Heating in France

With winter fast approaching, Sophie Turner investigates the best ways to keep warm in your French home...

In the UK, a typical family home uses a central heating system, complete with a boiler (fired by gas or oil) and radiators, or electric storage heaters. In France, although these options are available to homeowners, they are often more expensive to install and run, so it is worth looking at the various alternatives.WoodWithin the current economic climate, wood is playing an increasingly important role; a wood fire can significantly reduce the need for supplementary heating systems, and wood is both cheap and sustainable.• Wood-burning stoves: You can heat your entire home with a wood-burning stove by connecting it to a boiler, which can then power radiators in other rooms of the house.A wood-burner has a number of advantages over open fires and other forms of heating. Wood-burning stoves provide a constant heat, which will eventually enter the fabric of the building acting as a storage heater. This is particularly useful within thick-walled older houses found throughout much of France. What’s more, the continual heat and circulation of hot air will reduce any condensation, helping to keep you, your furniture and your walls damp-free.However, don’t forget that lighting a wood-burning stove in the morning isn’t as simple as flicking a switch on the thermostat, you’ll need to brave the cold to light it in the first place.If you install a wood-burning boiler, then it should carry the flamme verte’ label, which denotes high efficiency, and it must be fuelled by wood chips or pellets supplied by approved firms.You may even be eligible for a grant to cover the cost of installing a wood-burning stove. Grants vary enormously from a mere €100 towards the cost of fuel (in PACA) to €3,000 (in Limousin), although some regions, such as Aquitaine, offer no grants to homeowners at all.• Open fires: When compared to a wood-burning stove, open fires are extremely inefficient (80% of the heat will go straight up the chimney) and labour intensive. An open fire requires more fuel to heat a room. It’s also dirtier – the soot will settle around the room, while tar residue will collect in the chimney, necessitating frequent sweeping.Central-heatingCentral-heating systems are clean and simple to operate, can be pre-programmed and may be the only option if your house is not occupied throughout the day. Central heating is usually powered by oil or gas. The gas may be town gas (i.e. it is delivered via a gas supply pipe), however, in France this is often only available in larger towns and cities; country dwellings have to rely on propane tanks.Although at present oil is cheaper than propane gas, oil tanks are stored above-ground and will therefore need to be concealed and maintained.• Radiators versus underfloor heating: Radiators are less efficient than underfloor heating in one key respect: radiators rely on convection to heat a room, creating thermal gradients. These pockets of hot air create draughts, making you feel chilly even when the temperature is high.Underfloor heating uses heat conduction and radiant heat for indoor climate control. The heat is circulated by water or by electric cable, mesh, or film heaters. It is a lot more sophisticated nowadays and hot spots – caused by poorly distributed pipes – have been eliminated. Insulation placed under the pipes prevents the heat from travelling down into the ground, shaving a cool 10% off heating bills. The screed, which is used to cover the pipes, must be laid carefully and preferably by a specialist. The pipes must be completely surrounded, with no air gaps.One of the main advantages of underfloor heating is that you don’t need to allow space for radiators, giving greater decorative freedom. Underfloor heating can also be up to 25% cheaper to operate than a traditional radiator system when used with a high-efficiency condensing boiler.You can use any kind of fuel. The most popular choices are oil, gas and solid fuel in the form of a conventional boiler. The best choice is a condensing boiler because these are at their most efficient while working at the lower temperatures required for underfloor heating.Underfloor heating systems are generally no more expensive to install than a comparable radiator system, costing about as much as a good quality carpet, or a fraction of the cost of a fitted kitchen.• Electric heating: Electric central-heating is commonly used in France, particularly in well ventilated and insulated modern homes. In towns and cities, where buildings are smaller and warmer, and in new-build properties with high levels of insulation, electricity can be very economical and is less subject to sudden surges in price than gas and oil.Efficient electric heating can be provided by air-conditioning units, which consume up to 75% less electricity than conventional electric heating systems and are also kinder to the environment and cheaper to install (a 40% tax reduction on installation costs is available).Eco-friendly heating• Geothermal central heating: Geothermal central heating (GCT) is a system that uses subterranean heat from your garden to heat your property. An efficient system, it is currently quite popular in France.Essentially, liquid is piped around the land surrounding your property at a depth of about one metre, where the temperature is a constant 15�C all year round. The liquid is then passed through a heat pump, which raises the temperature to 45�C, and used to heat the house, ideally via an underfloor heating system. The main running cost is the pump, which forces the liquid around the garden. However, each kilowatt of energy used by this pump gives rise to three kilowatts of heat, so your bills should be much reduced, typically by a factor of three.To install GCT, you will need a large area of land in which to lay the pipes. Installation costs are significantly higher than other heating systems.• Air source heat pumps: Air source heat pumps (ASHPs), absorb heat from the air outside to heat your home. There are two types of air source heat pump systems: air-to-air and airto- water. The former heats the building by circulating warm air, while the latter heats water, which is then circulated via radiators or an underfloor heating system.The benefits of ASHPs are similar to ground-source heat systems, but ASHPs require less space to install than GSHPs. They can be fitted using typically around half a square metre on the ground or can be mounted on an external wall.A typical 6kW domestic heat pump system, which is suitable for a well-insulated detached property, can cost in the region of €8,000 to €12,000 to install, although if you choose to do it yourself you can easily pick up units from as little as €400.The effectiveness of your heat pump will also depend on the layout of your house.An ASHP could save around €800 and almost six tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, although your savings will vary depending on the fuel replaced.• Solar power: Solar panels transport energy from the sun to a hot water tank or household radiators using heat-transfer fluid. Panels need to be sited to take advantage of good light levels throughout the day and year – for example, on the roof. They can be used to supply your entire home with energy but in most cases they are used in combination with more conventional electric or gas systems.The main drawback of solar power is the installation fee, which varies depending on where you live and how much energy you require. To operate approximately eight lights and a small refrigerator, you would be looking at around €2,000 to €5,000 for installation alone.However, as there are no running costs and the system is low maintenance, you could expect to offset these costs over time. With a comprehensive photovoltaic system, you could even sell surplus electricity generated to the electricity board for around €1 per watt. Generally, a system should last 30 years and can be upgraded in the future.There are grants available to cover installation costs, although in order to qualify the solar panels must be installed by a professional.GrantsThe French government encourages homeowners to use renewable’ energy sources when heating their homes and offers a range of grants towards the installation of solar-powered heating systems and woodburning boilers. In some regions, you can also obtain a grant for using a geothermic system.Grants are available from the government, local council and from the Agence Nationale pour l’Am�lioration de l’Habitat (ANAH, www.anah.fr) if your home is more than 15 years old and your combined household income is less than around €17,500, although the application process is often lengthy. Some grants are restricted to main residences. Further information is available from the Agence de l’Environnement et de la Ma�trise de l’Energie (ADEME, www.ademe.fr).A VAT reduction or tax credits are available on installation costs in homes which are more than two years old or you could apply for one of the government’s new eco-loans. Homeowners can borrow up to €30,000 at 0% interest in order to carry out green’ improvements to their main residence, such as installing insulation, double-glazing or a renewable energy supply.