Central heat, as opposed to fireplace heat, is not a new idea—the Romans used an early version called a hypocaust, and there were isolated steam and hot-water heating systems in Europe by the end of the 18th century.
Still, our colonial ancestors relied mostly on open fireplaces with simple andirons to hold split logs.
From the late 18th century and increasingly in the early 19th, more fortunate residents of East Coast cities used coal in fireplace grates.
The 4,200-square-foot house is "surprisingly tight (relative of course), considering its age," Schmo writes in a Q&A post at Green Building Advisor, "but my objective is to use the steam radiator/oil system only as a back up due to the large costs and safety concerns associated with using it." Adding insulation in the exterior walls doesn't look like an option, although Schmo may add insulation in the attic.
But more efficient heating and cooling equipment is definitely on his list.
dual unit, dual zone heat pumps — should be able to save us money over the oil-fired boiler and electric back up, no? "Gas looks to be cheaper than conventional heat pump heat for now and many years to come," Dickson writes.
He suggests that Schmo take a look at an online forum called Heating
The boiler system seems to date from 2002 and has been inspected annually and seems to be, on cursory inspection, in good shape.