Understanding electricity in French homes: DIY tips
Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of renovating an old French farmhouse. In the September print edition, he talks about how you can get to grips with French electricity.
You cannot see it, smell it or hear it and you cannot touch it, but you know it is there, running under the floors, behind the walls, through the ceilings. You only think about it when a thunderstorm causes a blackout, the toaster shorts out, or the fan heater wants more juice than is available. Yes, it is mysterious stuff, electricity, but the handyperson has to know something about it. Mostly it is the same from country to country, but there are differences to be aware of.
With the greatest technical respect, I find there is something unsatisfying about French electrical fittings in comparison with their square-pin British counterparts. For at least two years after moving here, I tried not to make the switch (if you will forgive me) but created my own hybrid Anglofranco system using adapters and extension leads. Eventually, I realised I was only making things difficult for myself and, more seriously, breaching safety regulations.
Rule number one, therefore, is do everything the French way. Learn the rules for installing electricity in bathrooms. Get clear about the size of cables and the protection each circuit needs. Do your research and it will pay off. There is a very helpful and reliable not-for-profit website (particuliers.Promotelec.com) that will tell you more than you need to know about the prevailing norms laid out in NF C 15-100. There is no English version of this site but rule number two (which applies to all DIY) is to learn the local names for everything to save spluttering and sign language in shops.
I am no DIY fundamentalist and I know my limits. I do not do all the electrics myself – but I like to know I am capable of sorting out any problems. Even if I get a pro in to do major installations, I need to know how things are configured. When I moved in, I spent some time working out which plugs and lights were on which circuits so that I could label the fuses in the consumer unit in English and French.
I have learned the hard way that it is important to look over the shoulder of any visiting electrician and ask questions before they go home. My last electrician ripped out the work of his predecessor, who had his own method, and half-completed wiring a new loft bathroom before disappearing from my life. It took me almost a year of wriggling around in the loft following conduits down cavities and through ceilings to be able to draw a colour-coded diagram of the largest junction box I have ever seen. It has 44 cables coming into it through 12 apertures. It turned out to be all very logical and I was able to finish wiring the bathroom myself but I wish I had asked for the code book.
The other thing to bear in mind, whether you do it or get someone in, is to think about the future and give yourself more capacity rather than less. It is better to have one socket too many than live for years wishing you had thought about where to plug in the vacuum cleaner. A house full of extension cables is not a happy one. There is not much advice available in English for doing French electrics but there is a helpful section in How to Renovate A House in France, by David Ackers, Jérôme Aumont and Paul Carslake.
Sadly, this magnificent book has not been reissued since it first appeared in 2004 but it is available secondhand – amazon.co.uk/How-Renovate-House-France-Essential/dp/0954466934 – and the advice remains sound.
In The Connexion October edition: To cover up or expose – the DIYer’s dilemma