Neophites rushing into wood stove manufacturing are getting their fingers burned but the residential coal market is alight.
One impression derived from a visit to the recent National Hardware Show here was that 19th century energy technology has run up against the reality of 20th century business.
A shortage of capital and business know-how is creating a shakeout in the wood stove field. Many who tried to capitalize on the patriotic fervor of energy independence are wearing out-of-business signs on their chests.
"A lot of people got in on it [producing wood stoves] to make a fast buck . . . got in and got out," said William Loftus, national sales manager for Ace Hardware.
The record has not deterred others from starting their own operations.
"For everyone that goes down, three pop up," said one sales representative.
Dick Jordan, a vice president of Franklin Industries in Warwick, R.I., said a number of the new wood-stove makers started their businesses without knowing what they were doing.
What they were attempting to do, says Jordan whose company was formed long before the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was to enter an industry possessing the distinct of a short, seasonal market and high shipping costs because the stoves weigh hundreds of pounds. He says the last factor prevents his company from being competitive west of the Rockies.
Al Gwaltney of Atlanta Stove Works, Inc. believes the biggest problem for anyone coming into the market is building enough inventory to last through the peak period.
Jordan, Gwaltney and other industry executives at the show expect to see an even greater drop in the number of manufacturers later this year as costs and interest rates rise.
But new prospects are developing for home use of coal.
Bag it, box it, briquette it: these new coal companies and old ones looking homeward for the first time think consumers will take their lumps in coal instead of paying $100 and more for a cord of firewood when it is available or going without a fire in the hearth when it isn't.
A standard package of home coal, enough for a four-hour fireplace fire, is priced at abouut $1.50 to $2 retail, roughly half the cost of an equivalent amount of firewood, but double the unit price for a ton delivered directly to a basement coal shed.
Still, consumers are expected to pay happily for the high market.
"Americans are obsessed with convenience," a hardware show spokesman said.
E-Coalogy, Inc.'s Dick Posey had his booth near a fake log place. He expects to sell his product at the same grocery stores and hardware shops his neighbor did.
The businessman -- who passed out "Let's give Iran the 'coal' shoulder" bumper stickers -- has also made his firewood substitute look like a log.
The most popular type of coal for consumer sales seems to be cannell, a supposedly superior grade of bituminous that is supposed to have gotten its name because it gives off a candle-like flame.