Greg offers a few tips to trim utility expenses.

To a writer, there's nothing more frustrating than attempting to be topical and up to date with an article that's written more than a month prior to publication.

If you want to seem credible and in the know, oftentimes you have to focus on subjects that aren't featured in the day's Daily Times. But every now and then there emerges a pressing issue that you can't responsibly avoid. In those instances, you have to dust off the crystal ball and take your best guess, hoping that by the time your article is in print you've managed to stay relevant.

This is one of those times.

At this writing, a warm Western spring has recently provided a brief glimpse of a potentially chaotic summer that's likely to be punctuated by rolling blackouts and spiking energy prices that will harm businesses and consumers in many states. Our nation's leadership has just proposed a new energy policy in response to this crisis, but no short-term solution has yet been put on the table. In the meantime, California Gov. Gray Davis is publicly entertaining the idea of seizing power generating plants in retaliation for price gouging by power producers. Also, in California, Nevada and other regions of the country, the price of gasoline is projected to reach more than $3 a gallon due to production shortfalls.

After the snow

Of course, all of this follows a relatively harsh winter during which we experienced significantly increased natural gas and fuel oil prices. And for those of you looking ahead, many of the factors responsible for the higher costs will still be around next winter.

Obviously, there are differing political viewpoints as to how we got into this mess and how we're going to get out of it with the minimum of casualties. Yet, both sides of the debate seem to ignore the fact that consumers have the final say in how much they're willing to pay for something. With continuing fuel and energy cost increases, there eventually comes a point where the consumer will say "enough is enough," and opts to do without rather than pay a premium price.

With all respect to the White House view that rising energy costs should in no way affect American lifestyles--that there is no imperative to cut back our energy use--conservation is both a natural and helpful response to increased energy costs. Just a modest reduction in energy use nationwide can have a profound impact on energy prices and it can happen in a relatively short period.

I'll take it on faith that the administration is capable of putting together an energy plan that offers long-term relief. In the meantime, I suggest the American people should take charge of the situation by making a modest effort toward conservation. I'm not talking about anything extreme; the "American way of life" need not be adversely affected in any way. We need only undertake a few painless, effortless steps to bring about a significant reduction in energy use. To that end, I offer the following "Lazy Man's Guide to Energy Conservation."

Nickel and dime

#1 The Nudge: Energy conservation doesn't get any easier than this. Take just 10 seconds of your time and walk over to the thermostat. Whatever temperature it's set for, simply nudge it 1 degree warmer (or colder, in the winter). If you're really ambitious, you can nudge it 2 degrees, but the idea is that the change need only be slight and not affect your personal comfort level. You can take this another step further by nudging the temperature settings on your refrigerator and freezer, and you don't have to bother making a special trip. The next time you head to the kitchen for a cool, refreshing beverage, just stick your head inside the fridge and nudge the settings slightly warmer. Unless food spoilage is already a problem, you shouldn't notice any difference in how your refrigerator operates, but you will make a noticeable decrease in your household energy usage.

#2 Check Your Tires: According to annual vehicle inspections performed by the National Car Care Council, one-third of vehicles on the road are operating with under-inflated tires, which reduces their fuel efficiency between 5 and 10 percent. If you haven't checked your tires in the last three months, take a couple of minutes to do it the next time you fill your tank. Not only will you help reduce the overall demand for gasoline, you will immediately enjoy the benefits of improved gas mileage.

#3 Take in a Matinee: During the summer months, consumer electrical demand peaks in the afternoons when most people are at home enjoying the comfort of central air. But why pay for cool air when you can bask in the comfort of someone else's A/C?

Once or twice a month, gather up the kids and spend an afternoon out of the house (turning up the thermostat before you go). Go to the library, take in a matinee, play a round of miniature golf, visit friends and family, or impose on the neighbors with the in-ground pool. The important thing is to get out of the house and have a fun family afternoon; the energy saving will take care of itself.

#4 Sleep In: If your household or work schedule will allow it, adjusting your morning and evening commutes to avoid peak traffic times can save both gas and personal aggravation. Most people can avoid the peak commuter traffic by adjusting their schedules by just a half-hour to an hour, either earlier or later in the day. By avoiding traffic jams, your commute not only takes less time, but you will get two- to three-times better gas mileage than if you are driving in stop-and-go traffic.

Talk to the boss and see if you can introduce some flexibility into your work schedule. If you are the boss, consider offering staggered shift times to your employees. This advice does not apply to all the contractors out there who are already on the road before 6 a.m. You guys should just keep doing what you're doing.

#5 Gloat About It: Implement Steps 1 through 4 and then boast to everyone you know how you've managed to conserve energy by barely lifting a finger. Challenge them to do better. By my logic, if you convince someone to cut back his or her energy usage, you can take credit for at least half of the energy savings. And while that may not directly put cash in your pocket, every little bit helps keep fuel and energy costs in check.

Now, if you happen to be one of those ambitious types that really like to contribute a lot of effort and sacrifice for a cause, there are dozens more energy saving steps you can take, such as changing the air filters in your home and car or vacuuming the condenser coils of your refrigerator. However, as these steps take a slight bit of effort, they're not for everyone (and certainly not recommended for the lazy man).

Three Web sites that can assist with energy conservation

The Alliance to Save Energy is a coalition of prominent business, government, environmental and consumer leaders who promote the efficient and clean use of energy worldwide. The address is www.ase.org

The Department of Energy Consumer Information provides energy saving tips for home, school, business and transportation, and is located at www.eren.doe.gov/consumerinfo

For the Department of Energy's comprehensive site on mileage and fuel efficiency, visit www.fueleconomy.gov