In Search of a 'No-Problem' Cooktop

Over the years, I have removed or installed at least 1,000 cooktops. There are some models that I've seen dozens of times, and others I've only run across once or twice. Some are a breeze to install and some involve a lengthy struggle. Some seem prone to causing countertop problems, while others seem relatively "countertop friendly."

It's been my experience that cooktops are the most problematic of kitchen appliances at least as they affect countertops. It seems that few, if any, cooktop designers have paid any attention to trends in kitchen countertops in the past 20 years, and they seem to assume that every consumer has a basic plastic laminate countertop.

In this month's column, I'd like to elaborate on some of the specific aspects of cooktop design that distinguish a well designed cooktop from a poorly designed one, based on my experience.

FLANGES
Countertop installers love cooktops with wide flanges. A cooktop with a wide flange allows a certain tolerance for error in cutting the hole in the countertop. The opening can be oversized a bit to move the edge of the countertop away from the heat. The radius in each corner can be increased, resulting in improved countertop crack resistance.

On the other hand, cooktops with narrow flanges are nothing but a royal pain. A 1"-wide flange or less is truly aggravating. The opening must be cut with absolute precision. The slightest error is a disaster. Each corner is cut with a tiny radius, increasing the risk of countertop cracking.

What do you call the part of the cooktop that fits into the opening in the countertop? I've heard it called the "box" and I've heard it called the "can." Whatever it's called, it's the ugly, industrial part of the cooktop and is never seen by the homeowner once the installation is complete.

Some are made out of flat pieces of sheet metal, bent and spot welded to shape. This production technique results in a structure with square, sharp corners. This is quite common, but not a good design, in my experience. The result is a jagged assembly that may well chip or scratch the countertop during installation.

Another technique is to use a single piece of sheet metal, formed into a tub shape with nicely rounded corners. This is a much better design that's less likely to damage the countertop, and which lends itself to large radiused corners on the cooktop cutout, which improves crack resistance.

COOKTOP FASTENERS
A related issue is the variety of fasteners, bolts and tabs that often protrude from the bottom and sides of a cooktop. Often, these are sharp and can gouge or scratch a countertop if a heavy, awkward cooktop slips a bit during installation. In addition, they can easily cut the installer's hands while the cooktop is being placed in its final position. I have the scars to prove that point.

Thoughtful product designers take precautions to avoid a bristling array of fasteners on the underside of the cooktop.

Although most cooktops are installed with an overhead vent fan in a hood above, downdraft vent fans installed in the base cabinet behind cooktops are increasingly common. In order to accommodate these downdraft fans, cooktops should not be overly deep in the front-to-back dimension. If they are, an installer is forced to shoehorn the two hefty appliances into a standard-depth cabinet. The result is extensive cabinet surgery and dangerously narrow strips of countertop in front of and behind the cooktop/downdraft fan combination.

Cooktop hold-down clips are one of my real pet peeves. Some require that installers maneuver tiny slotted screws while working upside down, with gravity conspiring against us. Others have sharp points seemingly designed to start cracks in countertop materials. Other clips clamp to certain thicker countertops, but are worthless with thinner solid surface countertops unless a shim block is added. Factor in a fixed shelf screwed into the cooktop base cabinet, and the installer must double as a contortionist.

HEAT TRANSFER
Rarely do I see a cooktop that incorporates any features intended to reduce heat transfer into the countertop and surrounding cabinet surfaces. It's frightening, but not that uncommon, to see charred wood after removing a cooktop.

Perhaps the best such design is the glass-top unit with foam tape around the underside of the flange. However, this seems to be a method of cushioning the fragile glass top, and any heat protective effect is merely a happy coincidence. Obvious design innovations incorporating space age insulating materials could eliminate the direct steel to countertop contact that all too often transfers excessive heat. After all, the goal is to cook the food, not the countertop, right?

I often hear consumer complaints about cooktops. High on the complaint list are burners that don't allow a pan to sit level. Another consumer gripe is colored surfaces that fail and flake off when exposed to heat. It should go without saying that a decorative color coat on a cooktop should be exceptionally heat resistant. All too often, though, they aren't. Electric ignitors on gas cooktops fail surprisingly often. Consumers resent having to light a match for burner #2, when burners #1, #3 and #4 light on their own.

When I stroll through the aisles of an appliance dealer, I'm amazed at how cheap an entry-level cooktop is, and how expensive an upscale cooktop is. The amazing thing is that, from my point of view, the engineering of the more expensive models is often no better than the more economical units. Perhaps the problem is that most of the issues I've taken note of are out of sight and out of mind once the installation is complete.

However, I'm convinced that good cooktop design is a critical factor in the long-term performance of a kitchen as an efficient and pleasant food preparation area. I only hope that the appliance manufacturers will give some thought to my experiences and recommendations.
Please offer your feedback and suggestions to heaphy@aol.com..

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