You've been meaning to conserve more energy and inch off the power grid, but you're tired after work, starting the process takes time and research, and, really, how much energy does that tiny TiVo box use? (You'd be surprised.) In a world marked by dwindling energy resources and a climate of militarized tension over where the next generation of energy is coming from, we can no longer afford to wait. The time has come to take baby steps toward bringing renewable energy home. Herewith, a grid to help you get off the grid:
Secure Your Fortress
Insulate: An obvious but important step, insulating keeps the heat in and the cold out. The cost of buying insulation is offset in your heat bill savings.
Get a sun shield (radiant barrier) in your attic: Barriers improve air-conditioning efficiency by up to 12 percent by deflecting up to 97 percent of the sun's radiant heat. Barriers are under $100 and require only a scissors and a staple gun for installation.
Wrap your water heater: Water heaters run 24/7, which means they gobble up energy 24/7. Add a water heater blanket, a very cheap purchase at any home store, if you don't have a newer model with insulation already built in. This could save you up to 9 percent in water heating costs.
Hang curtains with a valance: Curtains act as insulation, but without a valance can create convective currents when the air between the curtain and glass cools down. As the cooler air drops, valuable warm air gets sucked into the top of the curtain and starts the process again. A valance helps stop this hot-air vacuum effect.
Take Your Temperature and Know Your Watts
Get a programmable thermostat: Programmable thermostats are more exact than manual ones and can be set to adjust the temperature in your home for different times of day; this saves both on-grid energy and your mental energy -- you'll never again go on vacation and find yourself worrying about where you leftthe thermostat dial.
Assess your energy use: New devices like the Kill-A-Watt hook up to any electrical appliance and let you know exactly how much energy you're using. You might be surprised where big leaks lie in wait.
Rethink How You Illuminate
It's all about the bulbs: Switch out your incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescent ones. Compact fluorescent bulbs use up to 75 percent less energy than the average incandescent and will last as much as 10 times longer.
Work on that display: Switch your computer monitor and TV screen over to liquid crystal display. LCD monitors use about one-third the energy of the standard CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor. These puppies still cost a pretty penny, but prices are dropping, and the extra bonus is in the design: If flat screens are the sleek, tanned Vizlas of the monitor world, CRTs are loping, drooling St. Bernards.
Go Solar, Go Slow
It's painless -- and at a megastore near you: You no longer have to go out of your way to find (and once you're there feel intimidated by) solar specialty shops. These days you can take baby steps at most large home stores, which have begun to stock up on sun-powered items. Look for 5-watt solar starter kits for gate and garage door opening and outdoor path and motion detector solar lighting.
Have fun: You can find solar-powered gizmos made just for fun and enjoyment. Grab a cascading lawn fountain that you can set in the sun and enjoy. This is a great way to get your feet wet (literally and figuratively).
Don't fear the aesthetics: Let's face it, the current crop of rooftop solar panels range from clunky to downright ugly, and installation is its own unruly beast. But solar engineers are perfecting nano-solar cell technology, which will revolutionize the aesthetics and design of the current crop of solar panel dinosaurs. Soon 'solar style' will not be an oxymoron.
Take it on the road: The sun is a battery charger that you'll always have room to pack. Check out solar-powered iPod chargers or get a solar recharging backpack for all your electronic goodies like cell phones and PDAs. Just hold your charger up to the window of your Eurail compartment, and you'll be juiced up for your entire journey.
Leave wanting more: When you're ready to upgrade, try a solar-specific retailer like Sundance Solar (store.sundancesolar.com) where you can up your solar wattage, get DIY starter kits for installing solar panels, and even find tricks to pimp your RV and go road-tripping in style with the help of the sun.