The French wire and plumb their homes differently from the Brits. It’s not beyond the experienced DIYer but you might need the experts, says Peter-Danton de Rouffignac
Whenever I pass the site of a new house being built, I am amazed at the forest of red and blue plastic pipes, conduits and electrical cables sprouting from every surface of the half-completed building, which will in due course become the core of the home’s lighting, heating and hot and cold water systems. Installing or renovating these essential services is not cheap, and while this article is not intended as a guide to doing it yourself, it may help you understand what’s involved, particularly in complying with the latest French normes, and why your plumber or electrician’s estimate is often much more than you expected.
The first principle you have to accept is that while there are some similarities, the French do not use the same systems as the British, particularly with regard to electrics, where the fused plug and basic ring main are unheard of across the Channel.
French electrical networks (and to some extent plumbing installations) are based on the principle of a central supply point (the main fusebox or water inlet) from which various electrical circuits and hot and cold water pipes fan out to the different rooms in your house or apartment. Electrical cables, as well as water pipes, have to be of a certain specified size to cope with the capacity they are asked to carry, and equipped with the means to cut off the supply – using fuses and switches for electrics, and stop-cocks and taps for the water pipes.
NEW ELECTRICAL STANDARDS
When you visit an existing French property with a view to purchase, the electrical system will either conform to the normes applicable at the time of construction, or may have subsequently been brought up to date. Some (very) old properties may still have a wooden distribution panel using porcelain fuses dating back several decades and would be described as obsolete and in need of urgent replacement in the expert report that the vendor must supply.
Currently, only new-builds will generally conform to the very latest NFC 15-100 normes, which are also applied to full renovations, and the installation will have been inspected and certified by CONSUEL, the official inspection body for new electrical installations. The new normes have firmly put the emphasis on electrical safety, particularly with regard to the loads that different circuits are allowed to carry, the use of fuses and circuit-breakers for individual circuits, and the installation of a correct earthing system.
In modern installations, electrical cables can be identified by their colour; the latest normes specify blue for neutral (neutre), yellow, green or yellow/green mixed (jaune, vert) for the earth (terre), and red (rouge) ‘or any other colour’ (most often black) for the live cable (la phase).
Wiring runs may be composed of three separate cables (live, neutral, earth) or bundled together in a three-core cable. Cables may be encased in corrugated plastic tubing known as a gaine (if encastr�s or chased-in/concealed in plaster or masonry) or white plastic goulottes (large size cable trucking) or moulures (plinths), if surface laid.
Many of the latest normes concern minimum numbers of electrical circuits and socket outlets. Reading through the rules you may well ask yourself why it was decided that every new dwelling must have multiple phone and TV points in all the living room(s), kitchen and bedrooms, or that even a studio of less than 40m� needs one socket outlet for every 4m� of habitable space, with a minimum of five (10 if more than 40m�). Or that every room should have a fixed ceiling-mounted light fixture, except in rare cases where two switched wall plugs may be allowed for wall fixtures. Even an apartment of less than 35m� needs a minimum of two separate lighting circuits.
Kitchens must be fitted with a minimum of six electrical sockets, of which four must be above the worktop – but not located over the sink or electrical hot-plate – for use with electrical appliances such as a kettle or coffee machine. In all cases, separate circuits are also required for a cooker, oven, refrigerator, freezer, washing machine or dishwasher, in addition to the above.
Even though sockets can be connected in a chain or using separate connections from a junction box, a maximum of only five or eight can be linked together in the same circuit (the closest approximation to the British ring main), though you may install up to eight outlets on a lighting circuit. Even the use of ready-made multiple sockets is controlled, with a double counting only as one, a triple as two, and so on. A separate circuit (direct from the fuse box) is required for an electric water heater (chauffe-eau or cumulus), in addition to those noted above.
French bathrooms have also come in for particular scrutiny under the new normes, which divide the bathroom into four zones, or volumes, numbered 0 to 3, and define the minimum distances from the bath, shower or basin where it is forbidden to install anything electrical (zone 0 is closest to a bath or shower), with most items (heated towel rail, washing machine, dryer or chauffe-eau) only permitted within zone 3 (furthest from the bath or shower).
The normes assume a bathroom of a certain size – more than 3m across in order to comply with some of the regulations – although some concessions are allowed; for example, if a horizontal chauffe-eau is suspended from the ceiling ‘as high as possible’, according to the text. The new normes also require metal sinks, baths etc to be earthed, and light switches are permitted only in zone 3 or outside the bathroom.
If you are planning a sophisticated electrical installation, for example with under-floor heating, encased spotlights, dimmer switches, hidden cable runs, air-conditioning, electric blinds, solar panels etc, these will all add to the cost, not only to comply with the new normes but in extra labour, materials and equipment.
Start with a ‘wish list’ scheme and to be guided by an electrician as towhere cost savings might be made; for example, re-positioning equipment or socket outlets to shorten cable runs. Even a small studio or apartment of up to 40m� willcost from €3,000 upwards for a complete,new installation with basic provision onlyand cables probably surface laid (in plinthsor conduit) instead of being hidden(encased within protective sheaths inplaster or masonry).
Fortunately the home improvement centres offer the full range of equipment and materials ranging from pre-cabled fuse boxes to multiple socket outlets to enablethe experienced home handyman (or woman) to do the job themselves but you may wishto ensure that you secure the right approvals and that your insurers will continue to provide cover.
Fortunately French plumbing is within easier reach of the DIYer and subject to fewer controls, except where electricity is also involved. Thanks to the arrival of PER flexible plastic piping, and the full range of fittings, tools and accessories on sale at the DIY stores, it is quite possible to install both cold and hot water systems following a simple plan, and to connect to the necessary waste water outlets.
As we have seen with French electrical installations, plumbing circuits start with a main supply point and possibly the company’s meter for calculating your bills, which is then connected to a distributor, known as a nourrice. This is basically a section of pipe from which there are a number of connectors (each one with its own tap), to which each cold water pipe is connected.
A typical small system would include the cold water supply (pipes coloured blue if using PER) to the kitchen sink, shower or bath, wash basin, WC and washing machine; and a cold water feed to the chauffe-eau. A second distributoris then connected to the hot water outlet of the chauffe-eau and pipes (coloured red if using PER) connected to the sink, shower/bath, and wash basin.
Pipe runs can be concealed, for example behind the fitted units in a kitchen, but may have to be run under the floor to reach the bathroom/WC depending on the layout of your house or apartment. Economies can be achieved if, for example, kitchen and bathroom are adjacent to each other, thus reducing the number and length of pipe runs. Separate piping ‘circuits’ may be advisable, mainly to provide an even flow of (hot/cold) water; for example if the washing machine is running while someone takes a shower. But in practice a wash basin can be supplied off the same circuit as, say, the WC using a T-junction (known helpfully in French as un t�) from a supply pipe of sufficient capacity.
A comprehensive range of metal fittings are available from the suppliers to connect PER pipes to items such as taps or the chauffe-eau, and to the nourrice(s), and metal plates to aid the installation of shower taps. Waste water can be evacuated using (grey) rigid plastic piping of the correct diameter, installed at a slight gradient and connected to the property’s main waste pipe, which should normally be ventilated. The DIY suppliers stock a huge range of wash basins, sinks, shower trays and WCs from economy to luxury depending on your budget.
As with your electrical installation, it is advisable to start with a basic plan and be guided by your plumber if you are not doing the installation yourself. I have seen some recent renovations of atypical properties – including a former garage and a top-floor former storage area – where the architect proposed a central ‘technical block’ which grouped together the kitchen, WC and bathroom, and a small hot water cistern, thus reducing water pipe and electrical cable runs. With an overall ceiling height of just under four metres, the technical block in one example included a mezzanine sleeping area on top, as well as the owner’s entire storage space and office area.
The cost of a new plumbing installation will vary according to its complexity, length of pipe runs (supply and waste), the quality of the fittings, where and how pipes are concealed or not, and labour costs if you employ a plumber. A visit to the DIY warehouse can help you estimate the cost of the materials and fittings, depending on your choice, and a qualified plumber is likely to charge upwards of €45 per hour for his/her labour. VAT will of course be chargeable.
Although installing electrical and plumbing systems is largely common sense and there is a lot of guidance available, you should not attempt to undertake the installation yourself unless you are sufficiently experienced. Otherwise, it means employing a fully qualified tradesman. However, knowing what is involved and understanding the French terminology (see glossary on page 55) will enable you to assess the state of the plumbing and electrics when viewing a prospective property and, in due course, deal more effectively with your local French artisan.
The text of the new NFC 15-100 normes is available online and includes suggested minimum and optimum electrical wiring schemes for apartments and houses of different sizes. The DIY supermarket Leroy-Merlin has a bookstore in each outlet with numerous useful guides, and Castorama has just published its own illustrated DIY renovation guide, including long sections on plumbing and electrics. Both companies offer training and videos online. n
Peter-Danton de Rouffignac MA LLM lives near Perpignan and advises on all aspects of property buying in France
GLOSSARY OF TERMS – THE BASICS
Alimentation: Electrical supply
Ampoule: Light bulb
Applique: Wall light fixture
Baguette: Thin plastic channel for cable
Barrettes de connexion: Cable connectors
Boite de distribution: Junction box
C�ble (multiconducteur): Cable (three-wire)
Conduit: Protective sheath (rigid, flexible)
DCL: Small plug-in fixture for lighting points
Disjoncteur: Circuit breaker
Douille: Round socket for bulb
Encastr�: Concealed (cables etc)
Gaine: Protective tube for wiring
Goulotte (or moulure): (Cable) trunking
Luminaire: Light fitting
Plaffonier: Ceiling light
Plinthe: Plastic plinth (with separate channelsfor single cables)
Prise (de courant) or socle: Socket
Prise control�e: Switched socket
Saign�e: Cut into masony etc (to conceal)
Sallie: Surface mounted
Tableau �lectrique, de repartition: Consumer unit, main fuse box
Canalisation: Pipe runs
Chasse d’eau: System for flushing WC
Chauffage centrale: Central heating
Chauffe-eau or Cumulus: Hot water cistern
Douche italienne: Shower without tray
Eaux sanitaires: Fresh water
Eaux vannes: Waste water
Egout: Mains drainage
Flexible: (Short) flexible pipe to connect tap etc
Lavabo: Wash basin
Lave-mains: (Small) wash basin
Paroi: Wall of shower unit (glass, plastic etc)
Purger: Empty, drain
Receveur: Shower tray
Siphon: S-bend (under sink etc)
Raccords, Raccordement: Connectors, Connexion
Trop-plein: Over-flow (lit . ‘too full’)
Vidage: Emptying (e.g . of washing machine)