Over the years, I’ve read blog posts from people living in Parisian apartments recounting their trials and tribulations of French plumbing. From horror stories involving leaks from upstairs neighbors to burst pipes after hours, every time I’d hear about a plumbing emergency, my heart would go out to them and I was glad I didn’t have to deal with sensitive Paris plumbing. I live in a house — albeit one built in the 1950s — and the plumbing in houses is different, right? Wrong. I joined the club of having a French plumbing situation last week and I think it’s a rite of passage we all have. You know, one of those Welcome to France moments.
Over the span of a week, we had two plumbers come to assess the situation, resulting in them unable to deal with the issue. We then had to finally call in the big guns — the French equivalent of Roto-Rooter, a vidange company that deals with the big jobs.
Adventures in French plumbing (not the fun kind)
Let’s start at the beginning. About a week ago when I went down into the basement to get a bottle of wine one night, as you do, I noticed the stone wall that lines up under where our kitchen is above was a little wet. I couldn’t quite figure out what was dripping or where the water was coming from.
At that time, it wasn’t a ton of water but it was noticeably wet for some reason. I made a note to call the plumber in the morning.
Tom and I had a closer look in the daylight and an old furnace drainage hose that was clipped to a pipe in that area seemed to be dripping… but from where? Was it a hole in a section of the pipe? A leak from above? Hmm. It’s a weird non-standard plumbing configuration that attaches to a kitchen drainage pipe that joins up in our downstairs bathroom, so there were several possibilities.
I called my local tradesman who we’ve used for years. They do plumbing, electric work, etc., and he stopped by but couldn’t find the source of where the water was coming from. The water meter didn’t show a leak and he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary other than the wet wall. He thought that some cracks in our cement outside in the yard were letting water in, hence the wet wall, but it didn’t really make sense. It hadn’t rained much and the outdoor cement was dry.
A few days later, his boss came because the issue persisted and he said, “Oh it’s the old furnace drainage tube acting up, we’ll just remove it since you don’t need it anyway.” But wait, shouldn’t we figure out the source of the leak before we remove stuff? For him it was non-urgent and not a big deal. He said he’d be back that afternoon. He never came back.
To move this along, the issue got worse and my wall was not only wet, but water started pooling on the steps and pebble floor of my basement, filling up the buckets I’d put out to collect the water.
Tom and I looked more closely and we were the ones who finally figured out what was going on. We had a majorly clogged pipe. What’s a bit surprising to me is that the regular plumbers — an employee and the owner of the company — didn’t even realize my pipe was clogged when they visited. In their defense, I admit our plumbing isn’t standard. But still.
Basically, we realized there was a clog in the angle of the kitchen drainage pipe. It had probably been building up for years which caused the water to back up. We have a weird configuration, so I’ll spare you the details, but just imagine an open drainage tube that connects to a pipe that was spraying like a geyser onto my basement wall every time we used the kitchen sink or dishwasher. If we didn’t have that old drainage tube, the water would have backed up into the sink directly and we would have figured it out right away. But the issue was subtle and even the plumbers missed it the first two times they came.
I called them back and told them I’d identified the issue, so the first guy came with his plumbing snake and tried to clear the clog, which resulted in a splatter of grease and coffee grounds all over the wall (we’ll get to that). Well, his little snake (that sounds dirty) was no match for my major clog. It didn’t work at all and he said he thinks a large section of the pipe was clogged, too big of a thing for him to handle without cutting the pipe.
His advice was to call the vidange company because it was beyond their scope. So I made an appointment for the next morning.
Promptly at 8 a.m. — impressed with the punctuality — the big guns showed up and got right to work.
The guy who came was about five years past retirement and wasn’t very friendly, nor did he wear a mask (which is mandated by law). That immediately made me uncomfortable. He refused to comply. Anyway, I showed him what the issue was and he got to work.
As it turns out, the pipe was majorly clogged and had probably been accumulating cooking oil and grease runoff from dishes from even before we moved in. That, compounded with the fact that I changed to eco-friendly fabric coffee filters six months ago instead of the disposable paper ones, didn’t help at all.
For the record, we’ve never poured grease or coffee grounds down the drain but a tiny amount would go down the drain upon washing dishes and washing the reusable coffee filter each day. Little by little, that built up and caused a massive clog. It wasn’t just a 2-inch section of pipe but an entire stretch probably totaling a meter in length that was packed full of congealed grease, coffee grounds, and who knows what else that had been accumulating for years.
Dagny and I sat on the couch observing the man, who uttered the super professional putain about every five minutes and he went back and forth from the basement, to the bathroom right next to it, to the kitchen sink. He attached an industrial vacuum and some tubing to suck out the clog.
As his vacuum would fill up, I was a little surprised to see him walking the inside drum out to my backyard each time and dumping the contents of grease and whatever else in my bushes. I guess this is how it’s done in France, I told myself. Dirty pipe grease isn’t treated and disposed of professionally here? Side note: Yes it is. This guy shouldn’t have dumped it in my yard, but in France, I’m hesitant to ask too many questions and often assume things are done differently here.
Culture shock moments in France >>
At one point, the man took off a part of the kitchen drainpipe that he wanted to rinse outside and I pointed him to the outdoor faucet. He turned it on and made a snide remark about how crappy the water pressure was.
I agreed and said, “Yeah, French plumbing isn’t great.” He said my house wasn’t great. I told him, well, at least we have running water. It’s something.
Naturally, I was getting a little annoyed with the situation and it was stressing me out more by the minute. Between his comments, refusal to wear a mask, and the increasing mess all over the floor, I was ready for him to leave.
Then this happened. And I was realllllly ready for him to be done. Fun times, my friends…. fun times.
He asked me how I cleaned my dishes and it sounded like a trick question. I asked him to repeat himself so I could discern if he was actually asking me how I cleaned my dishes.
He was serious. I answered, told him I cook with different oils mostly and sometimes butter, and assured him I wasn’t pouring grease down the drain. I even showed him the glass container I have next to the stove that I pour bacon grease into and dispose of separately, as proof that I wasn’t an idiot.
Then he said OK and asked what I do with the pan after I pour the grease out. Another trick question? I said that I washed it in the sink with dish soap and a sponge. Normal stuff, right? Nope, not for him.
He asked incredulously, “You don’t wipe out the pan with a paper towel until it’s dry before washing it?” No sir, no I don’t. I told him I didn’t wipe out the three drops of oil that coated the pan before washing it because I try to not create a ton of extra waste and it had never been an issue before. The dish soap is a degreaser that breaks up the three remaining drops of liquid anyway.
He scolded me like I was 5.
Who does that? I told him French plumbing is pretty sensitive. He told me the problem was me. I tried to lighten the mood by saying we’ve been in our house seven or eight years now (can’t remember) and it’s the first time we’ve ever needed hardcore plumbing services, so I’d consider that a success.
He half laughed. He told me he has a client he sees every two weeks because she won’t stop pouring grease down the drain. That made me feel better. I think.
Finally after about 40 minutes that felt like three hours, he was done and assured me the clog was taken care of. No more leak or wet wall. The clog was gone.
My house looked like a bomb went off, with dirty, muddy footprints trailing all over, coffee grounds splattered around the pipe on the wall and who knows what else on the floor, and wet towels and cloths strewn about.
I had to pay the 165-euro fee on the spot. It could have been much worse.
Then he was gone and I hope we have another seven years before I ever have to call the vidange company again. Not my kind of adventure.
Ever had a plumbing situation in France or elsewhere?
Keith Van Sickle says
Wow, that’s quite an adventure! Sorry you had to go through it.
My own adventure was not quite so dramatic. A few years ago, my wife and I rented a house near Aix-en-Provence for the spring. It occasionally had a bad smell but we figured it was due to the house having been closed for the winter, so we left the windows open for a few days. That didn’t work. And the smell was one of those sewer-type smells, ick.
Plumbers were called and they decided that the sewer vent on the roof wasn’t high enough and odors were wafting back to the house. So they extended the vent, which is basically a pipe that goes straight up in the air, until it looked like a flagpole. But that didn’t fix the problem. And the mysterious thing was that the bad smells seemed to come and go.
By luck, we had friends visiting for the weekend and one was an engineer, the kind who likes to figure things out. He determined that the smell was coming from around the kitchen sink, and only after we had run the dishwasher. So we had solved part of the puzzle but not all.
Back came the plumbers. Armed with this clue, they figured out that our U-joint was too small. This is a bit of pipe, shaped like a U, that traps water in the bottom and prevents smells from creeping into the house. It was of a standard French size, but the owners had equipped the house with an American dishwasher, apparently much more powerful than a French one. So every time we ran the dishwasher, it blasted water out so hard that it emptied the U-joint, allowing smells to enter the house. And once we ran water in the sink, it refilled the U-joint and the smells stopped.
Luckily, the fix was easy–a deeper U-joint. But we had to go through a few weeks of occasional, mysterious bad smells before our problem was solved.
Thanks, Keith! It’s OK, could have been wayyyy worse and more expensive at the end. I think we got pretty lucky in terms of all the plumbing nightmares people have. Was a bit stressful but all in all, we made out ok. 😉
What a mess with the weird odor. I know what you mean… seems to be common especially in older houses and how it gets trapped in the joint. Glad you managed to get it fixed, even if it did take a few visits!
Thanks for reading!
QiaJenae Hamilton says
Hey there, Diane! Yikes! That Suuuuuuuucks, so sorry you had to put up with that. Is there another bloke of that ilk that you coulda tried? Wow, contractors for repairs here in NC are a piece of work, too, so far that we’ve found, in that we get NO call backs to our messages.
Funny as it seems, I wipe my oily pans down with pt, such as the popcorn popper or wok, so I don’t waste more soap & water trying to degrease everything. It’s only 1 piece (the 1/2 piece Bounty type) & it takes the tiniest dab of soap & a quick rinse, so I think I’m actually saving supplies. We also have a fire pit where I can burn the pt up, so it doesn’t go into trash & fire is only a small one for evenings in winter outside or fall, rarely used.
Hope all is well.
Hi Q, was a bit of a stressful experience but luckily it didn’t turn out more expensive or with any lasting damage. Phew.
For the companies who handle big clogs, drain issue, and septic tanks like this guy, there are only 2 who service my area, so next time (hope there is never a next time), I’ll definitely be calling his competitor.
Oh man, I’m dreaming of your fire pit right now. Sounds so nice!!!
Aussie Jo says
Plumbing problems suck no matter the country
Isn’t that the truth!!!!
Oh Dianne, I am sorry but I laughed so hard at this. I am in Paris and the year before last one of the chambre de bonne rooms which is just above me was rented and the tenant left a faucet running slowly after vacating. One morning when I went into my kitchen water was pouring out of the cabinets above my stove. The water had traveled across the ceiling from my kitchen into the tiny bathroom right off my kitchen. I knew immediately what the problem was but since there was no one occupying the room above no amount of knocking on a door did any good. Since I too am renting I called my landlord who was out of town and asked me to call the immobilier who assisted in my initial renting. In the meantime all this water continued pouring down in my kitchen and bathroom. I was running out of towels to mop up the excess water. Finally the cavalry came and shut off the water above but I was left with a big mess which took weeks to dry and paint bubbled when wet and when dry was crumbly.
I have a friend who sent me a picture of what a plumber did to his house which made a window completely unable to be opened after some plumbing situation. I firmly believe that tradespeople here, in some fields are not really qualified but then again when so many buildings are so old and with solid walls is difficult.
Glad you got your problem resolved. I am still chuckling that he lectured you and the suggestion of using paper towels is another hilarity as the paper products in France just suck, being so small and thin. But, I say I am living in Paris so it’s worth it.
Ahhh Billie, now THAT Is a proper disaster. Is the apartment completely back to normal or are there remnants from the floods from above? UGH!
As I mentioned the bubbled paint when dried crumbled when poked at. I was going to repaint the kitchen and bathroom but I opted not to as I am going to renew only for one more year due to the severe curfew we are under. This is not living and not the life I came here for so unless things change this year I am going to look for another country that is not subject to such ridiculous “rules” from a virus without a 99 % survival rate, even for old people.
MIke Smigielski says
So this is me with my American lens, but have review sites such as Yelp, Google, or Angie’s list caught on in France? For me that makes finding someone like a plumber a little easier and these sites provide tradespeople a little more incentive not to mess up your house once they are finished. Or is the power of the which provides little incentive not to mess up your house when they are finished?
Hi there Mike, yes there are review sites but I’ve found in smaller towns, there might only be a small handful of reviews so you can’t get too great of an idea how someone’s service is. I also find that in general, review sites tend to feature the very best and worst experiences. If you have a 3-star good experience, just normal, most people aren’t compelled to leave a review. In this guy’s case, there were 5 reviews, one of which was a 1 star saying terrible and he ripped them off. The others were good. It’s hard to know sometimes!
Miss Footloose says
I loved reading this, although you did not love going through it! Join the club of expats with plumbing adventures abroad. I’m Dutch and my husband is American and we live in France now, in a house built in the 80s, by original owner: nothing standard, lots of creativity in the plumbing and wiring, and it’s costing our children their inheritance getting things fixed and redone whenever a new crisis presents itself. However, we love the place. That said, here’s one of the more dramatic plumbing disasters we encountered in the various countries we lived in
Imagine this: A brand-new house in Chișinău, Moldova, rented by us. We go on vacation to Holland and close up the house. A bidet pipe in the guestroom (never used) on the third floor burst. Water starts flowing. For days. Everywhere, down the stairs, flooding rooms and eventually runs like a river out from under the garage doors. The neighbors notice. They have no key. They call the owners of the house who live in Canada (thank god they had their number). Owners in Canada call rental agency in Chișinău. They call us. We’re in a car in Amsterdam, just entering a tunnel. Panic! We finally connect again. Yes, there is another key, at my husband’s office. The assistance knows where it is. He has her number. Rental agency calls assistance, who is in a shopping mall. She high tails it to the office, gets the key to the rental agent. He finds total disaster. Warped hardwood floors, black mold on walls. The house is uninhabitable. When we come back from vacation we move into a hotel.
I have another plumbing disaster story set in Ramallah, Palestine. I’ll keep that for another time . . . not good for Sunday reading.
Oh my gosh, Karen, what a DISASTER!! That sounds horrendous from all angles. Did the owners knock the house down and start again from the ground up? Ahhhh.
From all the countries you’ve lived in, which one has the best plumbers? (guessing it’s not Palestine)
Thanks for your comment!
Lily Fang says
I meant to comment when I read this earlier, but I’m so sorry you had to deal with this! The plumber sounds really condescending and impolite – I would’ve been so annoyed too!
I luckily never had to deal with a French plumber, but our sink did get clogged all the time. We always just went at it with a plunger LOL.
Tony PERLA says
I deal with them regularly. I live in the Gers, not downtown PahRee.
In general they are competent people, and the younger they are the more competent they seem. I’ve built a house here and I know very well what it is to deal with them. But, funny enough, they hear my accent and ALWAYS ask where I’m from. So, I tell them.
And they seem pleased to know. We must be five Yanks who live in the Gers … !
PS: Was once running the American-club in Toulouse. When they sent the Yanks home (because it cost $10K each to teach them in English paid by Airbus) many vanished.
Hello Karen! Just discovered your blog, and I love it 🙂 All those French moments, as you call them… *sigh* Even for me (I am French), I often think WTF in my own country ?!?! I have a funny story from when I was leaving in the US. I was living in an apartment and we had a ant invasion, so I called the landlord because when I sprayed it it wouldn’t go away, so we definitely needed somebody. On the phone, I told the landlord that I put bomb on the ants : it was just literal translation from French (une bombe = a spray) and he started screaming over the phone thinking I actually put a bomb in his apartment. That was so funny… for me not him I guess !!!
bonnie groves poppe says
Plumbing in france is total crap. I’ve been here since 2009 and have seen some of the worse, incompetent plumbing jobs that you can imagine. They didn’t used to even bother with traps under sinks or vent stacks, the place would always smell like a sewer. Which was because the sewer was sending gas back into the house. And there are “inspection boxes” known here as a “regard” in French, which is a concrete box in the ground between the house and the sewer or septic tank, and you can open it and look to see what’s up. Regard means look. Another disgusting French invention. It does allow you to put a rod and hose attached to a power washer down through the piping to unclog it, after which you must be disinfected and your clothing burned. And then there’s the faucets that never have a “stop” so you have to turn off the entire house water to fix anything. That being said, I do love France, but when I need a plumber for something I really can’t figure out for myself, I have an English guy.
bonnie in provence