If you live in France and you possess a telephone you will soon be familiar with the evening phone calls. “Hello, are you the householder and are you between the ages of 40-50? We are in your area next Tuesday and can do an energy survey of your home. We are partners of EDF and because of government grants the heat exchanger/solar panels/insulation will cost you absolutely nothing”.
Being new to France in 2006 these phone calls were both frightening and compelling.
It was as much as we could do to reply to these insistent people, to understand the nature of the call and to be able to respond to all their questions. But their proposals were tempting.
The basic idea at that time was that they would come along fit a heat exchanger, you would pay something, but with the generous government subsidy you would be reimbursed and after five or so years the decrease in your electricity bills would have paid for the initial installation.
The heating unit eventually had to be installed outside as it was too big for the utility room. Photo: Joy Brodier
After receiving many such calls, we agreed to an appointment when an energy survey would be done on our home.
They could not be cowboys because they always mentioned that they were partners with the French state energy supplier EDF – which now supplies electricity to most of the UK as well.
The evening arrived and two very well turned-out young men appeared on the doorstep wearing overalls with EDF logos.
Their energy survey of our home was brief, almost cursory, but the result was that our home was perfectly suitable for a pompe à chaleur (an air source heat pump).
The principle being that there is latent heat in the air around your house which when extracted by the pump can be used to heat your water and will reduce the need for fossil fuels.
We were assured that it would be small, that every part would fit in our buanderie (utility room). We signed on the dotted line.
A surveyor came. He said that the water tank could ‘just’ fit in the space making it impractical to use the washing machine, sink or toilet. The PAC was also too big to go where first indicated and would have to go in the back garden and pipes would traverse the entire width of the house.
The box with the PAC arrived. It was enormous, a homeless person would be happy to inhabit it! Was it just for us or to power the whole street?
The workmen arrived. They were Russian, aimable and amenable and could hide the huge water tank behind our coat rail. To everything they answered, “No problem!”
The hot water tank had to go under the stairs instead of in the utility room. Photo: Joy Brodier
That winter the temperature fell to minus 15C. The PAC was working fit to burst.
I began to doubt that it was possible to extract heat from such cold air. Programmes started being shown on the TV of people whose winter electricity bills shot up with a PAC because of the work it had to do. I watched the clouds of steam billowing out of the unit and heard the noise it was making and became convinced that it was about to blow up! I persuaded my husband to turn it off and we reverted to our original system which was fortunately still in place.
The next spring, we tried to get it working again, unsuccessfully. We tried to contact the installers – they no longer existed.
Eventually we learned that the workmen had failed to put antifreeze into the machine. It had frozen solid and would never work again.`
My husband was having difficulty sleeping as he had realised that the loan we had signed up for to pay for the PAC was costing a fortune. He cashed in an insurance policy so we could pay it off. Our future retirement income had diminished.
But, the company we had signed up with were partners with EDF – name was printed on all the papers so we thought they could help us. They denied all liability.
Everyone gave different advice. We pursued all avenues.
Consumer rights organisations, the law courts and we became one of many in a class action against the installation company.
Now 10 years on from the original installation we are still no further forward despite pursuing multiple avenues including the Energy Mediator, EDF shareholder meetings and writing to the French President.
British writer Joy Brodier has lived with her husband in France for 13 years. She has written three books on the subject of the Anglo-French culture clash including What's French for Baguette? You can find them on Amazon or more of her writing on french-windows.blog.
The French government does offer financial help – ether in the form of tax credits, zero interest loans or grants – for people who want to do works to make their homes more energy efficient. Find out more about the state aid available here.