Teaching Clients Care for Countertops - March 2003
I was once a salesman, so I understand the temptation to exaggerate the benefits of a product.
Solid surface countertops are a pleasure to sell, because they have many truly outstanding characteristics. However, they are not perfect that's pretty much because nothing that human beings make is perfect. Although durable, solid surface countertops are not indestructible. Although easy to care for, they're not completely maintenance free.
The key to a successful customer relationship, in the kitchen and bath industry or any industry, is to explain the benefits of a product with honest enthusiasm, without creating unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, I have all too often met consumers who were misled during the sales process about the attributes of a solid surface countertop.
The issue of heat resistance is a significant example. It's true that solid surface materials are more heat-resistant than plastic laminates, which bubble and char relatively easily. However, this does not mean that consumers can safely disregard the possibility that heat could damage a solid surface countertop and it's wrong to create this impression in a consumer's mind. Consumers often want to know whether or not they can put a hot pot on their countertop.
The honest answer is, "It depends."
For example, a small saucepan containing boiling water placed on a solid surface countertop is unlikely to cause damage. However, a large kettle full of very hot cooking oil almost certainly would cause damage. The higher the temperature and the greater the mass of the object, the more likely it is that damage will occur. Therefore, the safe answer is to recommend against putting any hot pot directly onto the surface of the countertop.
DAMAGE BY HEAT
How does heat damage a countertop? In my experience, there are three types of damage that can occur, and one or more may be present in any given case.
First of all, rapid, intense heating of a relatively small area can cause discoloration, which is seen as whitening and may be accompanied by surface irregularity. A common cause is placing the edge of a tilted hot pot onto the countertop to steady it.
Next, prolonged overheating of larger areas can lead to thermoforming, which results in warping, rippling or sagging of the countertop surface. Causes may include unprotected use of portable electric appliances, such as electric frying pans, or placing a hot roasting pan onto a towel on the countertop.
Finally, heat can cause cracks because the heated area expands while surrounding cool areas do not. The result is a buildup of internal stresses that may be relieved by cracking.
All this damage can be repaired, although significant damage requires many hours of skilled labor to correct completely. The good news is that the vast majority of consumers who own solid surface countertops never experience any heat damage.
Consumers should be educated about how to avoid heat damage. The guidelines are fairly simple:
Hot pots should never be placed directly onto a countertop, or into a solid surface sink. Instead, hot pots should be placed onto an unused burner, or onto a solid trivet with rubber feet.
Portable appliances should be used with caution. This includes electric frying pans, deep fat fryers, portable woks, crock pots and the like. Such appliances should only be used on solid trivets with rubber feet. (Toasters and coffee pots do not generate enough heat to cause problems, in my experience.)
Consumers are more often than not surprised that portable appliances can cause problems, pointing out that their favorite such appliance is elevated on feet. However, the fact is that these appliances radiate an enormous amount of heat down onto the surface of the countertop, unless they're used on a solid trivet.
Pouring large amounts of boiling water into a solid surface sink can cause rapid expansion, leading to cracks. The solution is to run cold water into the sink while pouring the boiling water. This will cool things down enough to eliminate the risk of cracking.
Heat damage adjacent to ranges and cooktops is also a risk, most often seen as cracks in corners or adjacent to the largest burners. Consumers should always use vent hoods or downdraft fans while cooking, as the constant air flow will help moderate hot spots.
Oversized pots that cantilever past the edge of the range or cooktop can also radiate excessive heat down into the countertop. This should be avoided whenever possible.
Similarly, pots should not be allowed in close proximity to a backsplash. High output "power burners" should be used sparingly, only as needed for rapid heating. Once the pan has reached the proper cooking temperature, the heat setting should be reduced to prevent overheating.
CUTS AND ABRASIONS
Consumers who are informed of the reasonable precautions I've detailed above are unlikely to experience countertop heat damage. However, day-to-day wear and tear can result in unsightly scratches and abrasions. A variety of simple precautions will minimize this risk.
Most basic is the routine use of cutting boards for all cutting and chopping operations. Consumers who do this can expect to enjoy decades of daily use with a minimum of scratches.
However, there are other ways that a countertop can be scratched. For instance, if a sharp object, such as a tiny pebble or scrap of metal, is left on a countertop, and then a large heavy object is placed on top of it and is then slid about, a scratch will result. Fortunately, an hour or two of skilled labor can eliminate all such scratches, restoring the countertop to "like-new" condition.
Solid surface sinks can also be stained by coffee, tea and other intensely colored foods. Fortunately, scrubbing with scouring powder removes most such stains. Personally, I find a product called Soft Scrub with Bleach to be particularly effective and convenient. For more persistent stains, consumers can fill the sink a few inches deep with a solution of half water and half liquid laundry bleach, and allow it to soak for 15 minutes, swabbing the sides of the sink with the bleach solution from time to time. The appearance will improve dramatically.
Another significant maintenance concern is the caulked joint between the horizontal countertop surface and a separate "butt-joint" backsplash. Strictly speaking, this is not a problem with the solid surface material itself, but rather with the sealant used.
Consumers should be advised to avoid vigorous scrubbing of the caulk, as this will cause it to fail sooner. Instead, the area can be flushed with a solution of half bleach and half water, rinsed, and then wiped dry gently.
If recaulking is needed, careful preparation is the key to success. The old caulk should be carefully removed to the extent practical with a razor blade knife, and the area should be flushed with denatured alcohol to disinfect it, and allowed to dry before application of the new caulk. I recommend using 100% silicone sealant with a mildew-resistant additive, and excess smears of uncured silicone can be cleaned up with paper towels moistened with denatured alcohol.
The best and most profitable solution to these problems with caulked splashes is to encourage consumers to upgrade to coved splashes, which require far less maintenance. I've heard many complaints about caulked splashes, but I've never heard a consumer express regret for upgrading to coved splashes.
The precautions and procedures I've recommended are reasonable and easy. Always provide customers with a copy of the maintenance brochure published by the manufacturer of the solid surface material. If you incorporate these concepts into your sales presentations, your customers will be that much more likely to be satisfied with their beautiful countertops for many years to come.
Jim Heaphy, who was among the first people in the industry to urge solid surface fabricators to organize into a trade association, started his own company, Heaphy Associates, in 1993. Heaphy Associates provides warranty service on a major brand of solid surface material in the northern California area. Heaphy himself is a member of the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association. He has been active in the countertop industry for 17 years, and has written this column about countertop fabrication in Kitchen & Bath Design News for more than 13 years. In addition, he has conducted training seminars on countertop fabrication to thousands of students across the United States.