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.
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!