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Freaky electrics

This first part of today's entry has been lifted from a discussion on the RISC OS forums, but revised and extended to add some extra information and twice as many photos.

However, before I start, I want to say clearly: Do not judge French wiring standards by what you are about to witness. This place was originally wired up sometime around 1968 (maybe earlier) and some later additions were most likely added in by the previous owner.
Modern wiring standards are a lot stricter, perhaps due to the sort of horribleness that you are about to see.

To put this into context, here is a photo of a modern installation in a farmhouse near to Fécamp, which was a renovation by a company called Varn'Elec.

How it's done these days
How it's done these days.
Photo copyright © Varn'Elec
I have no connection to this company, I simply picked up a good example of a modern domestic distribution board. Keep this in mind when looking at the pictures below.

Okay then...

Oh, and if you are an electrician, I strongly recommend a nice cup of tea, and possibly a nappy.


Blue and blue and blue and blue and WHAT?

Huh? Which one is live?
Huh? Which one is live?

The first thing to be painfully aware of is that the house is wired up to three phase. Which means that coming out of the bottom of the master trip switch are four wires. A Neutral (on the left), Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3...which are all Live.

The terminal on the left is Neutral. The other terminals are Live.

The thing on the far right with the numbers is an overcurrent cut-out. In France, domestic electricity is sold according to consumption. I am on a 9kW tariff, which means that I can use up to 9000W. If I go over, the power cuts out. We were on 6kW (cheaper) but with a 2kW water pump, a 2kW kettle, a 2kW immersion heater, a 2kW oven, a 1.5kW hairdryer, and a 1kW room heater...not to mention lights and computers, it was a lot of juggling to work out what could be on when. With 9kW, there's leeway. I think the most I use when not trying is maybe 6kW (if the pump, water heater, and kettle are all on together). I can only use 3.5kW maximum in the kitchen as the power there is provided by an extension lead run through from the bedroom, and the lead is rated 3.5kW.
Once upon a time, the kW limit would be converted to amps, and the trip switch would take care of that. These days, it's just set to maximum and the smart meter handles the overconsumption cut-out. Which is driving people absolutely nuts because starting up motors and such use spikes of electricity that may rise above the limit but only last for a few cycles (maybe an eighth of a second?). The old mechanical cut-out used to let that pass. The smart meter does not.
To put this into context, during the cold of winter I would get up in the night and run the water in the kitchen to get the pump to kick in (to break any ice that may have formed before it gets enough to break the pump). So my normal is about 70VA with the computers and stuff I really ought to get around to unplugging (like the VCR). If it's about 190VA, the fridge is on. The pump adds about 1900VA, but I've seen it briefly read over 3000VA at the point where the pump starts up.
Yeah, the smart meter doesn't read Watts any more. It reads Volt Amps, which are related, but not the same.

The cables wrapped in earth-colour tape are some old rubber-fabric cables that were wired to the outbuildings. Something was letting water in out there, causing the electricity to trip out, so I figured the simplest solution (since I have exactly zero need of three phase in the shed!) is to simply disconnect all of that stuff. I've wrapped the bare ends in tape (earth colour was all I had to hand) because it's not possible to bend them away, the rubber crumbles.

A British bloke who came to help install the immersion heater took one look at this and was like "which one is live?". I said "this one, this one, and this one". ☺
He managed to wire the thing up between two of the phases, so when he toddled off for a wine-fueled long lunch break, I swapped the wires around so as not to destroy the heater.



Destroy? Yup. Because between any one phase and neutral is the 230V that everybody knows from their regular plugs and sockets.
230V to a single phase.
230V to a single phase.

However between any two phases is about 390V. You'll note that I am using my ex-school multimeter, because the normal one I use is only capable of measuring up to 260VAC.

390V between any two phases.
390V between any two phases.

Anyway, most of the sockets around here are two pin. Either little ones or regular sized ones (which will roughly correspond to the 5A and 13A sockets the UK used to have in the days of round pin plugs).
There are also two types of three phase socket. A four pin providing the three phases and a neutral, and a five pin for P+P+P+N+E. I have no idea where the earth comes from, as there's no hint of earthing anywhere near the distribution point. Which is, I should add, a box with four large screw terminals and an absolute rat's nest of wires. The old wires are all fabric coated black rubber. The new cables are all blue. All of them. The only way to tell neutral from phase is a multimeter, and one that is capable of coping with the ~390V. Not all can.


The rat's nest

The old power distribution panel
The old power distribution panel.

The three wrapped wires on the left are new things, the two sets of sockets in the bedrooms and the immersion heater.
Everything else is that mess on the right. And, no, I would not assume that the light grey terminal is neutral. It should be, but...
The big cable that you can see (which appears to be green, red, and two black?) is a big three phase cable that snakes through the attic. Pretty much everything is tapped off of that, in a rather haphazard arrangement. I feel like it was "whatever wire I grab first".

Fuses? What fuses? 😲


Newer wiring

When the bedrooms were "renovated" in 2002 (basically a replacement tile floor and sticking up a metal cage with plasterboard screwed to it), new sockets were provided. That's the blue/black cable pair going down from the four terminals of the master trip switch. Blue for neutral, black for live. I wanted brown for the live, but the DIY shop didn't have any. 😒
These cables run through to a little box with trip switches. 20A for the water heater, 16A for the two runs into the bedrooms, and I recently added a socket with a 16A trip in order to have something to plug my USB charger into, not to mention the Christmas tree!
Better distribution
Better distribution.

This also means I can isolate things, like turn off the power to the bedroom if I need to fix something, without turning off the entire house. When I fixed the lights in the living room recently, I had to shut down everything and do it by torchlight.

Because I have electronic stuff, I wanted an earth. So this got smacked into the ground. And let me tell you, it wasn't easy hammering it down. I'm not sure if it entirely works (how does one test an earth rod?), but it's going to be better than nothing at all.

Earth rod
Earth rod.
The only other earthing connection I know of is around the side of the house, it's bonded to one half of the phone line wiring through a 20A fuse. I'm not even going to contemplate that.



It isn't possible to use CPL here, as the bedrooms are on a different phase to the living room (where the Livebox is). The Livebox is not earthed (and using a power brick, there's no provision for that). Plus, a lightning strike (I suspect to the phone line) about a decade ago wiped out the Livebox that I had at the time, and everything that was connected to it except the rotary dial phone (a Socotel S63) that just shrugged off the impact. The Livephone transmitter and regular phone were all bulging and burnt out, not to mention that it looked like somebody took a flamethrower to the router's insides.

So, with all of this in consideration, my setup is a strictly WiFi one. There's no direct electrical connection between any computer and the outside world, other than the power. If such a connection was necessary, I would agree with Steve in that fibre optic is the only safe way. A long stretch of Cat5 might "do the job", but it's risky for anything more than a quick five minute patch.


Of plugs and sockets

There are horrorshows like this...
A regular 230V socket, except...
A regular 230V socket, except...

This socket is at floor level, and is in the bathroom, about a metre away from the bathtub.
I don't even want to know. But I note that the international standard C15-100 appears to specify a socket in the bathroom. What?

Given this one might be fabric/rubber wiring, I'm not touching it. Not going to open it up to try to figure out what the earth is connected to, if anything.

It's not dirty because I'm horrible at housekeeping, it's dirty because I'm not going anywhere near it. The bathroom is a naturally damp environment (like, water running down the tile walls when I shower), and this bloody thing doesn't even have shutters. You can see the terminals.

It's okay, I'll wait while you go and put the kettle on and swear under your breath.
God knows I did.


There are a few smaller 5A sockets, that accept a narrow two-pin plug. These are intended for light loads such as lamps and phone chargers.

Low current socket
Low current socket.
I am holding a low current plug from the lamp, and a higher current plug (hairdryer) side by side, so you can see that there's no way the socket is going to accept the heavier load plugs.
The socket itself is 'insulated' by requiring you to insert the plug, and then turn it ninety degrees clockwise before pushing it into place.


Here's a nice fully wired (P+P+P+N+E) socket in the kitchen.

A big chunky socket
A big chunky socket.

There used to be one in my bedroom and two in mom's (those since removed). There is one or two in the living room. I know there's one (P+P+P+N) by the window, I think there might be one around the back behind the boxes of stuff.
One or two in the kitchen. The one you can see, I think there's another behind the cupboard.

And, of course, numerous outside in odd places. Like one directly below guttering that overflows when it rains really hard. Thankfully that had a bank of fuses, so taking out the fuses and adding little rubber seals (stolen from gardena hose attachments) meant the power didn't trip out every time it rained hard. 😦

Of all the dumb places to put a socket...
Of all the dumb places to put a socket...
Above this socket is a little distribution box where it would appear that the lighting for the toilet is tapped off. It is a metal box. A very rusty metal box. That is rusted shut...


Dude, three phase is mental!

Three phases in old farmhouses is extremely common. I'm guessing once upon a time, things like ovens and washing machines worked on three phase? We use three phase extensively at work. Motors run smoother and cooler, and actually remarkably small motors can be pretty damn powerful when running on three phase.

Aside: Technically there's no such thing as a single phase motor because there's nothing to set up a rotating magnetic field when there's only one phase. Instead, and in order to even get the motor started, a second phase is usually faked using a capacitor.

So, historically there clearly used to be a need for three phase. But now it's just historical, possibly hysterical. Nothing I have here is three phase. If I rewired the place, I'd be inclined to have the main part of the house hooked to one phase, the outbuildings to another, and heavier load appliances (water pump, immersion heater) tapped to the third. As it stands, phase three is simply not used at all. It always reads 0VA.


One final mindscrew

There are no fuses at the supply point, just a master trip switch that flips if more than 30A is drawn (the Linky will cut out if more than 9kW is drawn) or a leakage of more than 650mA.
There are master fuses at the point where the power enters. I think these are intended more for being able to fully isolate the supply (including the meter) than for overcurrent.
There are no fuses in the old distribution panel.
There are no fuses in the old wiring.
There are no fuses in the sockets.
Or the plugs.

But the lightswitches are fused.

The lights are fused
The lights are fused (6A).
Uh hu.


At any rate, if Rob should update this blog to say that I was killed in a massive explosion, at least you will know why.
Even though electrical things exploding violently is pretty much a movie trope rather than real life (it's usually pole mounted transformers that blow up in reality, and that's not the electricity so much as the superheated oil).
I mean, it's almost obligatory for there to be a massive shower of sparks, even emitting from places where sparks wouldn't normally come from (Scanners and Space 1999, I'm looking at you!).

So, my wiring will get damp because old stone house, and then there will be a massive mushroom cloud incinerating everything for two kilometres in every direction.

Oops. ☺


That parcel

It finally turned up on Friday. By the time Amazon said that I can apply for a reimbursement, even if the parcel later turns up.
Since it was a mop head costing about four euros, and since it did actually arrive on the final day that Amazon allowed, I'm not going to apply for a refund.

I did think that an explanation of what exactly went wrong would be better than an automated apology, but Colis Privé's site provides the necessary explanation.

Colis Prive got attacked
Colis Privé got attacked.

Given their operation was clearly pretty affected, and given that their parcel tracing is now returning a 503 error, I can't help but feel that some management bod (and likely beancounter) is learning the hard way about redundancy and backups.
There appears to be no tracking at all right now. I wonder how many less honest people might be applying for refunds of things that have actually been delivered but is still showing up at Amazon as not having been?



Yesterday I started the melons.
These will hopefully become juicy melons.
They are Anasta F1 melons, which are supposed to be sweet and very tasty, and "guaranteed success". I hope so!
It's a type of Charentais melon (French muskmelon), the round green ones with the orange flesh. Apparently an excellent fragrance and flower, robust and high yielding.
It seems that these sorts of melons indicate when they are ripe by a strong melon fragrance and turning yellow. It seems that they sort themselves out to grow leaves early and then the fruits, so they don't require pruning.
They are mid-early ripening (the wrapper says August/September) so I hope I'll be able to enjoy some during my summer holiday.
Fingers crossed, because I'm looking forward to these!


I have also sown sunflowers. These I think I'll put in the potager alongside the bird-friendly plants. Being tall, they should add a splash of yellow visible over the wall.



My carrots, round ones (not long ones), are coming along. I will transfer them to the plant pot where they will grow in a few days.

Jeez... that was ambiguous. What I mean is that in a few days I will transfer them to where they will grow. Not that they will, when transferred, grow in a few days. That would be cool, but that's not quite how it works. 😂


Why I won't use plastic sheeting

The previous occupant appears to have used some form of plastic sheeting in the potager. Well, a mixture of thirty years and mowing left little bits of plastic around. Taking the rotovator to the ground made it exponentially worse, and passing the mowers around afterwards turned a little problem into a big problem.
Collecting the bits of plastic
Collecting the bits of plastic.

The grabby-arm thing was originally for mom to assist when mobility became an issue. It's also useful for times when I don't want to spend forever bending over, such as picking up loads of tiny pieces of plastic.
I completely filled (as in, had to push down to fit more in) a large carrier bag.
And the worse part is that I know that there is a fair bit more. A place near the oak that hasn't been turned, and of course anything in the area that was turned that was pushed underground.
This stuff is a menace.



Yesterday I fired up the rice maker and made myself a trio-of-rice chili con carne. The chili part was a can of chili by Paul & Louise.
More grease than kidney beans
More grease than kidney beans
It was awful. Okay, the taste wasn't bad, but the contents of the tin were practically solid, so much grease that I'm genuinely surprised that my stomach didn't go into meltdown.
Oh, look, the checkout girl missed the big red money off coupon. Quelle surprise!

So, today, I don't feel like cooking anything. Here is my delightfully healthy meal.


I did at least buy Charal (a well-known French producer of meat products) rather than the much cheaper supermarket own-brand product. So there ought to at least be something resembling smashed up chunks of dead cow in here somewhere.



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John, 2nd May 2021, 18:18
5 and 15 Amp round plugs. I'm old enough to remember them, and can almost remember DC!
Bernard, 2nd May 2021, 19:15
Am I imagining it, or used not a three phase socket to be referred to in France as ‘une prise force’ or just ‘La Force’?
Rick, 2nd May 2021, 21:35
A quick Google says that a three phase socket is unofficially known as either "prise forte" or "prise force". 
I guess this implies that a normal socket is la prise faible? 😀
David Pilling, 3rd May 2021, 01:46
A neighbouring house has (or had) 3 phase, for its (ahead of time) underfloor electric heating. That's just a normal house in a normal row of 1960s houses. Probably possible when we all want car battery chargers to give everyone 3 phase, since it is sat outside in the street. Sometimes if a power fault affects one phase neighbours find themselves united in misfortune - every third house is on the same phase. 
The wiring looks horrible. Back in the 1930s people would wire their own homes - electricity was the new thing - probably some of that poor wiring is still around. 
Mick, 4th May 2021, 03:42
The block of flats I live in splits phases between flats as you'd expect. We all have just one phase entering the properties. However the door entry system appears to run from two different phases. One night I couldn't get in as the phase the door gubbins is wired into went down, but phase that powered the door magnets was still operating. Grrrr! After about half an hour I noticed a communal light came on so eventually got in. Someone obviously though this was a good idea at the time. It did raise the question of if anyone could get out in an emergency. One end relies on the computer to let you out, so probably not. The door the other end of the block probably would let you out as magnetic only drops while you press the button. As I was the other side of the door at the time, I could test the theory.
Rob, 12th May 2021, 17:18
Those electrics look horrific, and deadly... I've got a nearly 40-year-old BTEC in electrical installations, so I speak with confidence! Have you got house insurance? 
I know of nobody with 3-phase over here. I was taught to treat it with great respect when an apprentice at Ferranti; the warning stickers by the lathes and suchlike were for 415V between phases. ~240V gives a heck of a kick, I'd not want to experience more!  
I confirm what David says, sometimes round here, in a power cut only 1-in-3 houses loses power. The reason they do it like that is all down to trying to balance the loads on each phase. In a big estate, split all the single phase feeds evenly across the houses as your supply cable snakes around the place. In your case, you should probably try to even out the loads on each phase. I have no idea if your electric company charges more if you don't, but it could, nor do I know if it has implications for the infrastructure to have consistently mismatched loads. But you'd be looking at a full rewire before you could do that - nobody in their right minds would dare touch that as it is! 
Rick, 12th May 2021, 23:58
Yes, I have insurance, and yes, I treat the old wiring with GREAT respect (not least because some of it is crumbly rubber). 
If I win the lottery, rewiring this place is on the list of things to do. 
When the house was surveyed, the wiring was judged as "terrible, but to the standard of its era". I think that says it all. 
I don't think there's any need to worry about balancing anything. My two monthly bills are around €50, and most of that is service charge and tax. My smart meter will trip out if I draw over 9kW. To put that into context, farmers have pumps and heaters where single units draw more. 
(oh, and the industrial washer thingy at work draws about 140kW when fully operational) 
So I might have three phase, but I'm not entirely sure why... historical, I guess. 
Alan Adams, 24th November 2022, 12:21
In our previous house - new-built in 1949 - the supply came in through a large mechanical switch then to the fuse board. That supplied 8 circuits, each with line AND NEUTRAL fuses. Each circuit had a single 15-amp socket, or in one case, all the lights in the house. 
When I rewired, and needed to replace the fuse board with a consumer unit, the big switch was useful. Especially when I pulled the fuse board away from the wall, and the copper wires came away with it, but the rubber insulation stayed stuck to the wall.

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