Induction Cooktops: The Hot New Appliance

Induction cooking has long been the gold standard of cooking technology in European restaurants and is now commonplace in many European households. It has failed, however, to catch on with American consumers. That seems about to change as manufacturers have adapted induction products to the U.S. market, and the U.S. market is adapting to the new technology.

“It was first introduced to the states in the 1980s, and their bulky size was one factor in their failure,” says Gudrun Berger, product manager for Gaggenau, a high-end appliance manufacturer with American headquarters in Canton, Mass. “The technology is more mature now, and it represents one of the fastest-growing segments in the U.S. market.”

Induction technology fits well with the increasing importance placed on green building and resource efficiency. Since it is the pot itself and not the cooktop element that actually heats up to cook food, the time required for cooking is reduced and less heat is released into the kitchen. This can result in dramatic energy savings over traditional electric or gas cooktops.

“This technology has been popular in Europe because they have had to be concerned about their natural resources for a longer period of time,” says Patricio Barriga, president of Fagor America in Lyndhurst, N.J. “Now things are starting to converge in the United States and people are realizing the benefits of resource efficiency and are approaching things differently.”

How induction works

Induction cooking bypasses heating the cooktop surface and goes directly to heating the pot. Electromagnetic elements under a ceramic glass surface send a current into the iron atoms of cookware and they react by moving around, which causes friction and heat. Cookware must be made from ferric content such as steel, iron, nickel and various alloys to work on an induction cooktop; if a magnet sticks to the pan, it will work on an induction cooktop. The higher the ferrous content, the more efficient the cooktop will be. In general, induction cooking is 90 percent efficient (meaning 90 percent of the energy produced goes directly into heating the pot), where electric is about 65 percent efficient and gas is around 55 percent.

“Restaurants and professional chefs love induction because it cuts down on cook time and does not add additional heat to a kitchen. This can be another large energy savings for residential consumers,” says Sue Bailey, manager of product development, major appliances at Viking Range.

Induction cooktops also feature nearly instantaneous reaction to increasing or decreasing heat, giving users precise control over cooking temperatures. They also feature more settings than traditional cooktops, with everything from ultra- high (capable of boiling a pot of water in about half the time as gas), to just warm enough to keep a pot of food at serving temperature.

Because the cooktop itself rarely gets too hot to the touch, spills do not have the chance to burn, smolder or ignite. This makes it easy to not only clean and maintain, but it is attractive from a universal design standpoint as well. Those who may be visually impaired don’t have to worry about accidentally touching a hot surface when they can’t see a warning light, and children are much safer from accidents as well. “Nothing is safer than induction if you have children in the house,” Berger says.

Potentially sizzling market

Induction cooktops are not for everyone, as they are still expensive enough to be considered a high-end appliance. But entry points have come down in recent years, with prices ranging from $1,200 up to $4,000 or more. But with people spending tens of thousands of dollars on kitchen remodels and new kitchen appliance packages, more people are willing to take the leap to induction.

Small modular and hybrid induction/electric cooktops are available that allow consumers to test the waters, so to speak. “We developed a 15-in. unit with one induction element and hybrid versions with two electric and two induction elements to introduce the technology to consumers who may not be ready to fully convert,” says Beatrice Sandoval, brand manager, Thermador. “These represent a more moderate price point for wary consumers.”

And no one can deny that today’s consumer is becoming more tech-savvy - not only using technology for technology’s sake, but focusing on how that technology can help them realize concrete benefits. “These consumers want technology that’s ‘right for me.’ They study the literature, ask their friends and neighbors and really do their research,” says John Swenson, director of consumer communications, Electrolux. “They not only appreciate the energy efficiency, but they want to be able to cook and clean more quickly. They don’t want to be burdened with wasting time on these chores.”

Manufacturers across the board are realizing the potential for induction in the U.S. market. Bailey says the company’s 2006 induction sales figures were about double those of 2005. Paul Leuthe, director of marketing for Wolf Appliance, says that Wolf’s 15-in. modular cooktop has fared so well, the company is unveiling 30- and 36-in. models at this year’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show. And Swenson says Electrolux, like other manufacturers, has the same plans. “We’re going to expand our presence at the end of this year. We’re committed to it.”

How to sell induction

Induction cooktops are suited equally as well for the remodel market as they are for new construction. Most of the time they can be dropped right into the same space as a previous electric or gas cooktop. The requirements include ensuring enough air circulation under the electro-magnetic elements, and running a dedicated 220V circuit if the kitchen was previously piped for gas.

“These are great for the condo and multifamily markets where gas is not an option,” Bailey says. Obviously the luxury and higher-end markets will be more quick to demand this technology, but Leuthe says not to forget younger buyers who generally are more quick to adopt technology, even if they aren’t in the luxury market. “Young professionals will also accept it very quickly. They recognize how this technology will bring immediate benefits, and if they have young children, they love the safety aspects.”

To be sure, even if a consumer is sold on the technology, they must be comfortable using it. The burners will recognize only pans of a certain size (typically 5-in. diameter), preventing magnetic utensils left on top of burners from being heated. Also, if a pot boils dry or a homeowner forgets to put one on a recently activated burner, the unit will automatically shut itself off after 60 seconds. Some units will not allow for running more than one burner on high at any time. This is seldom an issue, but if customers feel they need to boil several pots of water at the same time, look for units with additional generators that allow more than one unit to operate on high simultaneously.

“It’s a different way of cooking, and most people will probably burn their first five dinners. But once they get used to it, they won’t want to go back to anything else,” Berger says.

Barriga says education is a key reason why induction has begun to take hold with this latest introduction into the U.S. market. He says his and other companies have taken great steps to simplify the technology, improve safety and reliability and make sure there are enough trained servicemen who are more familiar with the technology. But the last educational step falls upon contractors and salespeople. “We recommend that they educate themselves so they can in turn educate consumers. Learn how to operate it comfortably so you can teach your consumers how to fully realize their benefits,” he says.

Swenson points to an “American Kitchen Survey” Electrolux conducted in early 2006 to gauge consumer attitudes toward technology in the kitchen. He says the survey found today’s kitchen is expanding, with walls coming down and opening up into the great room and dining room to become an all-encompassing live-in room. He says emerging trends include moving some appliances to other areas of the home to accommodate new ways of entertaining and family-life living.

"We’re seeing cooktops being moved into the dining area with accompanying warming drawers in the cabinetry. This creates sort of a ‘sushi bar’ type of atmosphere,” Swenson says. “I would encourage builders to look at these appliances and look at new ways they can help new lifestyles and living spaces converge. Hype ‘infinite control’ over ‘induction technology’ and consumers begin to see how the product’s flexibility and versatility can provide the results they desire."

OTHER INDUCTION RESOURCES (see photo on the right)