Kitchen buying guide

What to look for and how to stay on budget.
 
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03.Choosing benchtops and fittings

Benchtops

A recent HIA survey showed an increase in the use of engineered stone, solid surface and granite for kitchen benchtops, and a decline in stainless steel, concrete and timber. Our sister US organisation, Consumers Union, recently tested and rated kitchen benchtops (known as “countertops” in the US) for resistance to stains, heat, cutting, abrasion and impact. In Australia, benchtops are measured and priced by the lineal metre – 1000mm x 600mm deep (the depth of the average benchtop. The typical family kitchen will require about 6m of benchtop material.

  • Engineered stone (also known as stone composite or stone quartz) offers stain and heat resistance and low maintenance, but can chip along the edges.
  • Granite is hard and durable in everyday use, but can chip and show stains if it’s not properly sealed – and it needs sealing about once a year.
  • Concrete can be customised with dyes and various textures, but is very porous and will need frequent resealing. It also has to be poured onsite and requires a strong framework to support its weight.
  • Laminate A huge selection of colour and pattern options is available. It’s hard-wearing and stain-resistant but can scratch and chip. The more expensive high-pressure options are tougher than the low-pressure melamines. 
  •  Resin-based solid surfacing comes in many colours and patterns – it can even mimic stone or timber. It is seamless, so avoids dirt traps. Because the material is uniform, nicks and scratches can be buffed.
  • Marble’s biggest drawback is porosity – red wine and olive oil can stain even when the marble’s sealed, which you’ll need to do often. It also scratches easily and is not very heat-resistant.
  • Stainless steel is hard-wearing and doesn’t rust, stain or discolour. It does scratch, though a matt finish is more forgiving.
  • Timber needs frequent oiling and scratches easily, although sanding back removes any marks. Choose recycled or plantation-sourced Australian hardwoods such as blue gum and ironbark.
  • Toughened glass is a relative newcomer to the benchtop. It is heat-resistant and tough, but can scratch easily and costs between $1000-$3000/m.

Joinery

Joinery options include glass doors, two-pack polyurethane, vinyl wrapped/vacuum-formed doors, high-pressure and low-pressure laminates, natural timber and timber veneer.

Two-pack polyurethane is best avoided if there are children in the house, as it can be brittle with less impact resistance than, for example, a high-pressure laminate. Solvent-based two-pack is best avoided because of its toxicity, not only in its application, but also in possible out-gassing; newer water-based acrylic two-packs avoid this.

Check joinery materials for possible volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cheap imported kitchens can include high levels of formaldehyde and PVCs. Some manufacturers have their laminates, particleboards and veneers certified by Good Environmental Choice Australia which bases its assessments on criteria such as sustainability and levels of noxious chemicals that can create out-gassing, such as VOCs. If you opt for timber benches or joinery, it should come with a certificate outlining the material’s origin.

For a cupboard with a standard-size door, expect to pay $300-$500 for laminate; $400-$600 for solid timber and timber veneer; $500-$800 for two-pack polyurethane; $700 for glass and $1000 for stainless steel.

Fittings

Water efficiency is the key issue. Look for a rating of at least 4.5 stars out of 6 for taps and at least 3 out of 5 for dishwashers.

The sustainable kitchen

Michael Mobbs, author of the book Sustainable House, offers the following suggestions on how to make your next kitchen kinder to the environment.

  • Benchtops “Buy local – avoid buying imported and buy stuff that’s simply made. These two things cut down the energy required to make and transport them, and the difficulty of checking product [environmental] claims. I’d buy Australian-made stainless-steel benches first or timber benches based on the criteria above.”
  • Joinery “Cabinetry is the most difficult to source from local, clean and non-toxic sources. Secondhand timber, or stainless-steel cupboards and benches as used in commercial kitchens, are better than glue-based timber and other composite products.”
  • Plumbing and tapware “Kitchen taps should not run faster than five litres a minute – this cuts down on water wastage.”
  • Equipment “Dishwashers use less water and energy than hand-washing for most households.” Gas or electricity? “Gas is better than electricity, except for the induction cooktop, which is more efficient than gas but requires special cooking pots.”
 

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