Get caulking (and doing other upgrades) and you can save big bucks

©iStockphoto.com/Jim Jurica

The so-called "Cash for Caulkers" stimulus project has been bouncing around the news for a couple of weeks now, and, while nothing is official quite yet, there are some promising developments. Most notably, each household is eligible for a whopping $12,000 in rebates, which sounds great. And it is great, if you've got some cash -- er, $24,000 or so -- lying around, ready to be invested in your home. Yep, $12,000 is the max rebate, at 50 percent of what you spend, so, while it'd be great to get that money back, you'll have to fork over a bunch of money to do so.

Not to worry, though. While dropping a lot of cash will certainly earn you some back, you don't have to spend $24,000 to get some serious return on your investment. For anyone that's up for it, hey, more power to you -- get yourself some shiny solar panels and enjoy! -- but here are seven upgrades that won't cost you in the 10's of thousands, that'll earn you a return on your investment much more quickly than they might have before.

Yes, I say investment because energy efficiency is about saving money in the long run. To figure out your exact calculations, the US Department of Energy provides a page on the equations; here are some tips to get you started.

1. Get an energy audit. This one is a definite must. According to TreeHugger:

The plan will likely create a new program where private contractors conduct home energy audits, buy the necessary gear and install it, according to a staffer on the Senate Energy Committee and Nadel at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Big-ticket items like air conditioners, heating systems, washing machines, refrigerators, windows and insulation would likely be covered.

This will show you with a "blower door" test where you are seeping cold or hot air into your home, which will tell you where work needs to get done to save and go green. Perhaps the best part is that once you get this analysis of your home done, you have a contractor on hand who will get you all the rebates for everything. Yippee!

WATCH VIDEO: Home Energy Audit on Renovation Nation

2. Replace your washer and dryer with an Energy Star rated appliances. Plan on spending about $2,500 - $3,000 for the really super-efficient jobs. I have seen some packaged that are less and you can probably get a good deal if you try to talk them down -- they NEED the sale! Anyway, that's a $1,500 tax credit right there and, when you include the savings on water and electricity, they payback is very quick. Since 50 percent of that is tax deductible, you'll earn back the other half in two years or so, depending upon how much you were spending on utilities to run the appliances..

WATCH VIDEO Living with Ed: Every-Day Tips: Washers & Dryers

3. Insulate and air seal your home.Depending on the cost, you will see savings between 15 and 27 percent depending upon where you live in the country. Page 13 of this weatherization report (pdf) has a really useful chart showing estimated savings based on your local climate. Be aware that the cost of installing the insulation is not covered under the stimulus—just the products that qualify themselves, so check carefully before buying. WATCH VIDEO: Renovation Nation: Foam Insulation or Not? WATCH VIDEO: Living with Ed: Every Day Tips: Insulation 4. Replace your heating system. Now that you're well-insulated, you can up the efficiency of your heating with maximum return. Most homes have natural gas heaters. To go from 82 percent efficiency to 95 percent is great. Prices can range from $2,000 to $7,500 with the hot water heater as well. This is a 15 percent efficiency savings on the heater alone so with the on average $2,000 tax credit and the savings per month, you can see a recoup in about 10 years (which, while it seems like a long time, is sure faster than without the rebates). WATCH VIDEO: Living with Ed: Everyday Tips: Thermostat 5. Upgrade your refrigerator (and maybe your stove and microwave, too). Of all places, Sears has a really good summary of all the rebates for appliances. Beware, in some states you need to buy the appliance in a certain window of dates. With the stimulus money for this you will save pretty quickly -- down to about a year for many of the appliances you purchase. WATCH VIDEO: Living with Ed: Everyday Tips: Refrigerator 6. Replace really old windows and doors. While windows can be really expensive, leaky, old, outdated, single-paned, cheap windows are a real gateway to your energy losses. The storm door, for example, can help cut way back on energy losses, and you don't have to replace the old door, so it can be the best of both worlds. To replace the windows and doors can cost you well into the $7,500 - $10,000's or more for this job; however, it will never be cheaper than with the stimulus rebates available. And it will pay off every night when you go to sleep and there aren't any draft. WATCH VIDEO: Living with Ed: Everyday Tips: Windows and Doors 7. Switch to LED bulbs in your home. They are 90 percent more efficient than a standard incandescent bulb and last 100,000 hours. That's going from a 90 or 100 watt bulb to a 12-14 watts per bulb! Your payback is about less than a year. While it may not covered by the stimulus, it is just the quickest payback on your energy bill, so it's worth doing now, and whenever it's time to replace an old burned out bulb. WATCH VIDEO: Living with Ed— Energy-Saving Tips: Lighting What does this all add up to? Going green means saving green. Really, we are talking between 25 and 30 percent on energy bills. If you do a good job with air sealing and efficiency upgrades, you will save more than you spend to earn the full rebate. Our Green Materials Guide has tons and tons of info on all of these home energy-saving materials, so read it before diving in to insulation, windows, lighting, or any green home improvement project.