Utilities in Spain

Electricy, gas and water

Electricity, gas and water connections and supplies are covered in this section. Immediately after buying or renting a property (unless utilities are included in the rent), you should arrange for the meter to be read, the contract (e.g. electricity, gas or water) to be registered in your name and the service switched on.

Make sure all bills have been paid by the previous owner. Although you’re liable only for debt incurred from the day you rent or buy a property and aren’t liable for the previous owner’s outstanding debts, utility companies sometimes cut off a supply because of a previous owner’s debts.

Unless you’re certain that all debts have been paid, it’s a good idea to provide your utility companies with a copy of your title deeds or rental contract so that they know when you took over ownership or tenancy of the property.

Registering a contract usually entails a visit to the company’s office, although many companies offer the possibility of registering online or by telephone. Note that in order to register for electricity via the internet or telephone you must give some identification (your name and your passport or identity card number), as well as the reference number for the electricity supply (usually found on the top left-hand corner of an electricity bill under Contrato de Suministro No).

If you visit the utility company’s office, you must take some identification (passport or residence permit) and the contract and bills paid by the previous owner. The registration procedure for water connection is sometimes via the local town hall. If you’ve purchased a home in Spain, the estate agent may arrange for the utilities to be transferred to your name or go with you to the offices (no charge should be made for this service).

If you’re a non-resident owner, you should also give your foreign address in case there are any problems requiring your attention, such as a bank failing to pay the bills. You may need to pay a deposit.

Electricity in Spain

Spain’s main electricity companies include Grupo Endesa (the largest), Iberdrola, Union Fenosa and Hidrocantábrico. In January 2003, the energy market was completely liberalised and clients can, in theory, now choose which company provides their electricity. In practice, however, in many areas there’s still only one company providing electricity. Endesa (902-509 509, www.endesaonline.com ) provides electricity under the following names:

Fecsa in Catalonia; Gesa in the Balearics; Sevillana Endesa in Andalusia; and Unelco in the Canaries. Hidrocantábrico (902-860 860, www.h-c.es ) provides electricity in Asturias and Madrid. Iberdrola (901-202 020, www.iberdrola.com ) provides electricity in Asturias, the Basque country, Cantabria, Catalonia, Comunidad Valenciana (including the Costa Brava), Galicia and Madrid. Unión Fenosa provides electricity in central Spain, including Madrid ( 901-404 040, www.unionfenosa.es ).

Power Supply in Spain

The electricity supply in most of Spain is 220 volts AC with a frequency of 50 hertz (cycles). However, some areas still have a 110-volt supply and it’s possible to find dual voltage 110 and 220-volt systems in the same house or the same room! All new buildings have a 220-volt supply and the authorities have mounted a campaign to encourage homeowners with 110-volt systems to switch to 220 volts. Not all appliances, e.g. televisions made for 240 volts, will function with a power supply of 220 volts.

Power cuts are frequent in many areas – Andalusia, the Balearics and Extremadura were the regions with most power cuts in 2004. When it rains heavily the electricity supply can become unstable, with power cuts lasting from a few micro seconds (just long enough to crash a computer) to a few hours (or days). If you use a computer (or other equipment) it’s wise to fit a power surge protector or an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) with a battery back-up (costing around e150), which allows you time to shut down your computer and save your work after a power failure. Alternatively, if you rely on electricity for your livelihood, it may be better to install a back-up generator.

In remote areas you must install a generator if you want electricity, as there’s no mains electricity, although some people make do with gas and oil lamps. In many urbanisations, water is provided by electric pump and, therefore, if your electricity supply is cut off, so is your water supply . If you buy a rural property (finca rústica), there are usually public guarantees of services such as electricity (plus water, sewage, roads, telephone, etc.). However, you may be obliged to pay for the installation of electricity lines or transformers plus the connection to your property if the mains services don’t run near your home.

If the power keeps tripping off when you attempt to use a number of high-power appliances simultaneously, e.g. an electric kettle and a heater, it means that the power rating (potencia) of your property is too low. This is a common problem. You may need to contact your electricity company and ask them to upgrade your power supply (it can also be downgraded if necessary). The power supply increases by increments of 1.1kW, e.g. 2.2kW, 3.3kW, 4.4kW, 5.5kW. The power supply rating is usually shown on your meter. Your standing charge depends on the power rating of your supply, which is why owners tend to keep it as low as possible and most holiday homes have a power rating of just 3.3kW.

Wiring Standards in Spain

Most modern properties (e.g. less than 20 years old) have good electrical installations. However, if you buy an old home you may be required to obtain a certificate ( boletín) from a qualified electrician stating that your electricity installation meets the required safety standards, even if the previous owner already had an electricity contract. You should ensure that the electricity installations are in a good condition well in advance of moving, as it can take some time to get a new meter installed or to be reconnected.

Plugs, Fuses & Bulbs

Depending on the country you’ve come from, you will need new plugs (enchufes) and/or a lot of adapters. Plug adapters ( adaptador) for most foreign electrical apparatus can be purchased in Spain, although it’s wise to bring some with you, plus extension leads and multi-plug extensions that can be fitted with Spanish plugs. There’s often a shortage of electric points in Spanish homes, with perhaps just one per room (including the kitchen), so multi-plug adapters may be essential. Most Spanish plugs have two round pins, sometimes with an earth built into the plug, although most sockets in older properties aren’t fitted with earth contacts. Sockets in modern properties are usually earthed.

Small low-wattage appliances such as lamps, small TVs and computers, don’t require an earth. However, plugs with an earth must always be used for high-wattage appliances (e.g. fires, kettles). These plugs must be used with earthed 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. Always make sure that a plug is correctly and securely wired, as bad wiring can be fatal.

In modern properties, fuses (fusibles) are of the trip type. When there’s a short circuit or the system has been overloaded, a circuit breaker is tripped and the power supply is cut. If your electricity fails, you should suspect a fuse, particularly if you’ve just switched on an electrical appliance.

Light bulbs (bombillas) in Spain are of the Edison type with a screw fitting. If you have lamps requiring bayonet bulbs you should bring some with you, as they cannot be easily purchased in Spain. You can, however, buy adapters to convert from bayonet to screw fitting (or vice versa). Bulbs for non-standard electrical appliances (i.e. appliances that aren’t made for the Spanish market) such as refrigerators and sewing machines may not be available.

Converters & Transformers for Spain

Assuming that you have a 220-volt power supply, if you have electrical equipment rated at 110 volts AC (for example, from the US) you will require a converter or a step-down trans­former to convert it to 220 volts. If you have a 110-volt supply, you can buy converters or step-up trans­formers to convert appliances rated at 220 volts to 110 volts.

However, some electrical appliances are fitted with a 110/220-volt switch. Check for the switch, which may be inside the casing, and make sure it’s switched to 220 volts before connecting it to the power supply. Converters can be used for heating appliances, but transformers are required for motorised appliances. Total 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, will need replacing or fitting with a large transformer. In most cases it’s simpler to buy new appliances.

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 Europe’s 50Hz. Electrical equipment without a motor is generally unaffected by the drop in frequency to 50Hz (except televisions). 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 must be converted from the US 60Hz cycle to Spain’s 50Hz cycle.

To find out, look at the label on the back of the equipment. If it says 50/60Hz it should be fine; if it says 60Hz you can try it, 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 run hotter at 50Hz, so make sure that apparatus has sufficient space around it to allow for cooling.

Electricity tariffs in Spain

Electricity in Spain is one of the cheapest in Europe, although prices have risen over the last two years and further rises are expected as electricity companies are forced to pay the cost of keeping to the limits of emission of gases under the Kyoto agreement. The actual charges depend on your local electricity company (the rates shown in the example below are those charged by Sevillana Endesa in Andalusia).

The tariff depends on your power rating, which for domestic users with a power rating of up to 15kW is 2.0 (above 15kW it’s 3.0). This tariff is used to calculate your bimonthly standing charge. For example, if your power rating is 4.4kW this is multiplied by the tariff of 2.0 and then multiplied by the standing charge rate per kW, i.e. 4.4 x 2.0 x €1.53, making a total of €13.64. The standing charge is payable irrespective of whether you use any electricity during the billing period.

To save on electricity costs, you can switch to night tariff (tarifa nocturna, 2.0N) and run high-consumption appliances overnight, e.g. storage heaters, water heaters, dishwashers and washing machines, which can be operated by a timer. If you use a lot of water, it’s better to have a large water heater and heat water overnight. If you use electricity for your heating, you can install night-storage heaters that run on the cheaper night tariff. The night tariff rate consists of paying 2.7 per cent more than the normal tariff during the day and evening (from 7am to 11pm), but provides a reduction of 53.3 per cent for electricity used overnight (between 11pm and 7am). In the summer, night hours start at midnight and run until 8am. VAT at 16 per cent must be added to charges.

Cuota Fija: Some electricity companies allow their customers to pay a monthly set amount (cuota fija) irrespective of consumption. At the end of the year the actual consumption is calculated and the customer pays the outstanding amount or has money returned to them.

Electricity meters

In an old apartment block there may be a common meter, with the bill being shared among the apartment owners according to the size of their apartments. It’s obviously better to have your own meter, particularly if you own a holiday home that’s occupied for a few months of the year only. Meters for an apartment block or community properties may be installed in a basement in a special room or be housed in a meter ‘cupboard’ in a stair well or outside a group of properties. You should have free access to your meter and should be able read it.

Electricity bills

Electricity is billed every two months, usually after meters have been read. However, companies are permitted to make an estimate of your consumption every second period without reading the meter. You should learn to read your electricity bill and check your consumption.

Paying your bills by direct debit (domiciliación bancaria) from a Spanish bank account is advisable if you own a holiday home in Spain. Bills should then be paid automatically on presentation to your bank, although some banks cannot be relied on 100 per cent. Both the electricity company and your bank should notify you when they’ve sent or paid a bill. Alternatively, you can pay bills at a post office, local banks (listed on the bill) or at the electricity company’s office (in cash).

Electricity companies aren’t permitted to cut your electricity supply without authorisation from the proper authorities, e.g. the Ministry of Industry and Energy, and without notifying the owner of a property. If you’re late paying a bill, you should be sent a registered letter demanding payment and stating that the power will be cut on a certain date if you don’t pay. If you disagree with a bill, you should write to the Servicio Territorial de Ministerio de Industria y Energía; if your complaint is founded your electricity company will be refused permission to cut your supply. If your supply is cut off, you must usually pay to have it reconnected ( reenganche).

Gas in Spain

Mains gas is available only in major cities, although with the recent piping of gas from North Africa (Algeria and Libya) it may soon be more widely available.

As with electricity, you’re billed every two months and bills include VAT at 16 per cent. Like all utility bills, gas bills can be paid by direct debit from a Spanish bank account. In rural areas, bottled gas is used and costs less than half that of mains gas in most northern European countries. You can have a combined gas hot-water and heating system (providing background heat) installed, which is relatively inexpensive to install and cheap to run.

In most areas of Spain, gas bottles (bombonas) are delivered to homes by Repsol Butano, for which a contract is required. You must pay a deposit of around €25 and an exchange 12.5kg bottle costs around €12.50 (the price fluctuates frequently) when delivered to your home or less if purchased directly from a Butano depot. A contract is drawn up only after a safety inspection has been made of the property where the gas appliance is to be used. In some areas, you must exchange your bottles at a local supplier. A bottle used just for cooking lasts an average family around six to eight weeks. If a gas boiler is installed outside, e.g. on a balcony, it must be protected from the wind, otherwise you will continually be re-lighting the pilot light.

You must have your gas appliances serviced and inspected at least every five years. If you have a contract with Repsol Butano, they do this for you or it’s done by your local authorised distributor. Some distributors try to sell you a package which includes third party insurance and free parts should they be required, although it isn’t necessary to have this insurance and is a waste of money. Beware of ‘bogus’ gas company representatives calling unannounced to inspect gas appliances.

Most are usually legitimate companies, but their charges are extortionate and they will give you a large bill for changing tubing and regulators (which don’t usually need changing), and demand payment in cash on the spot. If you wish you can let them make an inspection and give you an estimate ( presupuesto) for any work that needs doing, but don’t let them do any work or pay any money before checking with your local Repsol Butano distributor. Incidentally, plastic tubes have an expiry date printed on them and you can buy them from a hardware store (ferretería) and change them yourself.

Water in Spain

Water, or rather the lack of it, is a major concern in Spain and the price paid for all those sunny days. Spain as a whole has sufficient water, but it isn’t distributed evenly. There’s (usually) surplus rainfall in the north-west and centre and a deficiency along most of the Mediterranean coast and in the Balearic and Canary islands. In the Canaries, there’s a permanent water shortage and most drinking water is provided by desalination plants, while in the Balearics 20,000 wells are employed to pump water to the surface (there are also desalination plants in Majorca and Ibiza). Three large desalination plants are located in Almería, Marbella and Murcia.

On the Costa del Sol, purification plants recycle waste water from urban areas for crop irrigation and watering golf courses. Shortages are exacerbated in resort areas, where the local population swells five to tenfold during the summer tourist season, the hottest and driest period of the year. The government has presented an ambitious water plan for eastern and southern Spain based around the better use of water resources (e.g. repair of broken irrigation pipes – nearly 20 per cent of the country’s water supply is lost through broken or leaking pipes! – and recycling of waste water) and the construction of 17 desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, all expected to be working by 2008.

Almost every year some part of southern Spain faces drought and in 2006, much of the country was critically short of water. Water shortages are exacerbated by poor infrastructure and wastage due to poor irrigation methods. There’s also surprisingly little emphasis on water conservation, particularly considering the frequent droughts. For example, the Costa del Sol uses double the national average per person (500 litres a day), and people in towns and cities consume some 300 litres of water per person, per day, one of the highest figures in Europe.

At the same time, hundreds of rural towns and villages have water on tap for just a few hours a day during the summer months and farmers regularly face ruin due to the lack of water for irrigation. However, domestic consumption has reduced in many regions with the sharp increase in water costs in recent years, and people have learnt to use less water during the prolonged drought.

Quality of water

Water is supposedly safe to drink in all urban areas, although it can be of poor quality (possibly brown or rust coloured), full of chemicals and taste awful. Many residents prefer to drink bottled water. In rural areas, water may be extracted from mountain springs and taste excellent, although the quality standards applied in cities are usually absent and it may be of poor quality. Water in rural areas may also be contaminated by the fertilisers and nitrates used in farming, and by salt water in some coastal areas. If you’re in any doubt about the quality of your water you should have it analysed.

Although boiling water kills any bacteria, it won’t remove any toxic substances contained in it. You can install filtering, cleansing and softening equipment to improve its quality or a water purification unit to provide drinking water. Purification systems operating on the reverse osmosis system waste three times as much water as they produce. Obtain expert advice before installing a system, as not all equipment is effective.

Many areas have hard water containing high concentrations of calcium and magnesium. Water is very hard (muy dura) in the east, hard (dura) in the north and most of the south, and soft in the north-west (e.g. Galicia), and central and western regions.

You can install a water softener that prevents the build-up of scale in water heaters and water pipes which increases heating costs and damages electric heaters and other appliances. Costs vary considerably and can be hundreds of euros for a sophisticated system, which also consumes large quantities of water for regeneration. It’s necessary to have a separate drinking water supply if you have a water softener installed in your home.

Restrictions

During water shortages, local municipalities may restrict water consumption or cut off supplies altogether for days at a time. Restrictions can be severe and householders may be limited to as little as three cubic metres (m3) per month, which is sufficient for around 10 baths or 20 showers. You can forget about watering the garden or washing your car unless you have a private water supply. If a water company needs to cut your supply, e.g. to carry out maintenance work on pipes and other installations, they usually notify you in advance, but don’t be surprised if you have no warning at all! In some areas, water shortages can create low water pressure, resulting in insufficient water to take a bath or shower.

Note that in many developments, water is provided by electric pump and therefore if your electricity is cut off, so is your water supply. In urbanisations, the tap to turn water on or off is usually located outside properties, so if your water goes off suddenly you should check that someone hasn’t switched it off by mistake. In the hotter parts of Spain, where water shortages are common, water tankers deliver to homes. Some properties don’t have a mains supply at all, but a storage tank (epósito) that’s filled from a tanker. If you have a storage tank, water is pumped into it and you’re charged by the litre plus a delivery charge.

Water supply in Spain

An important task before renting or buying a home in Spain is to investigate the reliability of the local water supply and the cost. Ask your prospective neighbours and other local residents for information. In most towns and cities, supplies are adequate, although there may be cuts in summer. It’s inadvisable to buy a property where the water supply is controlled by the developer, some of whom charge owners many times the actual cost or charge for a minimum quantity, even when they’re non-residents. In rural areas, there are often severe shortages in summer unless you have your own well.

A well containing water in winter may be bone dry in summer and you may have no rights to extract water from a water channel (acequia) running alongside your land.

Dowsing (finding water by holding a piece of forked wood) is as accurate as anything devised by modern science (it has an 80 per cent success rate) and a good dowser can also estimate the water’s yield and purity to within a 10 or 20 per cent accuracy. Before buying land without a water supply, engage an experienced dowser with a successful track record to check it. Although rare, some people in remote areas have spent a fortune ensuring a reliable, year-round water supply, which may need to be piped from many kilometres away.

Storage Tanks

If you have a detached house or villa, you can reduce your water costs by collecting and storing rainwater and by having a storage tank installed. Tanks can be roof-mounted or installed underground, which are cheaper and can be any size, but require an electric pump. Check whether a property has a water storage tank or whether you can install one.

Most modern properties have storage tanks which are usually large enough to last a family of four for around a week or even longer with careful use. It’s also possible to use recycled water from baths, showers, kitchens and apparatus such as washing machines and dishwashers, to flush toilets or water a garden. In recent years, it has become common to have a storage tank installed that refills itself automatically when the water supply is restored after having been cut off.

Hot Water

Water heating in apartments may be provided by a central heating source for the whole building or apartments may have their own water heaters. If you install your own water heater, it should have a capacity of at least 75 litres. Many holiday homes have quite small water boilers, which are often inadequate for more than two people. If you need to install a water heater (or fit a larger one), you should consider the merits of electric and bottled gas heaters. An electric water boiler with a capacity of 75 litres (sufficient for two people) costs from €150 to €250 and usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes to heat water to 40 degrees in winter.

A gas flow-through water heater is more expensive to purchase and install than an electric water boiler, but you get unlimited hot water immediately whenever you want it with no standing charges. Make sure that a gas heater has a capacity of 10 to 16 litres per minute if you want it for a shower. A gas heater costs from €150 to €300 (although there’s little difference in quality between the cheaper and more expensive heaters), plus installation costs.

A gas water heater with a permanent flame may use up to 50 per cent more gas than one without one. A resident family with a constant consumption is better off with an electric heater operating on the night-tariff, while non-residents using a property for short periods will find a self-igniting gas heater more economical. Solar energy can also be used to provide hot water.

Costs of water in Spain

Water is a local matter in Spain and is usually controlled by local municipalities, many of which have their own wells. In some municipalities, water distribution is the responsibility of a private company. The cost of connection to the local water supply for a new home varies considerably from around €75 up to €500 (when a private company controls the distribution), or even €1,500 in an isolated area. In most municipalities, there’s a standing quarterly charge or a monthly charge for a minimum consumption (canon de consumo), e.g. 14 cubic metres a month or €10 a month plus VAT at 7 per cent, even if you don’t use any water during the billing period. Water shortages don’t stop municipalities from levying high standing charges for a water supply that’s sometimes non-existent.

The cost of water has risen dramatically (as a result of droughts) and in some towns, water bills have increased by over 300 per cent or more, although the price of water is surprisingly low in Spain and one of the cheapest in Europe. The cost varies considerably from an average of around e1 per m3 on the mainland to between €1.50 and €2.50 per m3 in the Canaries and some parts of the Balearics. In some areas, tariffs start with a low basic charge, but become prohibitively expensive above a certain consumption. Many municipalities levy a standing charge, which is usually for a minimum amount of water per quarter or month, e.g. 45m3 a quarter or 15m3 a month, whether any water is used or not (which hits non-residents hardest).

Some municipalities levy a quarterly surcharge (canon de servicio) and regional governments may also levy a charge for water purification. Sometimes a higher water rate is charged for holiday homeowners or owners in community developments, where the water supply isn’t controlled by the local municipality, while in others the cost of water is included in community fees. Water bills usually include sewerage and may also include rubbish collection, e.g. when a city provides all services, in which case the cost of rubbish collection may be calculated on how much water you use.

There’s also a rental charge for the water meter, e.g. around e4 per quarter. Always check your water bill carefully, as overcharging on bills is rife. Sometimes water company meters show a huge disparity (increase!) in consumption compared with a privately installed meter and when confronted with the evidence water companies often refuse to reply! Some municipalities arbitrarily levy higher tariffs on certain urbanisations, although this is illegal.

To reduce water costs, you can buy a ‘water saver’ that mixes air with water, thus reducing the amount of water used. The cost of fitting a water saver is only around €40, which can reportedly be recouped in six months through lower bills.

Water savers can be purchased from El Corte Inglés and Hipercor stores, hypermarkets and DIY stores.

Water bills

Bills are generally sent out quarterly. If you don’t pay your water bill on time you should receive an ‘enforced collection’ (recaudación ejecutiva) letter demanding payment of your bill (plus a surcharge). If you don’t pay your bill your water supply can be cut off. If your supply is cut, you must pay a reconnection fee, e.g. €40, plus any outstanding bills.

Sewerage in Spain

Surprisingly for a western industrialised country, around a third of the population isn’t connected to a sewage treatment system, with untreated waste water going straight into the ground, rivers or the sea. In some areas, there are no sewage plants and sewage is drained into cesspools (pozos negros) or septic tanks (fosas sépticas) which are emptied by tankers.

Septic tanks can cause problems in summer, for example when holiday homes are fully occupied and the tank isn’t emptied frequently. 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. Cesspools are illegal in many areas and properties must be connected to mains drainage.

Most sewage treatment deficiencies are found in central Spain and along the northern Atlantic coast, although raw sewage is dumped into the sea throughout the country. A special tax (canon) is levied in many areas to pay for the installation of sewage treatment plants. Most towns with over 2,000 inhabitants should have one by the end of 2006, but in many areas there are no definite plans for their construction.

This article is an extract from Buying a home in Spain. Click here to get a copy now.

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