There's that vacation twinge again. Did you leave the right lights on at home? Could an electrical storm fry your plasma TV? Maybe you should've . . . but you're already in the air, or almost through the next state, and it's a little late now. So here, from the best minds in local law enforcement, fire prevention, water, power, gas and cable service, is a checklist to go by. Save it for your next trip, so you can relax. -- Margaret Roth
* Know your neighbors. Your home's best defense is a good set of eyes. Have someone check on it every two to three days, says Sgt. Terri Alexander of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Tell a neighbor where you can be reached and about anyone who is scheduled to check on the pets or plants. If you have an alarm system, make sure all your contact numbers are current before you activate it.
* Tend the lawn. Your yard should look like it does when you're there. If the edges of the lawn have that razor-cut look, hire someone to cut the grass and weed.
* Hold the deliveries. Stopping mail and newspapers is a no-brainer. But you can also call some shipping services, including FedEx (800-463-3339), to ask that they not deliver anything while you're gone.
* Unplug, unplug, unplug. Any unnecessary small appliance, especially with a heating element, is a potential fire hazard, says Battalion Chief Chauncey Bowers of the Prince George's County Fire and EMS Department. Even when it's not turned on, it draws a small amount of current and can short-circuit. This includes coffee makers, toasters, plug-in air fresheners, hair dryers and clock radios. "If it's unplugged, it can't do any damage," Bowers notes. Big-ticket appliances, such as refrigerators and electric hot water heaters, need not be disconnected because of the protection built into their wiring.
The cheapest way to protect laptops and TVs is to unplug them. Otherwise, in a storm surge, "the extra voltage can decrease the life of whatever's plugged into the wall," even if the surge doesn't fry it, says Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion Virginia Power spokeswoman.
* Leave lights on. For less than $20, you can buy timers that turn on a light at different times from one day to another. Outside lighting is just as important, says Officer Julia Gilroy of the Montgomery County Police Department. "Lighting's a very good deterrent at night." Motion-detector lights are also inexpensive and easily mounted.
* Leave the gas and water on. Not only is it unnecessary to turn off the pilot light to your gas appliances, it's inadvisable. You should, however, make sure the area around any gas appliances is clear of flammable objects, including rags that could create vapors a pilot light could ignite. As for the water, shutting it off entirely can cause unforeseen complications for the hot water heater, says Jeanne Bailey of Fairfax Water.
It is a good idea, though, to turn off the valves to your toilets. "Toilet leaks often go undetected," Bailey says. Also, turn the icemaker in the fridge to the "off" setting to prevent leaks or an overflow of ice.
* Turn up the thermostat. Not so high that the compressor goes silent -- a tipoff no one's home -- but enough to save a bit of money. For every degree you raise the thermostat, you save an estimated 3 to 5 percent of your energy consumption, according to Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin.
* Move the car. Besides creating a target for car theft, leaving a car untouched in the driveway screams that you're not home. If you don't have a locked garage to leave it in -- or if you do, but don't want to leave the driveway empty -- you can offer your driveway to the neighbor while you're gone. "A lot of people don't think about that," says Alexander.
* Lock up. Lock doors and windows in the house and garage. The best locks are deadbolts that require a key; even better if they require a key from the inside, too. Hopefully you can leave a set of them with someone trustworthy who lives nearby.
The best window lock is one that uses a key. Failing that, you can "pin" the windows on the inside, so the sashes can't open more than a couple of inches. Pinning requires that you drive a nail or screw into the sash; just be sure it's removable and that the pins come out when you return. (Newer windows come with little tabs that, when released, serve the same purpose.) You probably won't want to pin all the bedroom windows, particularly if they're in clear view and if someone is staying in the house while you're gone. A pinned window could keep someone from getting out in a fire.
Also, if you have pets and no air conditioning, you'll need to leave a couple of windows partially open. But AC window units should come out so the windows can be locked, says Alexander. Sliding patio doors should also be secured with a horizontal "charlie bar" so they won't slide and adjusted so they can't be lifted off their tracks.
For more information, many police departments and utility companies will come to your home and offer advice. Detailed advice is also on many police department and utility Web sites; for example, www.montgomerycountymd.gov/poltmpl.asp?url=/Content/POL/ask/crimePrevention.asp.