Larry Trainer had to come up with a new invention to keep his first invention in business.
Three years ago, Trainer started selling an updated, more efficient version of the old coal-burning stove. The 29-year-old former carpenter, whose hobby as a teenager was rebuilding antique stoves, developed the coal-burner at his Plimoth Coal Stove Works in Plympton, Mass.
With oil and gas prices soaring, Trainer sold thousands of his new airtight coal stoves at $400 to $600 each.
But in the winter of 1981, Pennsylvania coal mines couldn't keep up with the Northeast's increasing demand for the extra-hard anthracite needed in stoves and fireplaces. And the possibility of another coal shortage this year threatened Trainer's stove sales even more.
With "a lot of trial and error," says Trainer, he came up with his own fuel to keep his stove company alive. By mixing buckwheat coal -- a mining by-product used in industrial boilers -- with a secret formula of binders and other ingredients, the young entrepreneur began turning out anthracite coal briquettes.
After going through a process that Trainer compares to baking brownies on a large scale, the briquettes are poured into 30-pound sacks, which retail for about $2.50 and can fit easily into a car. Most customers, however, prefer to buy in quantity, at $135 per ton. The average home stove, Trainer estimates, burns between 25 and 40 pounds a day. A little smaller than the pressed-wood charcoal briquettes used in backyard barbeques, Trainer's briquettes put out as much heat, he claims, as regular anthracite coal chunks.
While he developed this process himself, Trainer admits that forming coal into briquettes is not a new idea: People have been doing it for over 100 years in Europe. Still, according to the Department of Energy, Trainer is the first to use the process commercially in the United States. He guards his methods closely, even blackening out the words on bags of ingredients so they can't be read by passersby. Although he's just turned out his first briquettes this fall, word-of-mouth has helped Trainer win "hundreds of orders." And as demand grows, Trainer expects the briquettes that saved his stove business to wind up netting over 75% of his total sales.