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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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