Electricity, gas, oil and wood
France - Property
As well as electricity and gas, French homes use oil (fioul or fuel) and wood (bois) for heating and hot water, and the government offers tax credits for the installation of energy systems running on renewable fuel (e.g. wood and solar energy).
Electricity and gas are supplied by the state-owned Electricité de France/Gaz de France (EDF/GDF), although commercial gas and electricity users have a choice of private suppliers (domestic users must wait a little longer). The price of gas and electricity is reasonable and has lessened in real terms over the last decade.
For information about making the most efficient use of electricity and gas, contact the Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maitrise de l’Energie (ADEME), 27 rue Louis-Vicat, 75737 Paris Cedex 15 ( 08 00 31 03 11, http://www.ademe.fr), who will advise you where to find your nearest Point Info Energie (PIE).
Unlike other Western countries, France generates some 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, the balance coming mostly from various hydro-electric power stations.
This means that France’s electricity is among the cheapest in Europe (it supplies electricity to its neighbours for less than they can produce it themselves and owns nine other European electricity companies, including Seeboard in the UK). Due to the moderate cost of electricity and the high degree of insulation in new homes, electric heating is more common in France than in other European countries.
The electricity supply in France is delivered to homes at 380/440 volts through three separate phases (not one as in some countries) and is then shared across the three phases at 220/240 volts with a frequency of 50 Hertz (cycles). Some appliances, such as large immersion heaters and cookers, draw power from all three phases. Older buildings may still have 110/120 volt supplies, although these have been converted to 220/240 in most areas.
If you’re moving from a country with a 110V supply (e.g. the US), your electrical equipment will require a converter or a transformer (transformateur) to convert it to 240V, although some electrical appliances (e.g. electric razors and hair dryers) are fitted with a 110/240 volt switch. Check for the switch, which may be inside the casing, and make sure that it’s switched to 240V before connecting it to the power supply. Converters are suitable only for appliances without circuit boards or microchips that don’t need to be plugged in for long periods (e.g. heaters, hair driers, vacuum cleaners and coffee machines). Electronic appliances such as computers, fax machines, TVs and video players must be connected to the supply via a step-down transformer. Add the wattage of the devices you intend to connect to a transformer and make sure that its power rating exceeds this sum. Converters and transformers can be bought in most DIY shops, although in most cases it’s simpler to buy new appliances in France.
An additional problem with some electrical equipment is the frequency rating, which in some countries, e.g. the US, is designed to run at 60 Hertz (Hz) and not France’s 50Hz. Electrical equipment without a motor is generally unaffected by the drop in frequency to 50Hz. Equipment with a motor may run with a 20 per cent drop in speed; however, automatic washing machines, cookers, electric clocks, record players and tape recorders are unusable in France if not designed for 50Hz operation. To find out, look at the label on the back of the equipment. If it says 50/60Hz, it should work. If it says 60Hz, you might try it anyway, but first ensure that the voltage is correct as outlined above. Bear in mind that the transformers and motors of electrical devices designed to run at 60Hz will run hotter at 50Hz, so you should ensure that equipment has sufficient space around it for cooling.
In many rural areas the lights often flicker and occasionally go off and come back on almost immediately (just long enough to crash your computer!). Power cuts of several minutes or hours are fairly frequent in some areas, particularly during thunderstorms, and in some departments (e.g. Gers) there’s a high risk of lightning strikes. If you live in an area with an unstable electricity supply, it’s prudent to obtain a power stabiliser for a computer or other vital equipment to prevent it being switched off when the power drops. If you use a computer, it’s also wise to fit an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) with a battery back-up, which allows you time (around five minutes) to save your work and shut down your computer after a power failure. If you’re worried about lightning strikes, you can install an ‘anti-lighting’ device (parafoudre) in your fuse box. (You should also keep torches, candles and preferably a gas lamp handy!)
If the power keeps tripping off when you attempt to use a number of high-powered appliances simultaneously, it probably means that the rating (puissance) of your power supply is too low. This is a common problem in France. If this is the case, you must ask EDF to uprate the power supply to your property, although this can increase your standing charge (see below) by up to 40 per cent. The power setting is usually shown on your meter (compteur). The possible ratings are 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 24, 30 and 36 kilowatts (KW or Kva).
To calculate the power supply required, you need to list all the electrical appliances you have (plus any you intend installing, such as an electric shower or dishwasher) and the power consumption of each. Add the power consumption of the appliances you’re likely to operate simultaneously to obtain the total number of kilowatts required. The three lower rates (3, 6 and 9KW) don’t cater for electric heating, which needs a power supply of 12KW to 18KW. If you have an integrated electrical heating system, however, you can have a gadget called a délesteur installed, which momentarily cuts off convectors, under-floor heating and water-heater (etc.) when other high-consumption appliances are in use but without noticeable temperature fluctuations; it may therefore be possible to avoid a higher supply rating.
If you have appliances such as a washing machine, dishwasher, water heater and electric heating in an average-size house (e.g. two to three bedrooms), you will probably need an 18KW supply. If you have numerous high-wattage electrical appliances and electric heating, you may need the maximum 36KW supply.
The electrical system in older properties is often eccentric and may even be dangerous, with exposed sockets and bare wires evident. One of the most important tasks after buying a property is to check that the electrical system is in good condition and adequate to meet your needs. You can get an EDF representative to check the wiring in a property.
Homes in France are wired differently from those in many other countries (for example, they don’t use a ring main system, which is prohibited). French regulations regarding the fittings and appliances in bathrooms are specific: although electric switches and sockets are permitted (unlike in the UK), they mustn’t be placed within 2.25m (7ft 6in) of a bath or shower. Note also that all metalwork (e.g. pipes) in bathrooms must be earthed; this often isn’t the case in older buildings.
Make sure also that you have enough power points fitted; even in new properties it’s common for developers not to install enough points (although it’s possible to run up to around five separate, low-wattage appliances from one socket via a multi-plug connector).
It’s essential to use a qualified French electrician for electrical work (look under Électricité générale in the yellow pages). The electricity supply to a new property or a property that has been rewired will be connected by EDF only on receipt of a certificate (certificat/attestation de conformité) approved by the Comité National pour la Sécurité des Usagers de l’Électricité (CONSUEL). This can be arranged by a French builder or a registered electrician.
Plugs, Fuses & Bulbs
The first thing to check before moving into a home in France is whether there are any light fittings. When moving house, some people don’t just remove the bulb, but bulb-holders, flex and even the ceiling rose! Depending on where you’ve come from, you may need new plugs (fiche) or a lot of adapters. Plug adapters for imported lamps and other electrical apparatus may be difficult to obtain in France, so it’s wise to bring some with you, plus extension cords and multi-plug extensions that can be fitted with French plugs.
Most French plugs have two round pins, some with a female socket (prise) in the plug forming a ‘third’ earth connection. Small, low-wattage electrical appliances up to six amps, such as table lamps, small TVs and computers, don’t require an earth. Plugs with an earth must be used for high-wattage appliances up to 16 amps, such as fires, kettles, washing machines, refrigerators and cookers. These plugs must be used with corresponding three-point sockets and will also fit two-point sockets.
Electrical appliances that are earthed have a three-core wire and must never be used with a two-pin plug without an earth socket. Note that many French sockets aren’t earthed and many electrical appliances are operated without an earth, with the exception of washing machines, dishwashers and dryers. French plugs aren’t fitted with fuses.
Always make sure that a plug is correctly and securely wired, as bad wiring can cause fatal injuries (and is also a fire hazard).
In modern installations, fuses (fusibles) are of the resetting pop-out type or earth trip system. When there’s a short circuit (court-circuit) or the system has been overloaded, a circuit breaker (disjoncteur/coupe circuit) is tripped and the power supply is cut. Before reconnecting the power, switch off any high-power appliances such as a washing machine or dishwasher. Make sure you know where the trip switch is located and keep a torch handy so that you can find it in the dark.
Electric light bulbs in France are either of the Edison type with a bayonet or a screw fitting and both are readily available in shops. You can also buy adapters to convert from one to the other. Bulbs for non-standard electrical appliances, i.e. appliances that weren’t made for the French market, such as refrigerators and sewing machines, may not be available in France, so bring some spares with you.
Converters & Transformers
Electrical equipment rated at 110 volts AC (for example, from the USA) requires a converter or a step-down transformer (transformateur) to convert it to 240 volts AC, although some electrical appliances (electric razors, hair dryers) are fitted with a 110/240 volt switch. Check for the switch, which may be inside the casing, and make sure that it’s switched to 240 volts before connecting it to the power supply. Converters can be used for heating appliances, but transformers are required for motorised appliances. Add the wattage of the devices you intend to connect to a transformer and make sure that its power rating exceeds this sum.
Generally, small, high-wattage electrical appliances, such as kettles, toasters, heaters and irons, need large transformers. Motors in large appliances, such as cookers, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers, need replacing or fitting with a large transformer. In most cases it’s simpler to buy new appliances in France, which are of good quality and reasonably priced. Note also that the dimensions of imported cookers, microwave ovens, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers, may differ from those in France, so they may not fit into a French kitchen.
An additional problem with some electrical equipment is the frequency rating, which in some countries, e.g. the US, is designed to run at 60 Hertz (Hz) and not France’s 50Hz. Electrical equipment without a motor is generally unaffected by the drop in frequency to 50Hz. Equipment with a motor may run with a 20 per cent drop in speed; however, automatic washing machines, cookers, electric clocks, record players and tape recorders are unusable in France if not designed for 50Hz operation. To find out, look at the label on the back of the equipment. If it says 50/60Hz, it should work. If it says 60Hz, you might try it anyway, but first ensure that the voltage is correct as outlined above. Bear in mind that the motors of electrical devices designed to run at 60Hz will run hotter at 50Hz, so you should ensure that equipment has sufficient space around it for cooling.
Connection & Registration
You must usually apply to your local EDF office to have your electricity connected and to sign a contract specifying the power supply (see below) installed and the tariff required. To have your electricity connected, you must prove that you’re the owner by producing an attestation or a lease if you’re renting. You must also show your passport or residence permit (carte de séjour). If you wish to pay your bill by direct debit from a bank or post office account, don’t forget to take along your account details (relevé d’identité bancaire).
When moving house, most people tell the EDF a few days before they leave (EDF requests at least two days’ notice) and EDF assumes that someone else is taking over the property. To ensure that your electricity supply is connected and that you don’t pay for someone else’s electricity, you should contact your local EDF office and ask them to read the meter (relevé spécial) before taking over a property. If the property has an existing supply, you must pay an ‘access’ fee (frais d’accès) of €14. Residents don’t usually pay a deposit, although non-residents may be required to pay one. When payable, the deposit is refundable against future bills.
When buying electrical appliances, the label PROMETELEC (Association pour le développement et l’amélioration des installations intérieures) indicates that they’re safe. The safety of electrical materials is usually indicated by the French safety standards association’s initials ‘NF’ (normes françaises). EDF/GDF publish a number of leaflets detailing their services and tariffs, including one in French and English, Le Service du Gaz et de l’Électricité. EDF publishes a useful free booklet (in French), EDF répond à vos questions, available from any EDF office. Your local electricity board may also have a booklet (livret de l’usager de l’électricité) explaining the electricity supply and apparatus. If you have any questions regarding the electricity supply, contact your local Électricité de France office (listed in yellow pages and searchable on http://particuliers.edf.fr – enter the name of your commune in the box on the right headed ‘Votre agence’). Information can also be obtained via a local rate telephone line ( 08 10 12 61 26).
Your standing charge (abonnement) depends on the rating of your supply and the tariff you choose, which also affects the amount you pay for electricity consumed (calculated in kilowatt-hours or KWh). EDF offers three domestic tariff options: basic (suitable only for those who use little electricity), off-peak (with different rates for day and night-time use), and Tempo (most suitable for those with second homes that are unoccupied for long periods). A tax called the contribution au service public is applied to all electricity bills at the rate of €0.33 per KWh. Details of tariffs are given in Living and Working in France.
Meters are usually installed in a box on an outside wall of a property. However, if your meter isn’t accessible or a house isn’t permanently occupied, make sure you leave the keys with a neighbour or make special arrangements to have your meter read. (You can have your meter connected to an exterior box for around €75). If your meter cannot be read, you will receive an estimate based on your previous bills, although it must be read at least once a year.
You’re normally billed for your electricity every three months but may receive bi-monthly or monthly bills if your consumption is above a certain level. A number of bills (facture) received throughout the year, e.g. alternate bills, are estimated. Bills include the standing charge, VAT and local taxes (taxes locales). VAT is levied at 5.5 per cent on the standing charge and 19.6 per cent on the total power consumption. Local taxes (taxe commune/département) are around 12 per cent and where applicable are levied on around 80 per cent of the consumption and standing charge total before VAT is added. VAT at 19.6 per cent is also levied on the local taxes.
Bills can be paid by direct debit (prélèvement automatique) from a bank or post office account. It’s also possible to pay a fixed amount each month by standing order based on your estimated usage; at the end of the year you receive a bill for the amount owing or a rebate of the amount overpaid. These methods of payment are preferable, particularly if you spend a lot of time away from home or you’re a non-resident. If you’re a non-resident, you can have your bills sent to an address outside France. If you don’t pay a bill on time, interest (majoration) can be charged at 1.5 times the current interest rate. If your bills still aren’t paid after a certain period, your electricity company can cut your service.
Gas: Mains, Bottled or Gas Tanks
Mains gas (gaz de ville) is available only in around 80 towns and cities and is supplied by the state-owned Gaz de France (GDF), part of the same company as Electricité de France (EDF). (Gas supplies to businesses were privatised in July 2004 and private supplies are due to be privatised in July 2007.) If you buy a property without a mains gas supply, you can obtain a new connection (raccordement), provided of course mains gas is available in the area. If the property is within 35m (115ft) of a supply, connection costs are around €320; if not, you must obtain a quotation for connection, which can be very expensive.
When moving into a property already connected to mains gas, you must contact GDF to have the gas switched on and/or have the meter read and to have the account switched to your name. This can usually be done at the same time as you arrange for your electricity supply. There’s a connection charge (mise en service) of around €14 (or €28 if you have gas and electricity connected at the same time).
As with electricity, you must decide on the type of supply you require, e.g. base for cooking only, B0 for cooking and hot water, B1 for heating (in a small house) and B2I for heating (in a larger house). The annual service charge (abonnement) is lower for a limited supply (e.g. €24 for base compared with €187 for B2I) but you’re charged more per kWH (€0.0602 for base and between €0.0345 and €0.0325 for B2I depending on the town you live in).
Details of charges in each town where mains gas is available can be found on the GDF website ( http://dolcevita.gazdefrance.fr – click on’les tarifs de gaz de France’ and then enter a postcode). Further information about gas supplies is provided in Living and Working in France.
Most rural homes have cookers and some also water heaters that use bottled gas. Cookers often have a combination of electric and (bottled) gas rings (you can choose the mix). Check when moving into a property that the gas bottle isn’t empty. Keep a spare bottle or two handy and make sure you ask how to change bottles, as this can be quite a complicated procedure, involving safety switches, etc.. Bottled gas is more expensive than mains gas. Bottles come in 35kg, 13kg and 5/6kg sizes. A small one used just for cooking will last an average family around six weeks.
Bottles can be bought at most petrol stations and super/ hypermarkets, but you should trade in an empty bottle for a new one; otherwise it’s much more expensive. An exchange bottle costs around €20. If you need to buy new gas bottles, you will be asked to register and pay a deposit (e.g. €40 per bottle). Some village shops also sell bottled gas. Note, however, that there are several different types of bottle (e.g. Antargaz, Butagaz, Primagaz and Totalgaz, each a different colour) the supplier of one type won’t accept an empty bottle of another type. (Check before you unload your 35kg bottles!) Note also that the connectors usually turn in the opposite direction to most threaded devices.
Some houses keep their gas bottles outside, often under a lean-to. If you do this you must buy propane gas rather than butane, as it can withstand a greater range of temperatures than butane, which is for internal use only (in fact, propane gas bottles must be kept outside a house). Note also that butane requires a different demand valve (détendeur) from propane, i.e. 28M.bar 1300g/h instead of 37M/bar 1500g/h.
If you’re planning to buy or rent an apartment, check whether gas bottles are permitted, as they’re prohibited in many new apartments.
Gas central heating is common in France, although in rural areas the gas supply comes from a gas tank (citerne) installed on the property, rather than a mains supply or bottles. Tanks can be hired, from suppliers such as Total and Antargaz, for around €300 per year, or you can pay a deposit of around €1,500, which is refunded if you take out a contract for the supply of gas for a fixed period.
If you take over a property with a gas tank, you must not only pay the deposit but also have it filled and pay for a full tank of gas, irrespective of how much was left in it!
The cost of filling a 1,100kg tank is around €1,000; some suppliers offer monthly payment plans. A family of four in an average house with gas central heating, hot water and cooking uses around 1,150kg per year (around 800kg for heating, 300kg for hot water and 50kg for cooking).
Having a gas tank on your property will increase your insurance premiums.
Mains water in France is supplied by a number of private companies, the largest of which are the Saur group (part of Bouygues, which also supplies mobile phone services, http://www.saur.com), Suez Environment (formerly Lyonnaise-des-Eaux, http://www.lyonnaise-des-eaux.fr) and Veolia Environment (part of Vivendi, http://www.generale-des-eaux.fr), who between them supply some three-quarters of the water in France.
Suez and Veolia being global suppliers with some 235m customers. The water supply infrastructure, however, is owned and managed by local communes, so rates vary across the country. Most properties in France are metered, so that you pay only for the water you use and are charged per cubic metre (1,000 litres). If you need to have a water meter installed, there’s a small non-refundable charge. When moving into a new house, ask the local water company to read your meter. Note that owners of a copropriété can have individual meters installed.
Supply & Connection
If you own a property in or near a village, you can usually be connected to a mains water system. Note, however, that connection can be expensive, as you must pay for digging the channels required for pipes. Obtain a quotation (devis) from the local water company for the connection of the supply and the installation of a water meter. Expect the connection to cost at least €800, depending on the type of terrain and soil (or rock!) which must be dug to lay pipes. If you’re thinking of buying a property and installing a mains water supply, obtain an estimate before signing the purchase contract.
Water shortages are rare in towns (although they do occur occasionally) but are fairly common in some rural areas during long hot summers, when the water may periodically be switched off. It’s possible to have a storage tank installed for emergencies and you should also keep an emergency supply for watering the garden or recycle your house water.
If you rely on a well (puits) or spring (source) for your water, bear in mind that these can dry up, particularly in parts of central and southern France, which continue to experience droughts.
Always confirm that a rural property has a reliable water source and check it or have it checked by an expert.
If the source is on a neighbour’s land, make sure that there’s no dispute about the ownership of the water and your rights to use it, e.g. that it cannot be stopped or drained away by your neighbours. You don’t pay water charges for well water or water from a stream or river running through your property. If a supply is marked eau non potable, the water should not be drunk.
It’s usual to have a contract for a certain amount of water; if you exceed this amount, you incur a higher charge. There’s no flat fee (forfait), which has been abolished, although ‘special charges’ may be levied. French water varies by up to 100 per cent in price from region to region, depending on its availability or scarcity, and is among the most expensive in the world, although rates include sewerage charges. If your property is on mains drainage (tout à l’égout), your water can cost as much as €3.60 per cubic metre or as little as €1.75; the national average is around €2.75. If it has a septic tank (fosse septique), on the other hand, your water bill will be much lower, e.g. €0.75 per cubic metre.
You’re billed by your local water company annually or every six months and can pay by direct debit. If an apartment block is owned en copropriété, the water bill for the whole block is usually divided among the apartments according to their size. Hot water may be charged by adding an amount per cubic metre consumed by each apartment, to cover the cost of heating the water, or may be shared among apartments in proportion to their size.
Properties in urban areas are normally connected to mains drainage (tout à l’égout), whereas those in rural parts usually have individual sewage systems: either cesspits (puisard) or septic tanks (fosse septique, also known as a puits perdu – a ‘lost well’!).
Note, however, that according to a law passed in January 1992, which came into force in December 2005 (although it will be much longer before it takes effect!), mains drainage must be installed wherever it’s considered cost-effective, which generally means in the centre of all French villages.
Where mains drainage is installed, there will be a one-off charge for connection made to all properties within the area of the system, which must be connected within two years of the installation, plus an annual service charge. Charges for mains drainage are normally included in property taxes.
If you have a septic tank, you should use enzyme bio-digesters and employ bleach and drain unblockers sparingly, as they kill the friendly bacteria that prevent nasty smells.
A fosse toutes eaux must be emptied at least once a year, depending on whether a property is permanently inhabited or not, a fosse septique every three to five years; the cost of emptying is around €200. Note that you mustn’t use certain cleaning agents, such as ammonia, in a septic tank, as they will destroy it, and you may need to put specially formulated products into the tank to keep it working properly.
TIP: Before buying a property with its own sewerage system, you should have it checked by an expert. Before buying a property or plot without a system, you should obtain expert advice as to whether one can be installed and at what cost.
This article is an extract from Buying a home in France. Click here to get a copy now.
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