Go solar

Want some tips on how to live a more Earth-friendly life? Click through this photo gallery for some ideas and links to more resources.

Go Solar. When people wonder how they can have a more environmentally friendly home, the first thought often is solar power. Any why not? The sun's energy is free and panels generate no pollution when they operate.

Solar power--either photovoltaic panels to make electricity or solar hot water--can indeed make a lot of sense, but here are a few things you should consider.

First is your sun resource. If your roof is in the shade for most of the day, don't bother. Some companies like Sungevity let you get a quick idea of whether it's even worth considering. Next is cost. In general, solar electric panels are expensive and can take 10 to 15 years to pay back. Solar hot water has a quicker payback and a lower up-front cost.

However, the cost equation is changing fast. Companies like SolarCity, SunRun, Clean Power Finance, and even some municipal programs offer different financing options that cut the upfront costs. Your installer should be able to tell you what sort of state and federal incentives there are. The price of the actual products is also going down as well, making a decision to go solar easier for both financial and environmental reasons.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Infrared camera

Get a home energy audit. If you're willing to pay for a more advanced energy audit, you'll probably see one of these gadgets. It's infrared camera that can locate hot and cold spots in a home--very important when you're trying to locate drafts and air leaks.

So rather than getting bids for solar panels, the first thing you should do it is arrange a home energy audit. Most are free services or you can pay for a more extensive offering where people will actually do some air-sealing or insulating on the spot. I recently paid about $600 for an audit and it was worth it for both the work they did and the advice.

A good resource for many home-related decisions is Sierra Club's recently launched Green Home Web site.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Plug-in prius

Green your ride. The price of oil has plummeted from almost $150 a barrel last year to around $50 this year, cutting gasoline prices way below the $4 per gallon Americans were paying last year. With lower prices, it seems people are going back to buying gas guzzlers, no doubt helped by the generous terms dealers are offering. But few industry analysts think that gasoline prices will stay where they are indefinitely--all the more reason to seek out fuel-efficient cars.

The next big technology change in cars is electric vehicles, which studies have shown are less polluting than all-gasoline engines, particularly if cars are charged at night. In the next two years, a number of cars will be coming out from the big incumbents to start-ups that will offer a big leap in efficiency. Depending on your driving habits, you may never need to go to gas stations.

Of course, the best way to green your ride is to leave your car at home and use an alternate mode of transportation, such as biking or mass transit.

See CNET Car Tech's green and hybrid car buying guide.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

HP Recycling

Recycle your electronics. Let me guess--you have a desk drawer with three or four electronic gadgets that have been out of commission for years. It's a familiar situation that's only getting worse as electronics proliferate in our lives.

Old PCs, cell phones, monitors, iPods and the like contain heavy metals, plastics, and other materials that are toxic so don't just toss them in the trash. Retailers are starting to offer recycling and there are growing number of take-back services where you can get some money for that unused gear cluttering your life. See this handy list.

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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

Powerstrip

Slay the vampires. All those electronics around your home are sucking up juice even when you're not using them. It can cost $10 a month just to have your TV and peripherals in stand-by mode. On a national level, the waste is measured in the billions of dollars a year. Why put up with that?

One solution is connecting your devices to a power strip and turn them off when you're not around. The high-tech approach is "smart power strips" like this Bits Smart Surge Strip. You connect a device like a TV, stereo or PC to the main plug colored blue. The beauty of the strip is it turns off stand-by power to all peripheral items, like speakers, game machines, and DVD players. The red plugs let you keep certain items on all the time.

EnergyCircle does a good explainer video on smart power strips here.

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Photo by: Bits Limited / Caption by:

LED lamp

Install energy efficient lighting. This LED lamp from Lighting Science can be used to replace a 75-watt incandescent bulb but it uses only 8 watts. LED lights are still much more expensive which is why they are mostly used for commercial applications at this point. Compact fluorescent bulbs, meanwhile, are far cheaper than they used to be and the quality is getting better. They contain small amounts of mercury so they should be disposed of with hazardous waste.

For a deeper dive, see the EnergyStar lighting site or Earth Easy's lighting guide.

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Photo by: Lighting Science Group / Caption by:

Monitor

Track energy data. Most people, it seems, have only a vague idea of how much energy their home is using and where it's going. But that's changing as more home energy monitors come onto market. Some companies like Tendril offer their products, which have a Web interface, through utilities. Others like The Energy Detective (TED), pictured, can be purchased by consumers to get a view of how much a home is consuming at a given time. This product requires an electrician to install it and provides software to provide more details on your monthly electricity bills.

See this sampling of twelve home energy-monitoring gadgets.

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Photo by: The Energy Detective / Caption by:

Composter

Compost. You don't need a worm farm to compost your household wastes. The simplest thing is to get an outdoor composter, or just a bin, where you toss your vegetable scraps (no meat) and yard wastes. What comes out after a few months is compost which you can use as fertilizer on your lawn or garden.

This kitchen composter from NatureMill is a more high-tech approach. You put all sorts of scraps in there, even meats, and it uses heat and air to break the material down into compost. Waste is a terrible thing to waste.

Here's a fun quiz to teach you a thing or two about composting.

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Photo by: NatureMill / Caption by:
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