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Articles by Jim Heaphy
for Kitchen & Bath Design News

The Merits of the Freestanding Range - August 2003

A friend of mine, who recently went into business for himself as a contractor, called and asked if I would take a look at a client's home and give him some ideas as he began a major kitchen remodel. Located in a spectacular neighborhood, the home was beautiful but badly in need of an upgrade.

When I arrived, the old kitchen had just been stripped to the bare studs. I walked through the home, reviewed the preliminary drawings and offered a variety of suggestions. My most important recommendation was that an experienced kitchen designer be retained.

Then I made a recommendation that surprised my friend and his client. I suggested that they install a freestanding range rather than a cooktop and separate built-in oven.

My opinion on this is based on two decades of experience dealing with countertop installations in thousands of kitchens; one of the main issues I've faced again and again is how countertops interface with cooking appliances in real-world kitchens.

I know that this view goes against today's conventional wisdom in kitchen design that favors built-ins in many situations. Of course, there may be good reasons to go with built-ins on a specific project. However, I'd like to make the case in this column that the good old-fashioned freestanding range is, in my opinion, the best choice most of the time in most kitchens.

Installation Issues
Consider the issue of countertop layout and pricing. A typical U-shaped kitchen often has the range or cooktop in the middle leg of the floor plan.

If a cooktop is chosen, there will be a single, large U-shaped countertop. Most likely, the corner seams will need to be assembled in the home at the time of installation. The middle leg of the countertop will be long, awkward and heavy. The cost of the countertop will be based on the total linear footage of the entire "U," with additional charges possible for the cooktop cutout and for installation difficulty.

If a freestanding range is installed instead of a cooktop, the countertop instead becomes two smaller L-shaped tops. Together, they will cost significantly less than the U-shaped top because their combined linear footage will be 2-1/2 to 3 feet less. It may well be that the corner seams can be shop assembled, and it's certain that the components will be much easier to transport and install. Fewer installers may be needed, and the installation will go more quickly, with less chance of damage. The same general principles apply to most other countertop layouts.

When I was a countertop salesman, homeowners many times expressed surprise that they were being charged the full price for the footage of the countertop where a cooktop was to be installed. This always amused me, since of course the countertop must be fabricated and installed in that area, even if an enormous hole is cut in it and not much countertop is left there.

Now, consider the cost of the cabinets. Most of the time, cooktops and built-in ovens are installed in separate cabinets. The cabinet count is two greater than if a freestanding range was selected, although there will be some extra storage available beneath the cooktop. Even if the oven is installed beneath the cooktop, one extra cabinet enclosure is needed, but no extra storage at all is gained.

Consider also the costs involved in installing the appliances. A freestanding range is easy to install. Simply plug it in, secure the gas connection if applicable, slide it into position, level it, install an anti-tip device and you're done. Usually, this takes only a few minutes.

Cooktops require an accurate cutout in the countertop, which often must be properly reinforced and insulated to prevent heat damage to the countertop. In most cases, a skilled countertop installer must do this work. Cooktops often require installation of awkward clips to secure them in position. Built-in ovens must go into an enclosure with an opening of the correct size and shape. These ovens are heavy and can be very awkward to maneuver into position. The whole process is exacting and time-consuming.

Then there's the potential for heat damage to the countertop. The weight of the cooktop rests directly on the countertop. In many cases, the cooktop is clipped or clamped to the countertop. In contrast, the floor supports the weight of a freestanding range, and it is normally isolated from the countertop by a small air gap. It is, therefore, inevitable that there is far greater heat transfer from a cooktop into the countertop than from a freestanding range into the countertop. Countertop heat damage is vastly more common with cooktops than with freestanding ranges. I deal with such problems several times a week. They are a significant source of consumer dissatisfaction with kitchen remodels.

Looking ahead consider, too, the possibility of future appliance replacement. A surprisingly large percentage of consumers are dissatisfied with their appliance selection, and consider a change after only a few years. Or the appliance may need to be replaced due to failure, and the consumer may wish to try a different unit, hoping that it will prove more reliable.

It's usually very simple to replace a freestanding range. In general, any 30" range will fit into a 30" range space, and any 36" range will fit into a 36" space. There are dozens of models available, without worrying about fit.

In contrast, there are immense variations in the cutout sizes for cooktops and ovens, and these dimensions can be critical. Dimension problems may make use of a given appliance impractical, or may create additional expense for cabinet or countertop modifications.

Consumers often experience sticker shock when pricing a top-of-the-line freestanding range. When making the final decision, though, it is necessary to look at all of the costs associated with the alternative of built-in cooking appliances. When you add the costs of a good cooktop and built-in oven, plus the additional countertop, cabinet and installation expenses, that fancy range can end up looking like a real bargain.
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