OMG, we have heat!

Back in the spring of 2016, when we first saw our new house advertised, we were fascinated by the description of an ancient water mill with a working  wheel  that the present owner had adapted to run the central heating.

When we first visited the mill in April the owner was ‘asleep in bed’ and it was his teenage son who accompanied the agent, Gérard, as he showed us round the property. We loved the glass panel in the living room floor which looked down onto the water wheel under the house and as the son demonstrated how to use the big 19th century iron handle in the living room which was the mechanism for opening the large wooden vanne or sluice gate that let the water flow from the mill pond down onto the wheel, we were hooked.

So it was disappointing  (but obviously not a deal-breaker) when Gérard took us through to the garage and showed us the gearing that transformed the rotations of the waterwheel into a speed that was sufficient to generate electricity to power an electric central heating boiler, but added that the turbine was broken so this didn’t work at the moment.  He pointed to a metal box on the garage wall, indicating that this was the afore-mentioned non-functioning  piece of kit.

When we visited again in June to confirm our decision that this was THE ONE, Monsieur was available to confirm that his turbine had broken and that it would cost about 1000 euros to replace.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know much about water wheels, mechanics or electrics. So when someone points to a metal box on the wall and says it doesn’t work, I think ‘But it would be good to get it working because that would mean free central heating’.

Once we had signed the deeds and Moulin de la Roche was ours we spent a lot of time trawling through YouTube videos and websites, educating ourselves on how we could generate electricity from out water wheel to run the central heating. There are 11 enormous hot water radiators in the house, but how to heat the water to run them was still a mystery.

We spent the Christmas and New Year holidays in France, fired with the adventurous spirit shared by all those living the romantic dream of bringing an old property back to life, putting up with physical discomfort, coping with a few free-standing electric radiators and snuggling under a duvet on the sofa in the evening during a particularly cold winter, with temperatures falling to -10C in our part of France.

During this visit we had examined the set up in the garage in more detail. The metal box on the wall turned out not to be a turbine or a generator of any sort but the actual central heating boiler. The broken generator attached to the water wheel had obviously been disposed of and on closer inspection it became apparent that the boiler was actually connected to mains electricity. The joy of thinking we might actually be able to have heating soon disappeared as Colin switched on the boiler and the power to the entire house blew. Gérard had been right all along. The boiler didn’t work. We wouldn’t have heating until we could sort out a new boiler and a generator to power it from the water wheel.

Wind forward to February and a conversation with a lovely lady called Lydia at EDF France. While trying to sort out why the electricity supply had not been transferred to our name I discovered that our debt-ridden predecessors had reduced the supply limit to cut the standing charge on their electric bills. Lydia informed me that we needed a higher power limit to cover any central heating that we might have. Light bulb moment! (Excuse the pun)Why hadn’t I thought of that?

When Bernard, the electrician from Enedis, the French energy network company, arrived early on the morning of our first day back in France to upgrade our meter to the higher limit, he chatted away about the dreadful weather they had had in the west of France during the last couple of weeks and how he had had to spend all the previous weekend reconnecting some of the 200,000 households that had lost their power. I expressed sympathy but he rubbed his hands together and said with a grin ‘ C’est du boulot’, it’s all work.

He confirmed that the new tariff would be enough to run electric central heating and checked that the balance was correct across the three phase supply then drove off, wishing us a toasty warm home.

Moment of truth. Colin powered up the boiler. The electricity stayed on. I ran round like an idiot, feeling the radiators. Was that a glimmer of warmth? Was it just my imagination? Hang on. There! Yes!! It was definitely warmer!!! Apart from an initial hiccup when we couldn’t work out why the upstairs radiators weren’t getting hot (then found a separate feed to switch on) the house got steadily warmer. Twenty four hours later the house was toasty warm and I was a happy bunny. I’m not sure I will be when the electric bills start coming in, but we are now comfy in our lovely home over the winter and have a cushion to find the perfect green solution to our power needs.

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Fighting the system

If you have ever lived in France or know anyone that does, you will probably have heard many complaints of how the French just loooove their bureaucracy. I have friends, both French and English who constantly moan about the poor customer service and ‘jobs-worth’ attitude of most French officials.  Everything has to be done in triplicate at least, numerous forms for everything and everything printed and filed on paper, even when done on the computer!  So my heart sank when I looked at my EDF electricity account online. Over three months after we moved into the mill and there was still no record of our electricity contract. I was going to have to deal with the bureaucracy.

As part of their service our estate agent had advertised that they would take care of all the utility companies during the move. Although perfectly happy to do it myself, I thought ‘Why not if they are offering?’ Big Mistake.  In November I received an estimated electricity bill for the old house. We were in France that weekend so I rang up EDF and pointed out that we had moved. The lady was very helpful and promised to close the account and send a facture de résiliation, final account. This duly arrived, and as I had given her our new address and first meter reading for the mill, I had assumed that all was well. Big Mistake Number 2.

Ok. Another phone call to EDF – except that now I was back in England and they only give a Freephone contact number, which you can’t ring from England. A long hunt through their website proved fruitless so a quick Google brought up quite a few forum posts from Brits who had been having the same problem. Armed with a direct line number that someone had kindly provided, I rang up and after about 20 minutes of lift music, Lydia answered.

I explained the problem and my surprise that our new account had not been created when I called last time. Lydia looked at her computer records and said ‘Ah yes, I can see why this hasn’t happened. The previous owner has not notified us that he was leaving, so we couldn’t set you up as the new account holder.’ Not only had he not told them he was long gone, but ‘Oh Mon Dieu! He owes us rather a lot of money!’ Was I surprised?

Lydia decided that it would be a good idea to have a good, bill-paying customer set up on the account instead, so she asked if I was OK for half an hour or so, as it would take a while to go through the process. Did I have a choice?

I spent the next 30 minutes listening to Lydia’s one sided conversation with her computer and supplying the occasional piece of information. ‘ And now I click here…and then I need to …oh, why isn’t that working?’ After consulting her colleague we all discovered that the reason it wasn’t working was because a Disconnection Order had been placed on the property. Great! We were due to go out to France in in a few days’ time, it was February and they were experiencing sub-zero temperatures and there would be no electricity.

Lydia was worried for us. It took her two phone calls and a lot more lift music before she returned, relieved. ‘ I have managed to cancel the disconnection so now we can set up your account.’

Another 30 minutes and I was the proud owner of a new EDF contract. Furthermore I had discovered that the existing supply to the mill was a 20Amp, 12KVA three phase supply. From her many questions about the floor area, number of rooms, usage, white goods and number of residents, Lydia had calculated that we actually needed a 30Amp, 18KVA supply. (This would prove to be very valuable information). Lydia had arranged for an Enedis (The French electricity network company) electrician to come out the day we arrived, to upgrade the meter.

France is a little different from most countries in that you don’t just use the electricity you need and pay the bill accordingly. Each household has a  puissance or level of supply limit, set on its meter. If you draw more than your limit the electric cuts out. Having owned a house in France for 13 years we were well aware that this was the case. In the summer we were fine but in the winter if we had all the electric radiators on, plus the oven and then tried to boil the kettle the power cut out. We had never tried to raise our puissance in our old holiday home, as it kept costs down. The higher your puissance, the higher the monthly standing charge. Now that we had the mill and were intending to spend a lot more time there, we decided it would be a good idea to get it right – especially as once set, you can’t change it for another 12 months.

As we finished the call, I thanked Lydia whole-heartedly for her help and above-and-beyond service. I was just so relieved that we would have power when we arrived! This was obviously something that Lydia was not used to hearing and she was audibly moved.

Looking back on all our dealings with ‘the system’ over the last few months I realised that everyone I have dealt with has put themselves out to help and has been absolutely lovely – Have I just been lucky and found the single kind person in each organisation, or is it just the bureaucratic process that they have to adhere to that makes the French system so difficult sometimes?