Guarantee your work, but be realistic.
By Emerson Schwartzkopf
You want to give a warranty for that countertop? Try this: one year. No, not a five-year guarantee with an annual decline in compensation value. Nor a 10-year replacement agreement for residential installs. And certainly not a lifetime warranty. One year. Natural stone or manufactured surface. If there’s a material defect or clumsy fabrication/installation, customers get it fixed or receive a like-for-like (or best-match possible) replacement. That’s it. We’re not selling cars or appliances or anything else with intricate moving parts and computerized control. We’re selling flat, inert pieces of heavy material that overwhelmingly or fully contain natural components that are several-hundred-millions of years old. They’re not spoiling at the end of the month. Going to a short-but-comprehensive warranty sounds anti-consumer, or at least the result from dealing with a couple of cranky, never-pleased customers. While fabricators may feel like they’re getting run ragged by niggling complaints, the concept of the limited full warranty puts the focus on what the buyer is really getting. Warranties offer protection against product breakdown or failure. The idea of a guarantee also offers a not-so-covert sales gimmick wrapped In generosity, much like Leon Leonwood Bean offering lifetime replacement of his water-resistant rubberized boots. The original L.L. Bean likely didn’t envision his namesake retail empire springing from his offer, but the idea eventually brought in millions of customers and inspired other companies selling free-replacement apparel and tools. Warranties can also repair reputations as well as products. Vehicle manufacturers – especially Detroit’s Big Three of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, went through the 1950s-1970s selling cars that, more often than not, were of dubious quality when rolling off assembly lines. After plenty of class-action suits and bad-product “lemon” laws, cars improved dramatically; multi-year and lifetime warranties reassured customers. Plug countertops into those scenarios, and it’s going to be a very awkward fit. I know it sounds absurd to bring up, but countertops have no moving parts, have extremely predictable daily-use patterns, and – at least until now – aren’t subject to massive product recalls. So what do we need to guarantee? Problems with newly installed countertops spring almost always from material or workmanship. Materials fail or have visual defects, and errant fabrication and installation can lead to cracks, mismatched seams and the like. Nearly all of these are preventable before pieces head from the shop to the install, and very, very few will manifest after 12 months of use. Factory representatives and fabricators spend uncountable hours dealing with surface defects, or what customers detect as defects. There’s always plenty of grumbling about why people didn’t see this kind of stuff before fabrication. And how do most people see the slab of natural or man-made material beforehand? Maybe it’s on an A-frame or pulled out of a stack with a boom hoist or overhead crane. The percentage of customers who get to see (and feel) that slab horizontally flat – the position it’s going to take in nearly every installation – is going to be low. When manufacturers inspect surfaces at the end of the production line, those slabs are horizontally flat. Inspection stations also feature lighting in several positions to duplicate different illumination. Having a place in a shop with just an overhead light to see a flat slab could reveal a multitude of problems before fabrication.
This kind of look doesn’t catch all the defects. But, for manufactured goods and natural stone, the flat inspection will help everyone see possible trouble spots. Other factors can screw up a job with fabrication, handling and installation. Virtually anything from funky radius corners to scratches to unleveled installs, however, are likely to be caught in the first week, let alone one month or a full year. Long-term problems likely result from general wear-and-tear. Even the most celebrated of lifetime warranties rarely cover scratches, nicks, burn marks, and dents. You shouldn’t be guaranteeing countertops to look brand-new four or so years down the road. Commitment needs to come from more than the fabricator, however. If a faulty slab is sent down the line – natural or man-made – fabricators shouldn’t have to bear the lion’s share of replacement. If they work in good faith and need to replace bad installs (especially through factory warranty), fabricators should get compensation – with not only the replacement slab, but also with labor costs with cash or credit for future slab purchases. All labs can be checked at distribution and manufacturing levels before getting to fabricators to eliminate initial problems. And, with professional work in cutting, shaping, transporting and installing pieces, countertops are ready from day one; essential repair is going to manifest itself early. A year is more than enough time for a full shakedown to work out the defects. After that, offer quick and reasonable service … but not for free.
Think a slab-inspection station is out of your budget? The Cambria Academy in St. Peter, Minn., includes a shop-friendly version offering the three types of lighting used by most factory inspectors. Illumination includes the vertical bank of soft-intensity tube lights behind Training Specialist Shawn Bailey, interspersed with spot halogens (circled in green) for detailed surface inspection. A third overhead bank (reflected in the slab/indicated by green arrow) offers standard kitchen lighting. All the parts are readily available at any hardware store.