A boiler of good French character (or how not to engage a French tradesman)

When the boiler broke down last week, I wasn’t initially too worried as I have become experienced in resetting it thanks to an earlier failure. But after four days of freezing temperatures, no heating, no hot water, and no sign of a qualified tradesman willing or able to fix it, I was becoming less optimistic.

When the boiler first broke down, just a week or two into our stay, I was slightly disturbed. It had seemed to go off for no obvious reason, and I couldn’t see any obvious way to right it. Having tried my best with my own (admittedly limited) experience and resources, I resorted to consulting with two knowledgeable and amenable male acquaintances who looked like they might reasonably have a solution.

Much muttering ensued over water pressure, valves and pilot lights, but still to no avail. Turns out mere males were no better than mere female on this occasion. French boilers are in a class of their own. Fortunately, after a little less than 24 hours, I found the handily stored (read: ‘well hidden’) French instruction manual inside the boiler cavity, and managed to decipher enough to work out which was the otherwise unmarked reset button to kick start the pilot light. Bingo. Hot water and heating. Very satisfying.

So when I realise, not long after the rest of the family have arrived, that the heating has mysteriously gone off again, I am initially confident. “Fear not,” I say to Stephen. It’s the pilot light. I’ll just reset it. But nothing. No luck. Still cold.Stubbornly silent.

I realise the water pressure has decreased to a dangerously low level. “Aha”, I exclaim, channeling mere males: “It’s the water pressure, let’s consult the instructions. If we can fix that, we can reset the pilot.” We duly locate the necessary valves, rig up makeshift pliers to enable us to turn the valves missing their caps, and successfully raise the pressure. Satisfying. Cue reset pilot. But still nothing. Just an odd noise. And then, silence.

At this point the bell rings, and our B&B guests arrive for the night. Oh b%&#gr – paying guests and no hot water. What to do?? I welcome them in to their room, toasty warm with the electric heater, and proceed to apologise profusely for the lack of hot water for showers, just happened, hoping to get it fixed soonest etc etc. “Not to worry”, the husband says without missing a beat.” We rarely bathe anyway.” Well that’s a relief at least. Only our own cleanliness to worry about.

I decide it’s time to consult with the property owner via Skype chat to see if he has any other advice, or perhaps the name of a local boiler specialist we can call on. He is suitably sanguine in his reply, suggesting this is not an unknown occurrence. He assures me the boiler will always right itself if left to its own devices. “It’s a French boiler of good character – it will work in its own good time, when it feels like it,” he comments. Reassuring. But cold comfort.

Since it had taken 24 hours to right itself last time, I give it the benefit of the doubt, but with temperatures dropping below freezing overnight and no hot water washing, and no change by the morning, on day two I am ready to call on reinforcements.

I consult with a few trusted local acquaintances. Our friend Patrick suggests a tradesman he has used on his own plumbing and heating. “But you may have difficulty getting hold of him.” Indeed I leave more than one phone message, but never get so much as a reply. I’m still waiting to this day. Vain hope.

I consult with neighbour Steve. He recommends the local heating specialist with a retail outlet a block from the house. I promptly head down there on foot with due haste, to discover they are only open in the afternoons. Desperate, I call the number on the  signage outside, and get an immediate answer! Progress. “What model of  boiler do you have,” is his first question, with a disinterested tone of voice. I’ve probably caught him over his breakfast, which is likely a mistake. I am not getting good vibes. Sure enough when I tell him the type, he quickly responds with “Oh, we don’t touch that model,” in a tone that brooks no argument, and promptly hangs up. Right.

I return to consult Steve again, who suggests another local tradesman he’s used for a couple of jobs, that he has been reasonably happy with. I duly leave another message, on another answer machine. Not hoping for much by way of response. By this time we are ending our second day of silent winter without the low hum of the boiler, and the cold is starting to become wearying. And, I am dirty and ready for a nice hot shower. The dishes are piling up.Boiling up jugs of water is tiresome.

Ironically, checking news on Facebook, up pops a post from a Kiwi on the New Zealanders in France group: “Hi, I’m a heating specialist based in the south of France. Gicve me a call if you need a tradesman.” Ha! If only he was at this end of the Mediterranean, and not hundreds of kilometres away on the Riviera. Nonetheless, we Facebook chat and he enlightens me on a few of the possible malfunctions with this particular model of boiler. I seriously consider offering him a free B&B night in return for fixing the damn thing.

Instead, I return to the locals. After dark but before the dinner ‘rush’ I consult Mike, the cafe owner, fount of all knowledge, who confirms that the tradesman Steve has suggested is the best bet.”He’s good, he doesn’t mess you around, and his charges are reasonable, unlike some,” he said. “Call and leave a message – but be sure you say it was me that recommended you call – that way he will likely reply a bit faster.” Aha! So that’s how it works.

Cue second answerphone message, emphasising: “Mike from the Café du Fleuve suggested I call.” Bingo. The phone goes at 7pm: no problem, he’s not a specialist in that model, but he can come round right away on his way home, and take a look. Eureka!

And so at 7.30pm at night, we have a boiler specialist taking apart our kitchen… Due to the location of the boiler wedged in the corner of the wall, part of the spice rack needs to be taken down, surrounding cupboards need to be deconstructed, at which point he can finally get to the boiler mechanism itself.


As a result of his efforts we are none the wiser, and none the warmer, but we have at least confirmed that it is nothing obvious, and that we need to call on a specialist, probably from Carcassonne. He recommends a likely service provider, and kindly does not charge us for his own time. That’s the kind of French tradesman I like, and that does his country proud.

First thing in the morning, I am on the phone to Carcassonne. By now it’s Friday, and the boiler has been down since Tuesday afternoon. So when the provider says they can’t send someone out until the next day, and it will cost 144 euros for the privilege of getting them here, I want to cry, but am desperate enough to accept. Meanwhile, every possible layer of clothing goes on; every door, window and shutter is closed to retain last dregs of warmth. We share a bucket of hot water for rudimentary sponge baths.

In an attempt to avoid the huge call out fee, I think I may as well use the 24-hour wait period to try some more heating specialists in Quillan, Limoux and Carcassonne in case I can get something cheaper or quicker. Cue: more answer machines, “we don’t touch that model”, no reply, wrong number. Sigh. At least my French is getting a workout, and I have killed my fear of using the telephone. Silver linings.

And then, sometime around 4pm, I feel mysteriously not quite as cold as I have up until then. A low base hum penetrates my consciousness. Wait. No. Could it be? I tentatively approach the beast in the corner. It has awoken. We have heating. We have hot water. Unbelievable!

I guess it’s true. It is a boiler of good French character and, just like the tradesman who purport to service her, she will do her own thing, in her own sweet time.

I, on the other hand, am off for a long, hot shower, before she decides to pack a sad again.

11 thoughts on “A boiler of good French character (or how not to engage a French tradesman)

  1. kenpoland

    Daniel Barranco in Quillan has serviced our combi gas boiler for past few years and we have found him to be good and reliable.

    A bit late I know but might be useful if you have any further problems and if he isn’t one of the plumbers you have already tried.

    You can tell him I recommend you call him.
    Company Number: 48821577300018
    11500, QUILLAN
    Phone: (+33) 04 68 20 22 34
    E-mail: d.barranco11@orange.fr

  2. kenpoland

    Its the French way it seems. It took us a while to get a recommendation and then hey presto we got a call back and since then the service we have received has been fantastic…vive la difference

  3. margaret21

    Well done coping as a ‘little woman’. My best tale is when we were having our wood burning stove installed. Before he came, the tradesman rang up and demanded to speak to my husband. I suggested that I could probably help. Nope, only husband would do. Malcolm came to the phone. All the wretched man wanted to know was whether our chimney ran straight up, or had a bend in it. Well, as if the little woman would know the answer to that! When he arrived, the little woman was strangely unavailable to provide cups of warming coffee….. Hope your boiler is still performing…..

  4. kenpoland

    hope it keeps on working for you. Maybe the owner can let you know the contact details for the regular engineer that completes the annual service and certification. Best to have somebody familiar with boiler and setup should save some time and hastle if it acts up again.

  5. coteetcampagne

    PS that’s “our” plumber M.Berthier taking your boiler apart.
    He does need to know you before he will turn up at the drop of a hat; but once he does he is a complete treasure and (unlike many others) will NOT overcharge you because you aren’t French!

    1. Jennifer Andrewes Post author

      Yes, that’s him! It was indeed only when I name dropped on his answer machine that he turned up, but once he did I am happy to confirm he was an absolute gem and did NOT charge us at all!


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