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.