Let others put their retirement investments in banks and brokerage houses, Phil Duran has put his portfolio in his basement — oh yes, and also on top of his barn. He has a portion in his fields, too.
Duran is a Lawrenceville resident and the owner of Envirophysics (www.envirophysics.com), a one-man firm that performs geological surveys for engineers, environmental scientists, archaeologists, police, and military investigators. A graduate of the the University of Connecticut (Class of 1979), he holds a master’s degree in geophysics from Boston University, and did extensive doctoral work at Rutgers. His father, Manuel Duran, taught Spanish literature at Yale and is an acclaimed poet and the co-author of “Fighting Windmills.” He mother, with specialities in English and Spanish, was also an academic. His wife, Kyra, is the editor of the League of Municipalities magazine and the magazine of the New Jersey Board of Education.
Some 12 years ago the couple, then living in Yardley Borough and yearning for more elbow room, found a nightmare of a dream house. They have turned the wreck around, and want to stay there for the rest of their lives, well past retirement age. But they know that the state’s high cost of living, including murderously steep utility bills, has forced many a golden age couple to relocate. So, instead of spending their spare cash on scouting trips to the Carolinas, or stashing all of it in mutual funds, hoping that it will grow, they have been methodically paring down their cost of living.
“People think of how much income they will have in retirement,” says Duran. “They don’t think about out-go.” Heating oil alone can run to $4,000 a year in a house the size of the Duran’s, about 2,700 square feet. Electricity can easily add another $3,500 to a household’s expenses. Then there are property taxes, which can run up to and right past five figures. None of these costs are going to be lower in 15 years, when Duran, now nearly 50, is set to retire. He is sure that the reverse will be true, and dramatically so, at least in terms of costs related to fossil fuel.
“Prices are down a little now,” he says, “but they are going to go up again.” He cites mathematical analyses and studies of international trends to support his contention that the peak of American oil production occurred in 1970 and that the peak of international oil production is occurring right about now. Even factoring in discoveries of new oil fields, he says, new worldwide demand from a number of countries, including rapidly industrializing countries like India and China, means not only that prices will rise, but that gas and oil may become difficult to obtain at any price.
Should spot shortages occur, the Durans will not be much affected. Or, as a neighbor says, “If the world’s coming to an end, we’re going over to Phil’s house.”
The Duran house, now pretty much self-sufficient in terms of energy use, was anything but when the couple first saw it. When they began looking for a house, says Duran, “our choices were limited. We could afford a decent house with no land, or a lot of land with a bad house.”
He fell hard for a home squarely in the latter category. A farm house with numerous out buildings on 10 acres of land, it had been on the market for five years and was about to be condemned. The electrical system was so bad that municipal authorities insisted that it be replaced. The furnace and septic systems were shot, and so was the roof — “literally,” says Duran. “There were bullet holes in it.”
The next step was a gut renovation, necessary for so many reasons, including the fact that the house had been sub-divided into two units, complete with two kitchens. It also had two staircases, which carved up the house in an awkward, difficult to reconcile way.
When they bought the house, the couple had planned to complete the renovation in stages, but Duran’s grandfather died just as they were about to begin. His bequest turned out to be the sum they had calculated that they would need to turn the derelict into a home.
It was not, however, enough to allow for the installation of the costly equipment that can let a homeowner supplant gas and oil with the heating, lighting, and cooling power of the sun and the earth. Perhaps ironically, it is vastly more expensive to harness these free, universally available resources than it is to use oil from several continents away. Therefore, most people don’t.
“The average American moves once every seven years,” Duran says, “so there’s not a whole lot of incentive to put money into conservation.” The pay-back time for the installation of energy-saving devices, ranging from double-pane windows to geothermal heat pumps, can be eight or more years.
Planning to stay put for the rest of his life, Duran, whose family includes 11-year-old Alexis Duran, a Chapin student, Ronald Wong, a medical student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Loriann Wong, graphic designer for a web-based car parts distributor, is willing to make the investment.
He just finished putting in snugly fitting, energy efficient windows, and is planning a trip to Lowe’s to get more insulation to blow into his walls. But that’s the least of it.
Having been ordered to tear down his outbuildings, and with a house shaded by trees, facing in the wrong direction to catch the sun, and “not angled right,” Duran built a south-facing barn to hold solar panels. He had the panels installed two years ago, when state subsidies covered 70 percent of the cost. The state subsidy has since dropped to 50 percent, but Duran says that it is still among the most generous deals in the country. The state offers help with the cost of solar panels up to 10 kilowatts. Duran installed an 8.4 kilowatt solar array. It cost $64,000, but with state rebates, he was only $19,000 out of pocket.
“Before the solar panels, I was paying $185 to $325 a month for electricity,” he says. “Last year my electric bill was minus $1,000.” This is so because his utility company, PSEG, is under a mandate to supply a certain percentage of its power from renewable energy sources, including solar power. Unable to meet its quota from other sources, the utility buys excess power from homeowners like Duran. When the panels pull in more juice than the family needs, it is automatically redirected back to the utility for use elsewhere, and the Durans are compensated for it.
With the lights — and computers, hair dryers, and televisions — powered on-site, Duran turned to the home’s heating and cooling costs. Heat, provided by the oil furnace he installed during renovations, cost more than $2 a gallon last winter, for a total oil bill north of $4,000. Unplugging his family from that bill, Duran has just installed a geothermal heating and cooling system.
The home has two geothermal exchange units, serving each of the home’s two floors. Located in the basement, the units are about the size of central air conditioning units. After processing the well water, the system dumps it into the pond out back. The system cost $34,000. The payback time for Duran will be about eight years, or possibly much less if the price of oil spikes.
Duran has now cut his family’s utility bills by some $7,000 a year. Is he through? No, not at all. He would like to add fuel cells to the mix, insuring a steady flow of electricity at midnight, during snow storms, and in every other instance during which the sun refuses to show its face.
“The technology is there,” says Duran, “and it’s so reasonable.” It may be reasonable as a solution to dependence on foreign oil and all that that entails. But it is not reasonable for conservation-minded homeowners’ budgets. Duran knows someone who has just finished putting together a hydrogen-powered fuel cell using grants from the state. “It cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. Duran says that he doesn’t have that kind of money laying around for that purpose — “or for any purpose” — but he is intent on moving ahead “little by little” toward the goal of being energy self-sufficient.
Receiving checks, rather than bills, from PSEG, will make Duran’s retirement more comfortable. He has also turned four acres of his property into a Christmas tree farm, thereby earning farmland assessment for that parcel and cutting his tax bill. He sells some trees now through his church and through non-profits to which he gives his time as a volunteer, and gives a portion of sale proceeds back to the charities. By the time he retires, he plans to sell about 200 trees a year. He has also begun to raise chickens for their eggs. (He also keeps guinea pigs, but solely “for comic relief.”) He and his family eat fruit from their trees and turn tomatoes from their garden into pasta sauce.
The Duran agricultural enterprises do not cut the family’s grocery bill all that much, he admits, but he says that he enjoys the feeling of being able to do something for himself. “It’s the same thing that drives people to can preserves,” says Duran. “It’s a little more of your life that is under your control.”