Sinks & faucets: money down the drain?

What do you get when you pay top dollar for a sink or a faucet? Less money to spend on the rest of your kitchen. Our tests found that despite the hype, sink and faucet prices have little to do with performance.

We compared thick stainless steel sinks to thin ones, heavy cast-iron sinks to lightweight acrylic, and chrome faucets to stainless steel and nickel models. Months of testing found that the sink manufacturer isn’t as important as the material. And when it comes to faucets, exterior finish, not brand, determines durability.

As prices increase, so do choices. More money also means more elaborate claims. Elkay says its Mystic sink has “a magical quality that draws visitors into conversation and interaction.” While this $1,300 to $2,100 trough-style sink makes an eye-catching second sink, your budget might need some magic to afford it.

We tested 16 top-mount, double-bowl sinks and 16 faucets in a variety of materials, finishes, and prices from major manufacturers including American Standard, Delta, Elkay, Grohe, Kohler, and Moen. Because sinks made of the same material performed similarly in our tests, we based our Ratings on materials, not brands. Our faucet information starts on page 44.

SINKS

You might not cook every day, but is there ever a day when you don’t use your sink? We subjected 16 models to a barrage of hot pots, scouring pads, dropped weights, and stains. The results:

Stainless: Gauge doesn’t matter. More people buy stainless steel kitchen sinks than any other type. We tested 18- to 23-gauge sinks; the lower the gauge, the thicker the steel. We also listened to the noise made by running water and dropped weights to see if we could hear a difference between the thicker and thinner models. All resisted dents, stains, scratches, and heat, and silenced noise similarly.

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Enamel: Colorful and easy to clean. These sinks, sold in two versions (enamel on cast iron or lighter, less expensive enamel on steel), are available in many colors. They were the easiest to keep clean. Our hot-pot test didn’t damage them, and scratches were less noticeable than on other sinks. But when we dropped a 5-pound weight, similar to what could happen if you dropped a heavy pot, enamel-on-steel sinks dented, cracked, or chipped. Enamel on cast iron chipped when we dropped a sharp, light object similar to a knife on them. Damaged enamel can cause the metal underneath to rust. Acrylic sinks might look like enamel but they scratch easily. Our hot-pot test melted the surface.

Solid surface: Smooth but fragile. These sinks can be paired with counters made of the same material for a sleek, seamless look. Though solid-surface sinks scratch easily, the damage can be sanded away with abrasive products. A heavy-duty scouring pad even removed burns. But beware: Some solid-surface sinks shattered during our impact tests.

HOW TO CHOOSE A SINK

“The sink must be functional; then you can fall in love with the look,” says Billie Brenner, who owns a kitchen and bath showroom in Boston. Most people do the opposite, she adds. So check the pros and cons of different sink styles and mounts in First Things First, on page 43, before you fall in love.

Count inches. Double-bowl sinks let you perform two tasks at once, such as soaking and rinsing. But if the bowls are too narrow, it will be hard to fit large pots or roasters. If your space is tight, a single bowl is better. Take a large pot with you to the store to check size. Sinks that are rectangular shaped are standard, but D-bowls have a curved back and offer more space, front to back.

Think about depth. Bowls are 6 to 12 inches deep. The deeper ones reduce splashes, but a sink that’s too deep can require lots of bending and make it difficult for short adults to reach the bottom. Remember that under-mounted sinks will be up to 11/2 inches lower than a drop-in.

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FAUCETS

Most faucets have lifetime warranties that cover leaks and stains. Though prices range from $80 to $600, we found few performance differences among the 16 models we stained, scratched, banged, and yanked.

Better valves and tougher finishes are now common on all but the cheapest faucets. That’s why we based our advice on finish, not brand, and why there are no Ratings.

The exterior of some faucets are bombarded with charged metal atoms that chemically bond to the surface of the base metal in a process called physical vapor deposition, or PVD. Different metals impart different finishes, including nickel and bronze. Faucets with PVD finishes resisted our best attempts at scratching them. But corrosives like drain cleaner can stain them slightly.

Chrome, another popular finish, is pretty durable but can be scratched if you rub it with a heavy-duty scouring pad. Just use common sense when cleaning your faucet and it will stay scratch- and stain-free.

We tested single-handle pull-out faucets, the fastest-growing style. They combine spray head and spout for added convenience and flexibility. But our findings are applicable to other faucets, too. Here’s what we found:

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Bronze finishes aren’t the same. Bronze offers an alternative to the shiny metal look. We tested two bronze faucets. The one without the PVD finish was the least resistant finish in our abrasion tests. The one with the PVD finish was fine.

Side handles are harder to use. Overall, single-handle faucets are easier to use. But those with a side-mounted handle aren’t as easy, especially if your hands aren’t clean and you’re trying not to dirty the handle. There’s also less clearance between this type of handle and the backsplash. So you might bang your knuckles turning on the hot water.

HOW TO CHOOSE A FAUCET

You’ll pay $90 to $300 for a single-handle pull-out faucet in chrome or epoxy, $170 to $500 for nickel or bronze, and $130 to $400 for stainless steel. Keep these tips in mind when shopping:

Count holes. Most sinks come with mounting holes drilled for faucets. If you’re not changing sinks, you’ll need to match what you have or get a base plate to cover extra holes. The base plate, which may be included, can also be used to cover holes in your countertop if that’s where your faucet will be installed. It’s not a good idea to try to drill additional holes in an existing sink or countertop.

Single-handle faucets are generally the simplest to use and install. Two-handle models are harder to use if your hands are full or dirty.

Consider spout styles and function. Straight-spout models are compact and often inexpensive, but you might need to move the faucet to fit a big pot under it. Gooseneck models have higher clearances, but they can cause splashing if your sink is shallow. No matter what type you pick, make sure the faucet head swings enough to reach all of the sink, especially if you have a wide or double-bowl sink. Also keep the faucet proportional; a large sink looks funny with a small faucet, and vice versa.

Think about installation and repair. Replacing a faucet and a sink at the same time is easier because the faucet can be installed in the sink or counter before the sink is put in place. Fittings that can be tightened with a screwdriver also streamline installation. Long water-supply hoses let you make connections lower in the sink cabinet, where tools are easier to use. Though most faucets are guaranteed not to leak, if yours does, the manufacturer will give you only the replacement part. It’s up to you to install it.

Guide to the Ratings

Overall score mainly denotes stain and scratch resistance. Stains reflects resistance to stains from common foods and cleaning products. Scratches is resistance to damage from nylon and metal scouring pads. Impact shows resistance to significant damage from blunt and sharp objects dropped from up to 20 inches. Heat is resistance to burns from a pot filled with oil and heated to 400[degree] F. Noise is based on sound transmission from a stream of water and the impact of a sharp, metal object.

RELATED ARTICLE: Features that count These enhance functionality

Single lever: Mixes hot and cold water, and takes up less counter space. Those that can be turned off without losing the temperature setting are better than models that require you to reset the temperature every time you turn on the faucet.

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PVD finish: Physical vapor deposition finishes are scratch resistant, though some staining can occur. Available in nickel, copper, pewter, bronze, gold, and polished brass.

Supply hoses: The longer the hoses, the easier it is to connect them to the water supply.

Pull-out spout: Combines a spout and a spray head with a swivel that increases the hose’s flexibility. Hoses should be long enough to reach into corners of the sink.

Spray/stream selector: Finger-friendly buttons on the side of the spray head allow you to easily go from spray to stream. Buttons stay in mode even after turning the water flow off and back on.

Base plate: Covers the extra holes in your sink or counter. If you’re buying a new sink with the right number of holes, you won’t need one.

Counterweight: This helps the hose and spout retract properly.

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