Machinery for a Post Collapse World: Charcoal Tractor

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on October 17, 2018

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Welcome to my kick off post. I find it the height of arrogance to blog as I claim no mastery in the subjects that interest me most. I’m a greenie, a builder, a single dad, an alternative energy enthusiast, a gardener, and deeply concerned about the sustainability of the world we have created. I probably won’t write all that often but look in from time to time as I muddle my way through building a better life. For today the topic will be My charcoal powered tractor.

Years ago I launched a search for a fossil fuel free way to charge my batteries in my off grid home. The amount of useable sun in the winter on my solar array would drop to 1.5 hours from a summer high of 5. Most off grid homes resort to propane generators to make up the difference. Propane was not cheap and like any good doomer I understood how precious it was. Steam, thermo electrics, stirling engines, Hydrogen brown gas, you name it I researched and tinkered. The search for an alternative led me to Gasification, specifically charcoal gasification, as a possible locally appropriate solution. Hidden in history I discovered hundred of thousands tractors, buses and cars ran on the stuff during the second world war. Some were jury rigged but there was also also factory made kits, standardization of fuel, Fuelling stations, government pamphlets, standards of construction, government regulations and guidelines, it was all there and vanished as soon as gasoline became available again. Don’t buy it? Just another conspiracy theory?  here is a great photo montage done by another woodgas nut like me. What strikes me here is just how normal this fuel was:

Imagine my surprise that a fuel that could run all my machinery with minor modification could be made at home while I heated my house…

This article is too short to go into the ins and outs of gasification, charcoal versus wood and how it works so take a look here for a primer on the subject:

If you want a glimpse into the modern masters of the technology check here:

As often happens in life priorities change. For me it was kids, a busier work schedule and correspondingly higher electrical usage which had me choose to grid connect my home to replace the generator. For a while projects around resilience took a back seat to all that make families work. It was always there though. I’ve decided to revisit these themes over the next few years as I attempt to refocus my life towards greatly increased food production, renewed energy independence, and fossil fuel replacements. Right now food comes first.

Fossil fuels have come to be critical to food production. I won’t debate the effectiveness of permaculture, lasagna garden bed making, french intensive methods, organic farming, or the joys of draft animals here. I can tell you that in times of crisis we will need millions of new large gardens seemingly overnight and one thing all those above methods are not is fast. Tractors are able to convert a manicured lawn into a plowed field in a matter of hours. With all that in mind my contribution is my 1953 Ferguson TEA20 tractor converted to run on charcoal. It was cheap and available but appropriately its from an era of simpler machines designed to run forever and be repaired by an owner in the field with minimal tools. On a sunny october afternoon it turned my weed filled 2250 sq ft garden back into the food plot it had once been. One hour of charcoal powered cultivation replaced what would have been 3 days of back breaking work for one person. Total fuel consumed 10 gallons of charcoal ,just shy of 14 Lbs., roughly equivalent to 1 US gallon of gasoline. I make my charcoal in my wood stove over the winter. This would have represented the coals from 24 hours of mid winter fires but honestly it probably took me 2 evenings of shovelling coals to accumulate this much as I’m not a fanatic or desperate. This is not a solution for a thriving society basking in economic prosperity and cheap energy. It works best if you have access to wood and are used to processing it so probably rural dwellers, who are land rich but money poor and heat with wood. It will not power an economy of commuting suburbanites but it might be enough for my northern tree covered slice of the world.

I’ve committed to plowing up 2 garden plots for friends this fall if time allows. I will be running on charcoal and will record the process. For now just some stills and some background videos will have to do. As a teaser that same 14 lbs of charcoal would have produced between 6 and 8 kW Hr of electricity for battery charging… That is another post though.


It all starts with making charcoal:

A walk around in the tractor’s early days:

All nice and shiny running on charcoal gas at an agricultural fair. It’s never been that clean since!

8 Responses to Machinery for a Post Collapse World: Charcoal Tractor

  • NearingsFault says:

    Thanks for posting this RE…

    • RE says:

      No Problem!  Great work you are doing, should be helpful to Diners who are Prepping Up for SHTF Day! 🙂


  • David Veale says:

    This certainly piqued my interest, considering that I have a nearly identical tractor (Ferguson TO-30, in my case).  I do think that charcoal gasification has loads of potential, but from the time I've owned my tractor, I've become well acquainted with it's appetite for spare parts, or even regularly used up components such as oil or oil filters.  While I think a tractor like this could certainly keep you going for maybe as much as 5 years post collapse (maybe longer if you baby it and have some stockpiled spares), I suspect that horses can be kept going much longer than that.  Eventually, even simple horse drawn farm implements will wear out though, at which point it's back to the ol' digging stick in the unlikely event that we manage to stick around that long.  Assuming, also, that trees can still grow in a wildly gyrating climate  8^)

  • NearingsFault says:

    You raise valid concerns and even an older machine is a very complex one. Out of tractor geakness does your TO have the continental engine or the english Standard engine? Easy way to tell is if the plugs are at the top its the flathead ford continental if they are diaagonal off to the side its the overhead valve standard engine. I have changed the starter ring gear, the starter, the clutch plate and the front tires. over the 10 years ive had it. The tires had been changed before the other parts were original. Availability of spares is quite good. There is a tractor yard 90 minutes from here that has a donor parts graveyard for these old beasts. The ferguson and Ford n series are the number one and two best selling tractors ever.  My personal plan is to aquire a full running tractor as a spare for parts. The other thing im looking into is a set of Menonite steel wheels for it. My personal belief is that some form of BAU sticks around for some time. That opinion is hotly debated in the diner forums. That 5 years you talk about are critical. Breading horses takes time, training horses takes more, training people to use horses and grow things takes even longer. Machinery buys you time to outlast the immediate crunch. Each horse required 2 acres of good pasture land, more if they need grain to do heavy work.  They eat everyday. Predators like to eat them. I think there will be plenty of warning that its time to stockpile spare parts if you are attuned to collapse.  If you have power from solar, pumped water, refridgeration, and mechanical agriculture for the first 5 years of a crisis that is the best preparation you can realistically plan for. Trying to plan further out then that not knowing how things will have changed by then your guesses would get hazier and hazier. 


    • David Veale says:

      All good points!  Breeding and training are of course critical long-term… and horses do occasionally need replacement before their expected "sell-by-date", but most work horses can go for 25 years or so barring disease, injury, colic, founder, and a whole host of other issues.  We've got the pasture and hayfield (witht the horses cutting, raking, and loading their own hay), but I've found grain to not be necessary for the most part.  As you note, a heavy work schedule would likely require it though.  And, of course, my antique haying equipment is just as vulnerable as the tractor when it comes to the need for spares.  Considering the accelerating pace of climate change, I'll bet neither of us needs to worry too much about making it much beyond 5 years post collapse anyway  8^).

      • David Veale says:

        We're in SW Michigan, halfway between Kalamazoo and South Bend, Indiana.  I'm not sure my answers will help a whole lot due to complicating factors, but should at least give you some rough ideas.  

        We've got roughly 20 acres of cleared land devoted to livestock, with about 7 of that in hay.  With three horses (two belgian drafts and one standardbred, which eats about half of what the belgians do), I'm usually able to feed all three of them through the winter on just our first cutting (we can normally take 3 cuttings annually).  This is on relatively poor agricultural soils with lots of clay and rock;  if you have a nice flat muck soil, you'll produce more hay than we do.  If you do any chemical fertilization, you'll also see large production increases.  We do fertilize the hay fields, with manure from the horses as well as dairy cattle  (though I sold those a year ago).  The remaining ground is all pasture, supporting the horses and a flock of about 20 sheep through the year.  The flock is a little larger than I like, and will probably go through our 2nd and 3rd cuttings and need maybe 30% of their hay purchased this year unless I can get some of them sold.

        We can typically put our animals out on pasture around the 3rd week of April and have to pull them off around the third week of October.  With more pasture ground, we could theoretically stockpile and extend the season, but I don't have that luxury, unfortunately.  

        I do regularly give the horses a handful of oats just to keep them interested in coming into the barn when I want them, but have gone completely without at times, and had no problems whatsoever.  Unless they're being worked hard day in and day out for weeks (unlikely in a homestead situation), they don't really need them.  Your horses are more likely to have problems gaining too much weight unless they're used in some commercial capacity.

        You'll find that there's much variation year to year in terms of hay/pasture production, so you can't just sit down, run the numbers, and come up with exactly what you'll need to support horses.  Many years we're stuck feeding hay in late summer due to drought shutting down our pasture growth.  This is the first year in 10 that I haven't had that problem, but the excessive rain kept me from getting a full three cuttings of hay this year.  

        Sheep are fantastic grazers, but are very difficult to graze rotationally unless your paddocks are in permanent fencing.  Poly-wire doesn't contain them well, and poly-fencing is a real pain to move in large quantity, so the sheep tend to have the run of our pastures, which cuts our production to some degree.

        Feel free to email directly if you have more questions —

  • Pingback: Make Canada Great Briton Again – Dark Green Mountain Survival Research Centre

  • David Veale says:

    All good points!  Breeding and training are of course critical long-term… and horses do occasionally need replacement before their expected "sell-by-date", but most work horses can go for 25 years or so barring disease, injury, colic, founder, and a whole host of other issues.  We've got the pasture and hayfield (witht the horses cutting, raking, and loading their own hay), but I've found grain to not be necessary for the most part.  As you note, a heavy work schedule would likely require it though.  And, of course, my antique haying equipment is just as vulnerable as the tractor when it comes to the need for spares.  Considering the accelerating pace of climate change, I'll bet neither of us needs to worry too much about making it much beyond 5 years post collapse anyway  8^).

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