Sunday, January 11, 2015

ELECTRICITY IN FRANCE: IT'S DIFFERENT

Moving across the Pond from the United States to France is easier than it sounds. And harder.

Language has to be the most difficult adjustment for those not already fluent. (Speaking English slowly and loudly really doesn't work. Trust me.) You need a basic vocabulary and an ability to speak to the present, the past, and the future. It's true that most of the French in the region have some English given that it's taught in the schools and that Brits have settled here in considerable numbers. But I didn't come here to make France more like America. They already have Kentucky Fried and Subway. I came here to learn. That includes the language.

Once you have the language basics in hand, you can conduct the business of day-to-day life surprisingly easily. I do all of my banking online as I do most of my bill paying. Most every retail establishment, including the post office, accepts credit cards. At restaurants, they can even come to your table with a little wireless device that reads your chip. We do keep a little cash on hand for our fresh bread at the bakery every other day and for Fanny, the local farmer who sets up her produce stand in the church square twice a week. We get our cash from the ATM in the next village over. But otherwise, our commerce is all electronic and works as well as it should.

Which brings us, boys and girls, to our lesson for today. Finally. Electricity. It's different.

If you've traveled at all, you know that electrical service is fundamentally different in Europe. Not only are French outlets configured differently than American outlets, but French outlets deliver 230 volts as opposed to the 120 volt American supply. Thus most American appliances will not work in France, will in fact overload dangerously. Exceptions can include such items as the power supplies for laptops and chargers for cell phones and tablets. Always check to make certain. Find the small print on the device or its power supply. American chargers that will accept the more robust European current will have something like Input: AC 100V - 240V printed on themWith the use of an adaptor, not a voltage converter that actually steps down the voltage but a device that simply configures the plug so that it will fit into the wall socket, you can use that device in France. And keep in mind, if you are going to travel to other European countries, that French sockets are configured differently from those of the rest of Europe. One size does not fit all.

In addition to a supply of adaptors for my laptop and those of our chargers that would accept French current, we brought a high-end voltage converter to France with us. Somewhat smaller than a bread box and heavy as lead, the converter steps the 230 volt supply down to 110 volts, allowing my wife Cathey to plug in various of her American kitchen appliances that she would otherwise have had to replace. The cost of replacing her KitchenAid alone would have been several times the cost of the converter.

So, we're set to go. We have an account with EDF, the major supplier that serves Quarante. I'd prefer a local co-op like we had in Cazouls, but we'll see. I pay EDF an estimated bill monthly, drawn automatically from our bank account and, in another six months or so they'll read the meter again and we'll settle up. We haven't had problems until recently. Lights, washer, dryer, fans in the summer, all OK. So far, so good.

But...

When we turned on our oil-filled electric radiators in mid December, the main breaker tripped and we lost all power. Here's the deal. Every room in the house has its own individually thermostatically controlled radiator with some fancy programming available. You can turn the radiator on or off manually and you can set the temperature up or down manually. Or you can use one of four 'Eco'
presets: heat for a couple of hours in the morning, heat for a few hours in the evening, heat both morning and evening but not in the middle of the day or at night, or heat right through from morning to evening but not at night. Of course, none of that matters if you can't turn on multiple radiators at once without tripping the main. We can't turn on multiple radiators at once without tripping the main.

I checked our EDF contract. In France, you don't simply pay for the electricity that you use. First, you decide how much electricity that you think that you will draw and pay an annual fee for the right to draw that much. Without going into too much detail, I discovered that our contract was for less than would be recommended for a house of our size with electric heat, hot water, and laundry. So when we turned on the radiators in several rooms at once, the main breaker determined that we were drawing more electricity than we were entitled to draw and shut us down.

After determining through trial and error just how much electricity we could afford to pull and therefore how warm we could be without tripping the main, I went to the EDF office in Narbonne and contracted for a higher level of draw. By appointment two days later, an EDF worker came by the house. He inspected our equipment and decided that the outside feed and the main breaker leading into our relatively new interior breaker panel wouldn't handle the extra power. They would need to be replaced. There would be an extra cost. He took pictures with his phone and promised to get back to us. This was on December 17th. I asked if we might have the better service by Christmas. He gave a very French shrug of the shoulders and noted that the holidays were coming up. Who could tell?

Three weeks later, well past the holidays, having heard not a peep from EDF, I called EDF's English language customer service help line. Even though my French is reasonably sufficient for face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations are difficult. I can't see the other person. I can't use my hands. I don't seem to have time enough to think of what I want to say. So I called the English language number. I talked to a nice, thoroughly unhelpful fellow. Unfortunately, technical services is different from customer service. And this particular guy in customer service didn't particularly want to talk to the folks at technical services. And the folks at technical services don't speak English.  So back I went to the Narbonne office.

There, the young lady was most helpful. Once she understood the depth (shallowness) of my language skills, she promised me that she would speak doucement (slowly). She pulled up our file. She called technical services. She waited patiently on hold. She were connected. She explained our problem. She took notes. I picked up a bit of what she was saying. They knew who we were. They had our file. They would call us at home after lunch. They would speak doucement.

We went home and waited for the call that never came. Instead, Miles called. You remember Miles. Franglo Fix It. He had set up our EDF account for us before we arrived and they still had his phone number attached to the account. Apparently, the call from the Narbonne office had stirred up the ant hill. Check your email, Mies said. And I did. And there was the devis (estimate) from the technical guys at EDF. 514.14 Euros. Print, sign and mail back the contract. Pay by credit card online. So I did and I did.

I'm a little concerned that I wasn't provided with a receipt for my online payment. And we haven't been given a date for the work to be done. So stay tuned. I'm going to post this and update later.

Electricity certainly is difference in France.

EDIT: The guys from EDF have come and gone. No nonsense, hardworking guys who came to do a job and did the job. Installed a new branch feed and remote meter reader outside and a new meter, breaker, and other bits inside. Made a mess and were good about cleaning it up. I'll need to build a cabinet to hide the workings but I was planning on doing that anyway and I'm glad that I didn't get to it before this work had to be done. All of the heaters are up and running. So far, so good. We'll see how long it will take to warm the house up to a comfortable temperature and keep it there. The only problem I can foresee is that the meter won't be read for several months. We may be in for a shock. Maybe one more edit in spring?




2 comments:

  1. Having lived in three(3) locations in France over a period of 50 years I have become fairly proficient in the language never having studied (Wish I had taken high school French but it wasn,t considered masculine at the time) Most GI,s leave French learning little of the language but I did grasp more than most and then service in Algerie added more but not of the higher caliber. Anyway time seems to make one forget and only after a month or so will it return at least I hope so. Best et a bientot! Bob Jeffery

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    1. It comes back more quickly than you'd think. I took four years of high school and one in college and it's amazing how it sneaked back into my head when I was immersed. Bonne Annee!

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