Teaching Clients Care for Countertops

by WOHe

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.

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