Utilities And Services
When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window. This is how it was for David and Doris Johnson when they found a down-at-heel mini chateau in the heartland of France. A three year restoration began - and with it a journey of discovery.
The French 220 volt/50 hertz supply is comparable to that of the UK and it is almost exclusively supplied by Électricite de France (EDF). French electricity is still possibly the cheapest in Europe and standards of installation, particularly for new property, are satisfactory.
There are problems with older buildings as some still use the 110/120 volt AC supply which requires a transformer to convert the supply to 220 volts AC for motorised appliances. If the wattage available from the transformer is less than the rating of the appliances, they will not work – or at least not at the same time. More bizarrely the level of supply, even for 220 volts AC, will depend on the KW supply you have metered. This agreed supply level, which can vary from 3 KW to 36 KW, is a significant part of the standing charge equation with the maximum supply costing more than 40% more than the minimum. Small- to medium-size households usually operate on a 6 KW supply with a device known as a délesteur – which cuts out ‘supplementary systems’ (such as convectors and water heaters) when high-consumption appliances (such as washing machines and electric kettles) threaten to overload the system.
Older rural properties may not have an electricity supply and paying to have it connected to the grid can be prohibitively expensive. This is particularly true if the property is within a national park where only underground supplies are permitted. EDF will quote for the work but alternatives, including generators and solar energy, may be more viable.
Even where 220V AC is supplied, rural areas in particular suffer regular power cuts. This is most likely to be a result of a generation or system failure, but could also be a consequence of industrial action. Happily most interruptions are only momentary, but are sufficient to knock out timing devices and to crash computers. Specification for computer systems in France therefore invariably includes an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) with battery backup.
The price for electricity depends on the tariff option you choose. Leaflets explaining the alternatives are issued when each new installation is made and when a new customer account is opened. They are also available on demand from any office of Électricite de France (EDF) and on the internet at www.edf.fr.
They amount to either:
- The Blue Tariff. This is either the normal tariff (option base) where charges remain constant throughout the 24-hour cycle, or the reduced rate (option heures creuses) where up to three periods (totalling a maximum eight hours a day) are earmarked for lower cost supply. The option base is selected by owners of properties that are only occasionally occupied. The reduced rate option, which features a two dial meter which records both ‘normal’ and ‘off peak’ usage, is the rate most commonly applied.
- The Tempo Tariff (option tempo). This increasingly popular tariff is designed to encourage fuel saving at times when demand is at its greatest. It provides the customer with cheap off-peak electricity for most of the year. There are, however, some variations from this – the most significant being some 22 peak days (falling between 1st November and 31st March) which are determined (by EDF) by reference to the meteorological centre in Toulouse. At these peak periods the tariff charged is up to eight times the off-peak period. Peak days are announced by a light or buzzer. The tempo tariff, which also has a lower standing charge, can only be applied to homes where the power supply is rated at nine or more KW, but there must also be a viable alternative (non-electrical) source of heat. Those who choose the tempo tariff normally have a remote controller which switches off high consumption appliances during the peak periods. This tariff is particularly suitable for people who have a property which is unoccupied during the winter or for those with homes on the Mediterranean coast.
Under French law, any new building or flat can be joined to the mains system. The developer has the responsibility of making sure that a building conforms to the regulations and that the appropriate certificate (certificat de conformite) is issued for new property. This is handed over to EDF.
A deposit is required, which is refunded in portions after five and ten years. A second nominal charge is made for the meter when it is connected to the supply. In some circumstances a bond is required that can be set against future electricity bills.
Though supplies and installations may be cheap, some safety standards are not what we have come to expect in the UK. Watch out for:
- Insufficient power points, particularly in the kitchen. This is a chronic problem which seems peculiar to France. It even extends to the most recently-developed property where you will still find up to half a dozen low wattage appliances running from a multi-plug connector fed from a single socket.
- Unearthed electrical equipment. Dishwashers, driers, washing machines, and televisions are normally earthed. Special sockets are fitted to hobs, cookers and ovens.
- Timed earth trips. You sometimes have to wait several minutes after replacing a fuse before the normal supply is restored.
- Insecure light fittings and loose wall sockets with both bayonet and screw light fittings in the same room and sometimes even on the same wall.
- Some imported electrical equipment that is not compatible with the French 220 volt/50 cycle system, or not fitted with a slow start system. The power surge produced by turning on an imported electric kettle or microwave is often sufficient to blow the fuses or trip-switches.
- A multitude of plug and socket fittings, some unearthed, and almost all without fuses.
Gas in France is either town gas or bottled gas. Town gas is generally available in more densely populated urban areas and not at all in the countryside. It is supplied by state-owned Gaz de France (GDF). As elsewhere, gas prices have risen considerably in recent years.
If you buy a town property and wish to have it connected the charge is a little under €900 provided you are within 35 metres of the nearest supply point. There are four tariff options based on the number of cubic metres you are likely to use. This is calculated on the basis of factors such as whether or not gas is to be used for cooking, hot water and central heating. As in the UK (since 1992) the amount you actually use is converted into kilowatt hours for billing. Where gas is only used for cooking in shared buildings, the bills are paid by the co-proprieté and added to individual service charges.
As electricity is cheap, visitors are often surprised to learn that most French homes have a back up (usually bottled) gas supply. Additionally there will often be a second (gas) hob fitted in the kitchen near to the electric one because electricity supplies are so regularly interrupted. Bottled gas is available at most garages and supermarkets. As in the UK, you are required to pay a container deposit. Propane is considered to be a better option than butane, although slightly less efficient, it is less affected by cold weather. In some rural areas it is possible to install garden-based gas tanks from companies such as Antargaz and Total. These are normally fitted free of charge in exchange for a supply contract of one year or more. One downside of this arrangement is an increase in insurance premiums.
French water is the most expensive in the world – typically around 60% more expensive than in the UK. Unlike the state monopolies of electricity and gas, all French is supplied by private companies. The largest of these – Cise, Lyonnaise des Eaux, Saur and Vivendi supply 80% of the market. If you have a septic tank, the bill will be reduced by up to 40%. Special rates apply for industrial and agricultural use, and for swimming pools.
Water supplies are metered. The meters are reliable and it is therefore difficult to question charges which vary from €2 to €5 per cubic metre (1,000 litres) depending on location. The psychological effect of metering explains why in France you will rarely see a domestic sprinkler system or hosepipe in operation.
Supply shortages are rare in urban areas, but common in rural areas during the summer. When water levels run low, the supply is simply turned off. Many rural homes have an emergency storage tank and keep grey (recycled house) water for the garden.
In central and southern France a significant number of properties are supplied by spring water or wells. The water is usually of excellent quality, and, best of all, virtually free.
LAND LINE TELEPHONES
Applications for a telephone are made to the local Agence Commerciale des Telecommunications or France Telecom. Installations have been known to take place the following day, but delays of up to 12 months are not unknown.
Those used to the UK’s standard installation system are sometimes shocked by charges levied in France. Connections, particularly within a block of flats, are inexpensive, but if your home is several miles from existing connections, the charge will reflect the work involved.
The standard connection is called the ligne mixte. This is not a party line, but one that allows calls to be made in and out.
It is also worth noting:
- Ex-directory numbers are subject to a monthly surcharge.
- There are two phone books for each département – the annuaire (domestic listings) and the professions (yellow pages). The annuaire lists subscribers under towns and communes. The professions contains business listings and all those useful numbers that UK subscribers are used to finding in their standard phonebook.
- Lines may go silent between phases of dialling a number, and the ringing tone is frequently inaudible.
- Those used to the relative efficiency of BT may find its French equivalent – France Telecom (sometimes still referred to as ‘PTT’) – a source of frustration. Lines, particularly into the capital, are overloaded and regularly unavailable during office hours. Directory Enquiries has an abysmal record of giving correct numbers and checking overseas listings is often beyond them.
- As in the UK, a number of independent providers are now competing in the market place, but it can be similarly difficult to work out, on a like-for-like basis, what calls really cost. However, it is possible to make very cheap calls, particularly overseas, so the various tariff structures and suppliers (including www.telerabais.fr) are worth investigating.
- It is also worth investigating voice over internet protocol (VOIP) options – once broadband internet access is installed calls via the internet using, for example, www.skype.com or www.voipcheap.co.uk can be very cheap or even free.
Broadband is being rolled out across the country although coverage in rural areas remains patchy. Technologically, France is ahead of Britain in terms of access speeds in many areas, with very high speeds available in most large cities. Many packages include free telephone calls and television access. Choosing an ISP is as difficult as elsewhere (www.grenouille.com is a useful website that lists all ISPs and their current performance levels), but once an order is placed for broadband access, the process can be refreshingly straightforward.
Mobile internet access in France is rather more developed with networks, such as Orange, already able to deliver access at download speeds comparable to standard land lines in the UK. There is a good range of internet cafés even in more remote areas which is useful when travelling, and many campsites also offer internet access via their own computers or using wifi as, of course, do most hotels.
Mobile phone coverage in France is excellent. This is partly because networks share cells, and partly because those living in the regions demand parity with Paris. You can generally log on to a network at the top of an Alp or at the bottom of a gorge. In military training areas, however, service can be suspended from time to time.
UK-bought mobiles theoretically work in France, but whether or not they do in practice depends on your sim card and contract. Advance line rental and monthly line rental contracts usually allow international roaming but ‘Pay As You Talk’ arrangements may not. Check with your service provider before you leave the UK. Do not assume that roaming has been automatically enabled. The same applies to mobile fax services.
Using your UK mobile in France is expensive – particularly between 07.00 and 19.00. Even off peak calls rapidly add up and text messages can cost as much as €1 each. Calls made to your mobile also appear on your bill. The provider you register with bills your UK network provider who adds a second round of charges and VAT before billing you. Some UK network providers – such as Vodafone – have been known to set their handsets to automatically locate the overseas providers with whom they have negotiated a mutually beneficial agreement. You can however search for alternative providers. Orange, a French company, is often considered the best mobile telephone service provider; messages, for instance, can be retrieved from anywhere in the world by pressing three digits and mobile internet links were both swifter and less likely to fail even before G3 technology was available.
A much more economic option is to swap your sim card with its French equivalent. Cards of the top-up variety, which naturally come with a French number, can be purchased (together with various introductory packages of free text and call time) from around €30. One slight problem is that if the phone is not used for a certain period (usually six months) your number (and card) becomes defunct and cannot be easily reinstated. And, once a French card is inserted, your phone loses its UK identity.
It is not at all uncommon for mobile owners to change cards each time they cross the channel.