One of the first and most obvious reations to the high cost of residential heating was the amazing rebirth of wood heat. That resulted in a quick rise in the price of firewood. In many parts of the country a cord of wood can now cost $125 to $150 or more. At prices like those, wood isn't a great deal cheaper than fuel oil -- and it certainly is nowhere near as convenient. The result has been yet another rebirth: of coal heat. Does the swing to coal make sense, and should you join it?

First, the pros:

Coal is cheaper than oil, electricity and wood. It's usually not cheaper than gas and never cheaper than wood you cut yourself.

There's a lot of coal.

Coal is safer than wood: It doesn't produce creosote, which can cause chimney fires.

Burning coal reduces our dependence on foreign oil and improves our balance of trade.

Coal can be easier and neater to handle than firewood.

Now for the bad news:

Coal is dirty. It can cause serious air-pollution problems. It also produces a lot of ashes that, unlike wood ash, cannot simply be dumped in your garden for use as fertilizer.

While coal is abundant, its supply can be cut off.

Coal requires a storage area, and access for delivery to that area.

Still not decided? Take a closer look at the economics of coal vs. your present home-heating fuel.

As a rough guide, figure a ton of anthracite coal will give you about the same amount of heat as 20,000 cubic feet of gas, 170 gallons of oil, 1.1 cords of wood, or 4,370 KWH of electricity. Note: Not all coal gives as much heat as anthracite: Bituminous coal produces about 88 percent as much heat.

Unless you heat with gas, you will probably find that coal heat will save you money. If it can save you a lot, a complete switch -- including putting in a coal furnace or boiler -- may be justified. If that seems like too big a step to take, consider burning coal in a small stove; this will allow you to use coal as supplemental heat, and save you the big expense of a new furnace installation.

You might also consider a stove that can burn both wood and coal. It will probably not be quite as efficient as a stove designed specifically for one fuel or the other, but it will give you greater flexibility. You can burn wood when the price is right, and you can burn coal the rest of the time.