Whilst I do live in Normandy, home of old stone buildings but where ever you live in France, if it’s feeling a bit parky then I’m sure you can apply the same advice to your home also. I should point out that we don’t live in a stone farmhouse/longere. Ours, by all intents and purposes, is a new build but isn’t. Say what? The original stone part was old but the add-on was probably 1960s/70s. It was a box really – not your typical renovation project.
We weren’t allowed to knock it down and start again, unless we wanted to employ an architect. We had to work around the existing build. It had nothing. No water supply, electricity, telephone line or sewage system. For more details, you can read about it here. Although I do need to up date the other pages in this section as we are more or less finished now.
Mr Normandy extensively researched the heating system we would adopt. Even if we had bought a stone house – we still would have made it as warm as possible. That’s the royal “we” as the reality is, I would not have even thought about this. So don’t feel like a fool if it didn’t cross your mind either. It isn’t that obvious coming from the land of central heating.
What’s done is done if you are already here. However, you wouldn’t tolerate being cold in the UK so why accept it in France? When we first arrived here we did rent a large, cold stone house, that needed the fire on in May. God knows what it would have been like in the winter – unlivable. As the current owners could probably testify.
We know of people whose stone building is so cold they go to bed early or stay in bed! Why would you want to live like this? I have also heard of people going back to the UK as they can’t stand, another year, being cold and dream of a terrace house with central heating.
By the way, that is one of the first things I missed from the UK, when we arrived in our cold stone house in a very hot month of May – central heating. That ability to turn up the dial and tah dah your home warming up.
Now we’re not living in the arctic here in Normandy, we are living in a climate that is more or less the same as the South East of England.
There is nothing wrong in wanting to buy a house with character – you like the stone, you like the land and you want to live in a bigger house than that of the UK. Fine. It is imperative though, to budget or find the money to make your home as energy efficient and WARM as possible. That’s before anything else. Character is all very good but what’s the point if you are freezing in a relatively mild climate most of the year? We’re not just talking the winter here folks. I know people who are trying to warm up their houses in August – ready for the winter.
The problem with stone houses is that they retain the cold. The barns were designed to house animals. That first floor, that you think will make great bedrooms, contained hay aka insulation. The body heat from the animals downstairs made it warmer and the farmer would live in one room to the side. Some people have to shut down half the house in the winter – again, do you really want to live like this?
The key to keeping your house warm is insulation. We covered our house entirely with insulation (bought from the UK – it was a third cheaper) as it was a concrete house. Graphite polystyrene to be precise.
Obviously you will want to keep the look of your property and it will not work on the outside of a stone house in any event. You need to cover all the internal walls with insulation. You can use Celotex rigid foam insulation or Rockwool. Then you will have a stud wall and either plaster that or use the French plastering system which is tapered boards. The joints are taped and skimmed. So it’s not like a full skim in the UK. The advantage of this is you can decorate the next day. The disadvantage is that it is very dusty.
But what about my stone walls I hear you cry?! I don’t care for your stone walls! You can make a feature out of your fireplace, you can expose your beams but you need to be warm. You will still have your stone looking building on the outside but the difference will be you will be warm and not dreaming of a terrace house.
Our heating system consists of a 32kw wood burner with a back burner which uses 24 kw to hear our thermal store and 8 kw to heat the living room which is open plan.
What’s a thermal store? A thermal store is our hot water supply and its clean water as opposed to the standard ballon chaud the French use. This is a fancy electric immersion heater. So lots of people heat this French system during the off-peak tariff times.
The thermal store is a very efficient way of holding 300 litres of hot water. So whilst the fire is on, not only is it heating our home, it is heating our water supply. So our main source to heat our home is wood but it is working for us in two ways. It also heats our radiators all over the house. The thermal store system allows us to push a button to turn the radiators on either in the bedrooms or downstairs in the kitchen (which also has a normal wood burner), stairway and playroom. We could have all these radiators on at the same time. Mr Normandy chose to split it into two – you could have all the radiators on one system.
Normandy’s best kept secret – not so now! The Thermal Store. Your solution to a warm home.
But what about when you’re not using the fire? The water is kept hot even after a fire has gone out. Obviously if you use it – you will then need to light the fire to have your hot water again. Generally speaking – you can have 3 showers, wash up for the day and have a bath after the fire has gone out before you would then have to have another fire. If you didn’t do all those things your hot water would last beyond a day – approx 3 days. The tank never drops below 35 degrees.
Our system is an open vented system so we have a separate expansion tank. Water expands and contracts when it gets hot and cold, so you have an expansion tank that is either separate or within it. Mr Normandy wanted it outside because he felt it was safer and we have an open fire. This is because, when you have a build up of pressure and as we have a fire, you have little control over how hot the water can get. We can have it as high as 150 degrees which is a great pressure in the tank. He felt there could be a danger. That goes for the ballon chaud as well. Mr Normandy felt that if something went wrong with the heating we wouldn’t have an exploding boiling water situation. And I quote “call me old fashioned but I didn’t want to die by boiling water – I think that could be a very painful way to go!”.
But you could have a closed tank system if you wanted. And die by boiling water – I jest! Which means with the fire off, you could go away on holiday and come back and still have your hot water waiting for you. With the open system, ours would last approx 3 days, if we didn’t use any of it.
But what if it’s too hot (in the summer months) to have a fire? We simply plug in the immersion, so the hot water is run off electric but we only really use this in the summer months. In hindsight, Mr Normandy said he would have used solar energy for this so that no electric is used.
Now, we have 12kw of electricity coming into our home. I have a SMEG range electric oven and gas hob. I don’t do cooking with gas as I find it has one setting – burn. We have the normal appliances and washing machine and our electric bill for a family of five is approx 80 euros a month – or is it every two months. I will check. We use 8 stere of wood a year at a cost of 60 euros per stere. A standard size gas bottle lasts 9 months for cooking. We consider this to be pretty good and as close as we can get it to a central heating system you would have in the UK.
The house is very warm. We sleep with our bedroom window open throughout the year as the thermal store is in our room. The bedrooms are the warmest rooms. We also only put our fire on around about 5pm/6pm. It doesn’t need to be put on in the day (unless it was a very cold day). It is also warm in the morning after the fire has long gone out.
The kitchen on the ground floor (our house is over 3 floors) is the coolest, but it does have its own wood burner and radiator. The wood burner is rarely put on as I have the heat from the oven and the radiator. Again, if it is a very cold day then we would put that fire on and it does keep it very warm.
What’s the cost of all this? Well, in my view, well worth it for your overall mental health and the running cost of your home. Our neighbour uses 25 stere of wood every year and I often come home from the school run and see all our neighbours fires are on. Ours isn’t. A little smug? Yarp not gonna lie.
The thermal store was bespoke and came from Scotland and was made specifically for our requirements – a steal at £1,300.00. The radiators just like the ones you have in the UK (some are half the size but pump out the same amount of heat) were £700. We have 11 radiators in our house. The insulation was £1500 to cover the entire house. The pipes for the rads were approx £300. My husband could have installed it – but to save time a friend (who was a British gas engineer for 40 years) did so and took him approximately two weeks. If you were to employ someone – Mr Normandy said a UK price would be about £2,000. So a little under £4,000.00 (if doing yourself) is required to make your home as toasty as possible. Also the insulation costs will depend on the size of your home plus we have some in our tiny loft space. You would easily recoup this amount back just from the amount you would save on wood, oil or electric that you may currently be paying.
So my advice is FIND THE MONEY or if you are about to move set aside this amount before any fancy pants car, treating yourself to new kitchens, bathrooms and furniture. This is your number one priority.
That is how we heat our home. We sit in t-shirts and are comfortable throughout winter and beyond. It is the first thing people say when they walk in, all layered up, “it’s really warm in your house!”. It is comfortable, it is a pleasant place to be – it is our home after all.
Other Ways People Heat Their Home
Some people use pellet burners. These are topped up automatically. However, they are very expensive and so are the pellets which you will have to source. Yes, Mr Normandy has to put a log on the fire (I sit here with my laptop!) but it’s no real hardship.
Most people have a central fire with a back boiler. But heat rises. It does not go sideways so that’s not going to heat your property if it’s a longere.
You could have a large gas tank in the garden, which feeds your radiators and heat your home like this. Or some people use an oil based system – which is obviously going to be dependent on oil prices. The most common way is a fire that has a back boiler and heats some radiators. The other radiators are more than likely going to be electric. But these are so expensive to run and don’t actually put out a lot of heat so not ideal at all.
I hope you have found this useful. If you have any questions, I will ask Mr Normandy and get back to you! I will have an open question session on the facebook page and there are some handy links below. You’re welcome.
You have been reading Our Normandy Life!