Home heating has seen the rise and fall of a range of fuels. The traditional heating fuel dating back to humanity’s earliest days was wood – which transitioned from the open fire pit to the brick fireplace and cast-iron wood burning stove. Wood slipped by the wayside in America in the late 1800s – replaced by coal.
Coal became a competitive, then dominant fuel in the United States for a variety of reasons. For starters, wood was becoming scarce in many industrialized countries, particularly in non-rural areas. While the process of mining coal was more involved, industrial age technology finally allowed for the efficient mining and transportation of coal to national and international markets. Coal also provided more energy per pound and was easier to handle than wood. The transportation sector – primarily marine and rail – quickly adopted coal and helped bring the residential heating market along.
At the appliance end, Dave Lennox is credited with revolutionizing home heating in 1885 with the industry’s first riveted-steel coal furnace. About the same time boiler-fed radiant heating using steam or hot water allowed for more effective heating than relying on natural hot air convection.
For all of the advantages these appliances brought, and in combination with the advantages of coal as an easier to manipulate fuel source, there were still problems. As with wood, coal required the homeowner to keep the fires burning and handle the resulting ash. Soot was also a common issue in the home, and even in the pre-environmental era, coal-based pollution was having a notable quality-of-life impact on urban and industrial areas.
As with coal, the transportation sector led the way in the transition to a superior fuel solution. Although coal would soldier on in rail transport for decades to come, at the start of the 1900s maritime transportation (driven by the navies of the world) quickly saw the advantages of using fuel oil as a substitute for coal. As a fuel, oil had far fewer maintenance requirements. For starters, there was no stoking required to keep an optimal fire burning. Oil was easier to store onboard ship and easier to transfer at sea allowing for enhanced high seas refueling. Oil was also safer. Smoldering coal bunker fires were all too common, as was the explosion of coal dust. Oil also provided more energy per pound.
These same advantages found their appeal in the household, though as with the shift to coal it would take some time for home heating oil to become widespread. The First World War would set the stage for the transition, and even the Ford Model T would play a role.
The internal combustion engine was finally starting to see applications beyond the novelty stage with the Ford Model T of 1910 – the first practical and affordable automobile. World War I would be the first heavily mechanized war. Wartime oil production and refining and post-war automobile sales continued the expansion of a thriving oil industry.
The 1920s saw the rise of the household oil burner, facilitated by innovative controls from Honeywell. At the same time, more automated coal systems were introduced to lower some of the maintenance issues, but too few problems were solved to offset the advantages of oil heating. Oil heating began to find its way into new construction as well as in retrofits of existing coal boilers.
Fuel Oil News came about in response to this growing market. It was launched in 1935 by Curtis C. Klinger. The concept of Fuel Oil News actually goes back further, since it was originally a supplement (dubbed Oil Burner News) to another magazine called The Oil Marketer. Klinger sold advertising for the magazines published by Oil-dom Publishing Co. in Bayonne, N.J., the company headed by his father, Oliver.
After his father passed away, Curtis' brother, Oliver, Jr., took over as head of the company, but Curtis continued as publisher of Fuel Oil News. Eventually, Oil-dom Publishing was dissolved, but Fuel Oil News continued under Curtis' leadership as a separate entity. In the 1970's, Curtis, Jr. joined his father and helped run it until it was sold to Hunter Publishing in 1983. Curtis, Sr. retired at that time from the active management of Fuel Oil News, but continued to represent the magazine at conventions and trade shows for several years. In 1993, the magazine became part of Premiere Publishing Co., headed by Bill Straub, who had served as its publisher when it was part of Hunter Publishing Co. The magazine was subsequently acquired by Adams Business Media and is today owned by M2Media360.
Over the years, the magazine's staff and contributors included some of the most important pioneers in the oil heating industry. Charlie Burkhardt, retired president of the New England Fuel Institute, was an early contributor who wrote many articles for Fuel Oil News. George Young, a former NEFI official, was a member of the Fuel Oil News staff, as was James Matthews, a founder of the National Association of Oil Heating Service Managers. Long time editor Tom Byrley was a former vice president of a leading boiler manufacturer and general manager of the heating department at Sherwood Brothers in Maryland. John Sibarium, long-time chairman of the National Old Timers Assn. of the Energy Industry, has been a regular contributor to Fuel Oil News for many years.
When Fuel Oil News was founded in 1935, the overall oil and fuel industries in the United States were still shaking out. Fuel oil and kerosene had begun to replace coal as a primary energy source. As the 1940s dawned, the United States was still the leader in oil production with the U.S. producing 65 percent of the world's oil in 1940. That was to change with the discovery of the "super-giant" oil fields in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Oil heating would continue its ascension into the 1960 when it would begin facing some stiff competition of its own.
As with World War I, the Second World War saw a dramatic increase in production, refining and distribution. This also piggy-backed with tremendous residential and automotive boon of the 1950s and 1960s. While oil heating was ramping up, new competitors were coming on the scene as well. Although they would have a tremendous impact on the market, fuel oil would not go completely the way of coal.
Welding and metallurgy advances made during the war made pipelines more practical. The 1950s and 1960s saw an explosion in number of pipelines that would benefit oil distribution, but also the distribution of natural gas. The access to electricity also moved forward making electric coil heating an option anywhere there was power service. Propane also came on the scene as an alternative.
Gas and electric brought with them several advantages over oil in the maintenance department. There was no need for a regular delivery and less appliance maintenance. But there were disadvantages as well. Both, and particularly electric heating, were typically more expensive. Gas also presented added safety issues. And gas was limited to where the pipelines ran, and even with the post-war expansion there was hardly universal coverage. Even so, today slightly more than half of the homes in the United States (over 60 million) use natural gas as their main heating fuel.
Propane is more of a direct competitor in areas not served by gas, and broadens fuel use to cooking appliances with fewer maintenance issues for the boiler or furnace. However, it tends to be more expensive and still requires fuel delivery.
By comparison, approximately 7 percent of American households (8.5 million in total) rely on heating oil. Oil is still a dominant heating fuel in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
But for all the pressures the industry is not only holding out, but it is moving ahead in what it offers its customers. Conversions cost the homeowner considerable money, and with each year the home heating oil industry makes it harder and harder to justify that expense.
An attack from natural gas utilities has been on environmental issues with gas portrayed as the cleaner fuel. Today’s cutting edge appliances and low-sulfur bio fuel mixtures have erased that argument.
Another recent shock has been the oil price spikes of 2008. This is seen as being linked to speculation in commodities trading (an issue the industry is working hard to address in Washington). Prices have since plummeted with the recession. The industry can still argue that oil is likely to not only be cost competitive long-term, but maintain its historical lower cost due to the free market nature of the industry. Utilities raise prices when prices go up but have to be forced by consumer and government watchdogs to lower them when the markets adjust.
Further, gas is not, and increasingly will not be, immune to commodity speculation. And while there have been announcements of new gas reserves, there have also been shifts in energy policy that should increase the demand for natural gas in energy production and even transportation.
For these reasons the industry is fairly stable in the face of fierce competition. And as with the shift from coal to oil, which tuned many coal merchants into oil dealers, today’s fuel oil dealers are diversifying their business operations by supplying propane; enhancing the HVAC service; and entering a wide range of less-related industries that still allow critical human resources like drivers to be employed profitably year round.
To share in this year’s 75th Anniversary Fuel Oil News is highlighting some of the many companies that have been around as long, if not longer.
Lawes Coal Company, Shrewsbury, N.J.
In 1926, Donald E. Lawes, Sr. and Frank B. Lawes rented the property and formed a partnership called Lawes Coal and Supply. They operated for two years and in 1928 incorporated into Lawes Coal Company, Inc. In the same year, they rented a part of the building to Hellmann’s Mayonnaise as a distribution center.
Since 1926, Lawes Coal Company has been run by the three generations of the Lawes family. Today, the business is run by brothers Donald E. Lawes III and Will Lawes, who joined the family business in the 1970s. The brothers we handed the family business from their father about 17 years ago who had run the family business since the 1940s.
“When my grandfather started the business in 1926, he worked for DuPont selling women’s facial products,” said Will Lawes. “He regularly took the train to New York with a bunch of wealthy businessmen heading to Wall Street. He became friendly with many of those guys and they would have him sit in on their card games. One day he announced he wanted to be more local and start his own coal business and before he got off the train that day, one of the fellas had got up and walked around and collected 15 names on a piece of paper for one delivery of coal to get him started.”
In the early years Lawes delivered coal as a source of fuel, but as heating oil became more widely used as a source of heat, the delivery of coal went by the wayside. Just as the needs of the community changed, so did Lawes Coal Company - going through many transitions over its long history. In the early years, coal (and a sideline in animal feed) became a dwindling part of the business and heating oil became the company’s primary product. To be competitive, Lawes expanded to supply gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene and propane.
For most of Lawes’ history, the company has had a service department that repairs and maintains heating units. Air-conditioning sales and repair has also been added, as well as underground storage tank removal, installation and repairs. Lawes also maintains an extensive lawn and garden equipment inventory, including everything from fertilizer, grass seed and mulch to shovels and lawn mowers. They also supply, sell and service power equipment, lawnmowers and small tractors.
“We’ve always had other businesses back to when grandfather started out with the goal to have full-time employees and not seasonal,” said Lawes. “But our heart and soul is still in the oil business. We do heating and air conditioning and we are now getting involved as accredited home heating auditors. We are just starting to expand up from the basement to doing other things in the whole home – energy efficiency. And that is where the industry is at. We sell less oil, but it is survival and my hope is that we get to a point where the folks who have converted to natural gas see the advantages of oil – maybe a biofuel blend – and we start to see conversion back over to oil. I think low sulfur biofuels will give us a strong leg up in the future.”
Cernak Fuel, Easthampton, Mass.
Cernak Fuel has been continuously owned and operated by the Cernak family since it began in 1935. John Cernak made local deliveries of petroleum products as a one truck operation, and started selling gasoline, motor oil, and tires at the former Cernak Service Station, which now houses the company’s offices.
In 1957, John sold the business to his brother, Michael Cernak. “Mike” or “Mickey” made some additions as the business grew. In 1987, Mike sold the business to two of his five children, Leslie and Rick, who would answer the phone as children when an emergency service call came in. Today, five oil trucks deliver heating oil and diesel fuel to customers in Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden counties.
“The older generations had a tendency to have a lot of older trucks they kept repairing,” said Rick Cernak, who noted his coming of age in the industry seemed to involve as much repairing and keeping the company’s equipment operating as it did the core business operations. “My dad was brought up in the depression and he would try to get as much out of trucks and equipment as he could – both his and the customer’s. In the 1960s and 1970s the motto was ‘repair and patch.’ When Leslie and I started to take over the business in 1987 it was more ‘replace the junk.’ And now it’s more upgrade and tweak, whether it’s a customer’s equipment or our own.”
The use of devices such as cell phones, two way radios, computers, service testing equipment, (among others), has provided Cernak Fuel with the means to better serve its customers with greater accuracy and efficiency. Technology has also lent itself to expansion.
“What we always look at is how we can use technologies – communications, electronics, software – to help us do what we do,” said Rick Cernak. “Once you get over the ‘this is unfamiliar and scary’ stage it becomes kind of cool and can really make you more efficient. Back in the early 1980s I was working for dad and we were not computerized at all and I happened to stop by the local diner for lunch. Our arch competitor was there and I stopped to talk to him. I mentioned we were getting a computer and he said it makes a big difference and you have to keep up with the times. I’ve learned some things from our competitors and I appreciated that advice and never forgot it.”
Cernak Fuel also installs new, state-of-the-art, heating equipment in Hampshire County. Five service vans are equipped with a large inventory of burner parts. Each burner technician is licensed in the state of Massachusetts.
A major modern challenge for the operation has been keeping up with the regulatory environment. “Environmental, personnel health and safety regulations and state and local laws have really exploded within the past few years,” said Leslie Cernak. “And it’s really important for us to run a clean business, so we spend a lot of time training employees writing company policies researching and staying in compliance. I think companies that do not put out this effort fall by the wayside. It really is a challenge for the smaller business that does not have separate staff dedicated to keep up with this.”
Crawford Oil and Propane, Portage, Wis.
There were over a dozen fuel suppliers based in Portage during the mid-1940s to early 1950s. Today, Crawford Oil is the only locally based fuel oil supplier in Portage.
Company President, James (Jim) H. Crawford, continues to operate the once “mom and pop” operation in Portage while delivering over 20 million gallons of product each year.
Jim’s dad, the late Delbert Crawford, became involved in the oil business in the mid-1930s. After working a few years at the Weyenberg Shoe Factory, Delbert worked as a bulk delivery driver. He drove bulk gas/oil truck for Valvoline and the Pure Oil Company.
In the late 1930s, Delbert became an agent for Shell Oil. Shell Oil Company built a bulk tank facility and pump system east of Portage. The company paid Delbert one to two cents per gallon for the fuel he delivered. A couple of years later, Delbert bought the bulk tank facility from Shell Oil Company. Ownership of the bulk tank facility changed Delbert’s employment status from agent to jobber.
In 1969, with over 30 years in the industry, Delbert wanted to retire and sell his company and Jim Crawford was ready for a change from his teaching career.
In the fall of 1969, Jim and the late Jim L. Joyce formed a partnership and bought out Delbert’s business; bulk tank facility, two trucks, rural delivery and home heating accounts.
Crawford Oil continued to expand and called on larger commercial accounts, added a complete line of lubricants, diesel and aviation fuel.
In the late 1970s, Crawford Oil began to own and operate retail outlets in the Portage area.
As gasoline retail margins began to decline Crawford sold off all his retail outlets except for one. And, in 2008, Crawford Oil entered its next stage of development. With Jim looking to retire and entertain the possibility of selling, his son Jonathan decided to come give the business a try. Jonathan was teaching in Minneapolis, just like his father, when he decided to come try the business.
By mid-2008 Jim and Jonathan decided to start a propane delivery service due to the vastly shrinking fuel oil business and the company changed names to Crawford Oil and Propane.
On the oil side, the diesel business is still strong with farming and construction and locomotive fueling. Where heating is concerned, Crawford has held out as well as could be expected in the tremendously curtailed Midwest market. The company still has 400 fuel oil customers, but the oil prices in 2008 had a brutal impact. “Most of our customers in fuel oil are people who are retired on fixed incomes,” said Crawford. “When it got to $800 per month to heat a home in 2008, we knew they couldn’t afford that and when it got time to replace a furnace, they would not go with oil. That really hurt us. Even people who would never have considered anything but fuel oil began to cave in.”
The move into propane proved fortuitous.
“I had been toying with the idea of going into LP distribution to offset the losses in fuel oil so we expanded into that and our growth has been phenomenal,” said Jim Crawford.
Crawford noted that the growth was so dramatic that when LP dropped in price the company was able to lower its customers’ contracts at Christmas time. “That is unusual in the industry – usually you would just take the additional profit – but we looked at the overall economy and how people were struggling and felt it was the best thing to do with our customer base and it’s paid off well for us,” said Crawford.
Fuel Oil News reader Dave Derby sent the following note on his time in the industry:
I was born in 1940. My father was a steamfitter. We lived in New York. He was trained to fix oil burners and worked for ESSO. Eventually he became a partner in a coal business as the mechanic to install oil burners in all those coal boilers.
He did well until the unions came around and made it tough for him to work. It was rough going for a while but eventually they allowed him to sell his share and then work as the serviceman and join the union. As union members we received the best of health care etc. which took some of the sting out of it.
I followed in his footsteps and serviced burners until five years ago when it just became too painful. I am now an instructor at a technical school. The students really enjoy my old war stories and of course I have plenty of them.
In the old days we were concerned about gas taking over but my Father said they won't replace them all before I die and of course they haven't – yet. I always enjoy your magazine keep it coming.
Porter and Chester Institute