Fun with fuses

Over the last week we have had some spectacular excitement with the electrics. Now we can’t reveal all the details because it involves illegality and incompetence (not, we think, ours!) and it is now part of a sizeable insurance claim. However it is an account that may be of interest and possible help to anyone who either lives in France or is thinking of living in France. The rest of you can just sympathise…

The disjuncteur

One of the problems with buying French houses is that they do not come with manuals so there are all sorts of traps which you only uncover over time by trial and (mostly) error. Our electrical system is a case in point. So there is a standard fuse box with the usual stacked array of fused switches: matters here were complicated because although these were conveniently labelled – in microscopic bad writing – it was in Dutch! But in another corner, easy to overlook, is a curious sombre box with a single red lever switch on it. This we have learnt is called a disjuncteur: a circuit-breaker.

Why is there a circuit-breaker? Well because France is a larger country than Britain and because it’s more efficient to send electricity at a higher rather than the lower voltage, some aspects of the French electrical system are at 440 volts rather than 220. (For the uninitiated 440 volts is often fatal for man or beast.) For reasons that elude even Chris (who has a doctorate in science) those 440 volts come to us in what is called a three-phase system. This enters the property from a distribution box (le coffret) in a side road by the house. This box is the property and responsibility of EDF (Electricité de France) and there are all sorts of penalties for tampering with it.

Now Taradeau generally, and our part particularly, is tranquil and respectable. The worst problems in our area are the excessive number of dogs apparently been bought on the basis of the maximum bark per kilogram and the way that some people drive down past our house simultaneously talking into their mobile phones and putting their seat belts on. There is however “a character” who is clearly rather struggling with life and who has not paid his electricity bills. The standard EDF response to this is to remove a fuse from the distribution box. We have learned that, nationwide, when this happens it’s all too common for the individual concerned to simply help themselves to a fuse from someone else.

Inside the distribution box: boxes for fuses and the meter. EDF have just upgraded it.

Alison was away last week in London “babysitting” but in her absence Chris had a conversation with our neighbour who, in passing, complained that she had her fuses stolen. So when he arrived back at 11:30 on a Friday night after a church meeting in Cannes and found no electricity in the house he had a pretty good idea what had happened. Armed with a torch, a screwdriver and a certain amount of trepidation he opened up the distribution box to find that a thumb-sized fuse was indeed missing. He returned to the house, found an EDF invoice with our account number, got the emergency number for EDF (smartphones are useful!) and gave them a call. Given that this was now nearly midnight he was gratified to get through to a technician and was able to explain what had happened. (Note incidentally that this requires distinctly more than O-Level French vocabulary.) He was instructed that in order “to verify this” he had to go to the disjuncteur and push the red lever to the on position. The result was simultaneously good and bad news. The good news was the power came back on: the bad news was that it was clearly not at 220 volts. All sorts of lights suddenly went into dazzling supernova mode and there were ominous popping and cracking noises throughout the house. More worrying still was the column of smoke rising from behind the television. Amid a distinctly animated conversation with the distant technician Chris switched the power off again and began to wonder where the fire extinguisher was. Deciding that he had neither the energy nor the French to protest that the technician had just blown up the television and lots of other things too, he simply accepted the reassurance that a repairman would be on his way and the call ended.

Having satisfied himself that the smoke was waning, Chris then spend half an hour sitting outside on the patio listening to the noises of the night and hoping the repairman would turn up. Which he did at around 12:30 (full marks here EDF!). Protected by ominously heavy rubber gloves the repairman opened the distribution box and with Chris holding the torch carried out some delicate screwdriver work on the fuse array. Eventually the fuse was replaced and power restored. With an eye to the insurance liability, Chris got repairman to confirm in writing that the neutral fuse had been stolen and the result had been over 400 volts surtension in the house, and also to give us the repair code number.

We have posted a (polite) notice on the outside of our distribution box for any possible robbers

Saturday began with a provisional listing of damaged things and then a trip to the office of our friendly insurance agent where the boss speaks excellent English. (There are some things in life such as surgery and house purchase where you need more than normal fluency in French: insurance claims is another.) Alison came back on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon was spent verifying the damage which turned out to be not as bad as we had thought (for instance it was the surge protector that went up in smoke, not the television itself). Nevertheless we have an air conditioning unit that is now very firmly dead: they aren’t cheap to replace. A formal letter, overflowing with French politeness, to the mayor was then drafted asking that steps be taken to avoid a recurrence.

Anyway, dropping the letter in Monday morning to the Mairie we bumped into the mayor in person and the result was a long and thoughtful conversation in his office in which he was very kind about our contribution to the community. He also – and here’s the interesting point – was aware in some detail of “the character” and problems that beset him and his family and explained them. What was evident throughout the conversation was his sense of struggle of how, as Le Maire, he was to deal with this matter with justice and sympathy. We parted after half an hour with warm pleasantries. It was a fascinating insight into French village life at its best. No calling up of distant social services, no application of one-size-fits-all regulations, no passing of the buck to someone else. Whether it will help us at all we do not know, but we felt reassured that the matter would be dealt with in the best and wisest possible way. Well we will see what happens.

There are however some obvious lessons for those who are thinking of staying in France.

1) If you do move here, keep working at the French. You may need to call the emergency services at midnight when there aren’t any bilingual neighbours around to help you. And French can be tricky: for instance don’t call the fuse la fusée, which is a rocket and is going to make you sound silly; it’s la fusible.

2) Get involved in the community. You may find that it repays dividends when you most need it.

3) Be prepared for oddities occurring at the most unwelcome times. The whole combination of three-phase electricity, 440 volts and stolen fuses is a novelty and at midnight on Friday, not a welcome one.

4) Have an insurance policy that covers everything including earthquake, fire, termite invasion and sabotaged fuse boxes. A nice local agent with good English is not a bad idea.

5) Have a big torch ready.

But in case that sounds negative and off-putting about the French experience,  it’s worth remembering that at the moment we have pure blue skies, midday temperatures in the high 20s and are eating lunch on the patio in shirt sleeves.

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