When you're getting ready to go on vacation, your furnace and water heater are probably the last things on your mind.

But if you don't give your appliances a vacation too, you'll probably return home wondering why an empty house doesn't mean lower energy bills.

Furnace and air conditioner

Your thermostat should be an important part of your vacation preparations. If you'll be taking a winter vacation, set the thermostat at 55 degrees - but don't go any lower. This will help prevent your water pipes from freezing and bursting.

If you'll be away for several weeks, ask a neighbor to check your house once in a while to make sure the furnace is still running.

Or you can use a device called a "winter watchman" - plug it into an outlet, then plug a lamp into it. The device is temperature sensitive, so if the room temperature drops below the setpoint, the lamp will come on to alert your neighbor. You can find one of these at your local home center or hardware store.

During the summer, turn the thermostat off. If you have a window air conditioner, it's best to remove it; if it's difficult to remove, cover the compressor and unplug the unit.

Water heater

Many homeowners wonder about how to adjust their water heater while they're away. If you have a gas water heater, set the temperature dial to the VAC or "vacation" setting.

If you don't have this setting, turn the thermostat as low as it will go - but don't turn it completely off. If you do, you'll have to relight the pilot light when you get home, and with most water heaters this requires a service call from a professional.

If you have an electric water heater, cut the power at the breaker or fuse in the service panel.

With either type of water heater, It's not necessary to drain out the water from the tank, but when you come home, be sure to let the water reach at least 120 degrees before using it.

Refrigerator

A refrigerator is usually one of the biggest energy-wasters while you're on vacation. If you'll be gone for several weeks, empty out the food and unplug it.

If that's not practical, get rid of easily spoiled items like milk and yogurt, and turn up the thermostat a notch or two. You can raise the internal temperature up to 38 degrees and still keep your food safe.

The same advice applies to the freezer. Remove fast-melting foods like ice cream, and raise the temperature a few degrees. Meats and vegetables will remain solidly frozen if the freezer temperature is five or below.

Other appliances

Before you head out the door, take a few minutes to turn off and unplug any appliance or electronic device that doesn't need to stay on. Many items like microwaves, computers and especially televisions draw power even when they're not being used.

Unplugging appliances will also help prevent damage in case of a storm or power surge. Don't forget to unplug bigger items like your washer and dryer.

Safety and security

Safety and security are even more important than energy bills, so be sure to give your house that lived-in look while you're away.

It's always a good idea to have a motion detector light outdoors, and while you're on vacation, use a timer on an indoor light. Look for a timer that can be set to a random pattern so the lights don't turn on and off at exactly the same times every day.

If you'll be gone more than a few days, hire someone to mow the lawn or shovel the walk. And no matter how short your vacation, have a neighbor collect your mail and newspapers.

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