me give you a couple different suggestions:
      – A whole house generator is a great idea. My in-laws have a whole-house generator that is hooked up to run on natural gas. So, they don’t store fuel for it at all (I don’t think). The idea is that enough people depend on natural gas (for heat and cooking) that there would probably not be an indefinite disruption to natural gas service.
      – My husband and I have a much cheaper generator (I think it cost about $400), and it will be enough to run our refrigerator and freezers, and a few other things, on a rotating basis. So, we don’t plan to run everything all the time, but if we needed something for a few days (or probably even a few weeks), we wouldn’t lose all of our frozen meat, and we would still be pretty comfortable. We store gasoline, with Stabil added to it, and we rotate it out every once in a while, by using it in our vehicles. We also store propane, and we have emergency heat and cooking sources that are compatible with propane. It doesn’t need to be rotated.
      Good luck. (And if any other readers want to add ideas, feel free!)
      – Emily

  3. ozarked

    I chose to purchase a Perkins diesel powered whole house 12kw generator. The generator, site preparation, concrete pad, retaining walls, manual transfer switch, hookup and a 500 gallon storage tank cost me just under $7500. To this add $30 – $50 annually for filter changes (the key to keeping a diesel engine happy). I opted for a manual transfer switch instead of an automatic switch to physically separate my system from commercial power to protect it from EMP. To prevent the fuel from deteriorating, I add a stabilizer called Pri-D (Pri-G is for gas storage). The research that I have read indicates it is superior to Sta-bil, but its a little pricy ($25 for a quart, which will treat 275 gallons). I picked diesel over propane or natural gas because diesel has more BTUs per unit of fuel; therefore my stores will go further and last longer (plus, no NG where I live). While both diesel and propane are manufactured petroleum by-products, and may be unavailable in a long term emergency, Rudolf Diesel designed his engine in the late 19th century to run off vegetable oil. Modern diesels retain that legacy and used vegetable oil is readily available, but must be heavily filtered before use. I had a well specialist rewire my well pump controls to protect them from EMP and assure me of a supply of potable water. The schematic and directions to do this are available in the archives of Backwoods Home magazine, which are available online. Next up: battery backup to capture and store excess electricity generated while the generator is running. These batteries can then power a few lights and other small appliances when the generator is off-line. Hope this helps with your preps. Good luck.