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Induction cooktops becoming popular as eco-friendly option

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For technology that has been available since the 1950s, induction cooking sure looks futuristic.

Place a pot on a smooth, glass surface, touch a pad to turn on and watch liquid boil in under a minute. Like an electric glass-top stove, there is no obvious burner. With induction, if you touch the surface, it will feel warm but it won’t burn your fingers. Place paper on it and it won’t catch on fire, or even get hot. Walk away and it will turn itself off.

It all looks like a magic trick. But this form of electrical heat conduction is for real, and finally, after more than 60 years, it’s gaining traction among consumers and builders interested in clean energy and energy-efficient appliances.

“It’s fantastic,” said convert Clio Tarazi of Santa Rosa, who was an early adopter nine years ago. Her husband is from Germany and was familiar with induction. Europe has used it for years.

“I was really tired of those gas cooktops. They’re so hard to clean. And they clog and flare up. When my husband suggested looking at induction, at first I was resistant. But then when I saw how responsive it is, oh, my god. Problem solved. It’s so easy to clean and maintain.”

Like a high-performance engine, induction has a rapid response. It will boil water in a fraction of the time regular electricity or gas requires. Similarly, when you turn it down from boil to simmer, you don’t suffer the messy boilovers while you wait for the liquid to cool down.

While still not the cheapest option, the price of induction ranges and cooktops, once beyond the imagination of most homeowners, has dropped dramatically in the last few years. And with the availability of portable induction burners for under $100 at common retailers, more and more, people are able to test and ultimately turn on to the ease and safety of cooking with a method that doesn’t heat the burner but the pot itself.

Instead of an open flame, an induction cooktop uses an electric current passed though a coil of copper under a glass surface. This creates a magnetic field that wirelessly induces an electrical current in the pot only.

Richard Landen, a salesman for Asien’s Appliance in Santa Rosa, said he used to sell perhaps two induction cooktops a year. Now more customers are asking for them, he said, particularly with all the rebuilds in Sonoma County providing an opportunity for creating greener homes.

Old tech made new

The first patent for an induction cooker was introduced in 1909. It wasn’t until 1933, however, that Frigidaire introduced it to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair. But the timing was off. It was the depths of The Depression, a time when not everyone had even shifted from coal and wood to electric stoves.

Westinghouse tried to market induction in the 1970s with the Cool Top 2 (CT2) Induction range, priced at $1,500 (more than $8,000 in today’s dollars). It included a set of high-quality cookware made of Quadraply, a new laminate of stainless steel, carbon steel, aluminum and another layer of stainless steel. But production was halted after two years when the company merged with White.

The technology continued to simmer on the back burner of the market for several decades. But in recent years, rising interest in clean energy over natural gas has brought new attention to an old technology. And with solar power becoming more commonplace, consumers are finding the price savings of gas over electricity is not so significant anymore.

An induction range that was $6,000 to $10,000 a decade ago has dropped in price by more than 50%. Now you can get a range for an average of $2,800 or a 30-inch cooktop starting at $1,600 to $1,700, said Chuck Terra, a salesman at Asien’s.

Consumers in the past may also have balked at the possibility that they would have to buy a new set of cookware. Induction cooking requires magnetized pans. But induction-compatible pots and pans are now commonly available, and some people may find the cookware they have already is magnetized and will work.

Terra said you can easily check your pots by using a magnet off your refrigerator. If it sticks to the bottom, the pot will work with induction. The pot or pan must have a flat bottom to be compatible with induction. Cookware made from aluminum, copper or glass, including Pyrex, will not work. But cookware made of a magnetic-based material, such as cast iron or magnetic stainless steel, will.

Artist Nina Bonos opted for induction six years ago when she remodeled the kitchen in her mid-century Santa Rosa home. She said there is a learning curve to mastering the cooking of certain dishes. She’s struggled to achieve the perfect egg and pot of rice.

“I’m happy to have instant control. But it’s just a matter of learning to use it,” she said.

Bonos also cautioned that “sometimes with multiple burners in use, one can inadvertently change the temperature setting on the wrong burner by not noticing which burner has the small dot activated. This means that you must pay attention to what you’re doing, especially if more than one person is cooking at the same time.”

But she loves how quickly induction can boil liquid. Cleaning is easy with an E-cloth designed to use without chemicals — only water — and suitable for ceramic cooktops.

You shouldn’t use abrasive cleaners, steel wool or scrubby sponges. There are cleaners designed for induction stovetops sold at common retailers. Use them with a dish towel or soft rag.

Bonos said she was attracted to induction for the safety. There’s no worry about leaving a burner on and starting a fire. You also avoid the danger of an open flame or red hot burner.

Natural gas replacement

Last year, Sonoma Clean Power launched a program to promote induction as a replacement for natural gas. Anyone who wants to test the technology can borrow, for up to three weeks, a portable induction burner and two compatible pans for free.

Cordel Stilman, director of programs for the agency, which provides energy to most of Sonoma County and much of Mendocino County, said the loaner program is working. Forty percent of the 180 people who have taken advantage of the service subsequently bought a full size induction cooktop, he said.

There is one major consideration for anyone thinking of installing a four-element cooktop or range in an existing kitchen. It will require a 240-volt circuit, protected with 40- or 50-amp breakers. Particularly if you now have gas, which runs on a 110 volt connection, you should consult with an electrician.

“Since most people have an electric oven, generally they have enough electricity in their kitchen to make the switch. If they don’t, they would have to run another line to that location,” Stilman said. “I don’t know of anyone who is cooking with a gas oven. Generally, gas cooktops have electric ovens under them.”

Stilman said induction is a cleaner form of electricity. It produces no emissions. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in promoting geenhouse gas and warming of the planet, he said.

There is a movement among government agencies to ban natural gas in new residential construction in an effort to curb global warming. The Santa Rosa City Council has expressed its intent to allow only electric appliances in most new residential construction under four stories, a policy that has not yet received approval from The California Energy Commission. This would not affect fire rebuilds.

A similar ban was enacted by Windsor. However, the Windsor policy is under legal challenge by developers, who say it’s unwise at a time of electrical blackouts to ban natural gas in new construction and that the town failed to properly review environmental and public-safety hazards of electrification.

With prices dropping on induction, more people, given the choice, may voluntarily opt for induction over gas.

A survey by Sonoma Clean Power found more than 50% of respondents said it was just as easy to cook with induction as with gas, and 90% found it easy to adjust to induction cooking.

Tarazi said after nine years, she’s a convert. Induction, she said, allows for fine-tuning temperature like an oven. With induction, she can cook on a very low simmer, good for custards, sauces and chocolate.

“When you’re making jam you can get to that temperature you want and you can keep it there,” she said.

“I’m a real advocate. I’ve convinced a number of my friends who were hesitant to get one.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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