French farmhouse renovation - November 2019
Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of doing it himself with tips and information he has learned renovating a French farmhouse. This month: Plastic fantastic plumbing
The great thing about plumbing is that you immediately know when you have got it right without resorting to complicated testing equipment.
If a joint is not watertight when you turn the stopcock on, you get wet. Simple as that.
I once demonstrated this to my family when a fine arc of water came out of the toilet feed that I had just “fixed”, soaking the landing carpet.
But that’s the worst that can happen. Plumbing is safe to do yourself – as long as you have a mop handy. The worst part of it is that you often have to work in confined spaces.
Domestic water in France works the same as in the UK – with one big difference: there is no cold water tank in the loft and the pressure coming out of the taps is provided by a château d’eau on a hillside somewhere.
A wise first move when you buy a house is to take control of your pressure by fitting a regulator (réducteur de pression) at the start of the system.
This will probably come pre-set at a certain pressure and without a scale but you can tweak it up or down. I’m sometimes tempted to turn it up for the benefit of the slow-running shower at the far end of the house but everything else works well, so I leave it alone.
My main plumbing problem is that progress has been made since I moved from North London and I have been slow in coming up to date.
In the 1980s and 1990s I taught myself to make soldered joints in copper tubing. There was no alternative and that was fine by me because metal has a satisfying solidity to it. A well-sealed system will last donkeys’ years.
While wielding my blow torch, I’d turn my nose up at the idea of “plastic” piping because I thought it would never be long-lasting or reliable enough – but I have been forced to see reason since I moved to France.
If you plumb a new bathroom, or even a house, you do what everyone else does in France: use PER polyethylene reticule tubing.
It is conveniently colour-coded (red for hot and blue for cold) to make it idiot-proof and usually comes in housing (gaine) to protect it from UV light.
Sizes are 12, 16 and 20mm diameter and it is flexible, so that, unlike copper, you can bend it instantly and make incredibly long runs of continuous pipe without the need for elbows or joints, as long as you avoid tight corners.
The system is organised around one or more manifolds, or distributors (nourrice in French, which means wet nurse – you get the picture.)
To work with PER, you need to know a few basic, easy-to-learn techniques to make crimped joints.
This will require a set of specific tools (cutter, flarer, crimper), which come in a kit called a coffret pinces pour raccord PER à glissement from Brico Depot for €50.90.
“It’s like a child’s toy kit,” says my neighbour who is plumbing an old farmhouse entirely with PER.
Another type of plastic pipe is multicouche, which is white, requires different handling methods and is mainly used by professional plumbers.
My house now has a combination of plumbing systems: heavy-duty supply pipe from the meter; copper pipe from the 1990s; multicouche after the passage of a plumber who is really an Occitan folk musician; and PER from my adventures with the new material.
As if that were not enough variety, I added one more system when I installed a water filter that came with narrow- bore push-fit tubing.
It all seems to work together. Water gets to where I want it to go, touch wood.
But I have a box of dedicated plumbing tools at the ready – just in case.