Small Kitchen Upgrades. Part 1. Guide to Cost-Effective Home Upgrades.

A cost-effective kitchen improvement can be as simple as adding a soap dispenser or as dramatic as installing new cabinets and countertops. The kitchen offers more possibilities for alteration than any other room in the house. In fact, nearly every interior improvement suggested in this guide can be implemented in the kitchen—even some improvements you might not think of specifically for this room. For example, a garden window is a good place to display decorative cooking utensils. A skylight can create a sunny breakfast nook and brighten a dark workspace. And a fireplace provides a place for indoor barbecuing as well as adding warmth and charm.

Because the kitchen is the primary work center of most homes, when a renovation is being planned, all the features of the room should be carefully considered—lighting, traffic plow, the distance between work stations (sink, refrigerator, and range), counter space, storage, ventilation, and safety. Carefully balancing these features is what makes the kitchen functional.

Skylights, a sloped roof hardwood floors, and white cabinets have made a small galley kitchen into a delightful workspace. The cabinet doors beside the sink countertop conceal appliances, the refrigerator is faced with white painted doors, and a small laundry area is borrowed from the end of a long hallway.

Small Kitchen Upgrades

Without spending a lot of money, a do-it-yourselfer can complete any of several small upgrades that will make the kitchen better looking, more convenient, and safer These small projects cost less than $900 and can be completed in one to two days.

Repairing a Faucet

To enhance the value of an otherwise good-looking sink area, it’s important to have a properly maintained faucet. If there is residue where the shine used to be, a faulty gasket or washer is probably to blame. It has let water leak onto polished metal parts, where the water has evaporated and left mineral salt residue.

A faulty gasket or washer is best repaired immediately since a proper fix becomes more complicated when the condition is allowed to continue for an extended period of time. Mineral deposits build-up, making disassembly more difficult.

Use a 10 percent solution of sodium carbonate to dissolve the alkaline buildup before attempting a repair. You can purchase this raw chemical in small quantities from a photography shop, pharmacy, or laboratory supply company.

Almost everyone is familiar with the gaskets in the faucet valve, but another gasket that’s likely to cause problems is the o-ring located at the swivel point of the spout. If the faucet is leaking at this junction, remove the spout; the o-ring is at its base. To fix the leak, clean off the corrosion and alkaline buildup, and then replace the ring with a new one.


Replacing a Faucet


The faucet is the most-used device in the kitchen, so when choosing a replacement, the prime considerations should be personal preference and convenience, ease of repair, quality of the mechanism, and the exterior finish.

Faucets that are made of solid brass (not brass-plated metal) and that have been machined to close tolerances operate more smoothly and are less likely to leak than lesser-quality faucets. Smooth operation means better control of water flow.

Well-made faucets (those that will last 10 years or more) will most likely come from the best-known manufacturers of plumbing fixtures. Inexpensive faucets may look good, but the low-end models are usually constructed at least in part of the plastic. Although certain plastic parts are acceptable, plastic housings coated with silver paint simply don’t hold up for very long.

The single-lever faucet has replaced the two-handle type in popularity for two reasons: It provides for quick, easy, one-handed control of both water flow and temperature, and fewer moving parts make even the most expensive faucet easy and inexpensive to repair. Modern single-lever faucets use modular valve and gasket kits that are almost as easy to replace as a battery in a flashlight.

Adding a Vegetable Spray or Soap Dispenser



Although a prospective buyer may not notice a fancy faucet, accessories always get a second glance. An extra 10 percent added to the price of a kitchen faucet will cover the cost of a vegetable spray attachment.
Another inexpensive feature that can improve convenience is an in-sink soap dispenser. They are easy to install, easy to refill (the pump lifts out, exposing the fill hole), and require no maintenance. Repairing one is as simple as lifting out the pump and replacing it with a new one.


You can purchase and install a soap dispenser separately from a faucet. If the sink doesn’t have a spare hole, you can drill one with a 3/4″ carbide-tipped bit. Even a porcelain-coated cast-iron sink can be drilled, although care should be taken not to damage the porcelain finish. When drilling porcelain, you must cool the area with water. To do this, create a water reservoir by damming the surrounding area with modeling clay.

Upgrading a Sink



Before replacing a sink, try cleaning it. For a porcelain sink, make a paste of pumice powder mixed with turpentine. Wipe it onto the surface of the sink with a rag, and then polish it with a buffing pad on an electric drill. This simple procedure will remove rust and other stains and bring a new shine to even the most heavily pitted surface. Use a clean buffing pad and car wax to add a final glow. Car wax also works wonders on chrome accessories.

Caution: Pumice will damage stainless steel and other non-porcelain finishes.

It’s time to refinish a kitchen sink when a replacement is too costly, when cleaning isn’t effective, or when the color needs to be changed. But refinishing is not always the best alternative. If the cost of purchasing and installing a new sink is the same or even slightly more than the cost of refinishing, it’s more cost-effective to replace the sink rather than refinish it.

You can add five years or more to the life of practically any sink by refinishing it. In this process, a special paint is applied and then, in most instances, heat-cured. Since the paint comes in a variety of colors, you can change an outdated color during this process. Refinishing is not permanent, but it can defer the cost of replacement for many years. Look online or in the yellow pages under Plumbing Fixtures—Refinishing to find someone to do this for you. It is wise to hire a company that offers at least a five-year guarantee.

Kitchen Upgrades: For an overview of the kitchen, before and after remodeling, see prev. section. Before; After; Arched pass-through to the dining room;



Replacing a Sink



There are no special rules for choosing between sinks having one or two compartments. It depends solely on space limitations and personal taste. Sinks with one compartment are available in the smallest sizes; hence they are more practical for small, compact kitchens. Choose a sink appropriate to the size of the kitchen; a sink that’s too large can overwhelm a small space and make it look even smaller and less efficient.

Sink replacement is affected by the existing countertop. The sink rim (outermost edge) must be compatible with the countertop into which it will be installed. There are two different basic rim styles—tile recessed and self-rimming.


Tile-Recessed Rim Style


A tile-recessed rim is designed to be placed into countertops made of ceramic, porcelain, marble, or granite tile. The key is not the surface material itself but the position of the installed sink—the sink is recessed below the finished surface of the tile, its edge is encased in mortar, and then it’s trimmed from above. With this type of rim, the top edge of the sink is almost an inch below the surface of the surrounding counter, making counter cleaning easy compared to other types of installations.

A high-quality recessed sink installation includes a tiled surface that slopes gently (with a slope not readily visible) toward the sink, so that water will not stand on the countertop.

The hidden rim of the tile-recessed sink incorporates an upturned lip that sheds water toward the sink compartment, helping to prevent water from traveling beyond the tile-sink connection into the cabinetry. Laying a sink that does not have a proper rim into tile can be costly since this would increase the chance of damage to the under-counter support surface and other adjacent wood parts. Because most of these surfaces are hidden from view, damage usually becomes a serious problem long before it’s discovered.

A new type of recessed sink suitable for tile countertops is the surface-mounted style. With this style, the top surface of the rim of the sink is placed flush with the top surface of the countertop tiles. This type of sink, like its recessed-mounted counterpart, is not recommended for use with plastic laminate countertops, because it’s difficult to create an adequate water seal.

A drawback to the surface-mounted rim is that it derives most of its ability to shed water from the grout connection between the tile and the sink. Even the slightest house movement will cause grout to crack. Take the cost of special maintenance (regular re-grouting) into consideration before selecting this model in areas where ground movement or house shifting are commonplace.



Self-Rimming Style



The self-rimming cast-iron type of sink, in which the sink rises into a rim that rests above the level of the countertop, is by far the most popular, even though mopping up a flooded counter-top can be slightly more difficult with this style, and the cost of tile-recessed and self-rimming sinks are within pennies of each other. Self-rimming sinks are easier to install (resulting in less overall cost) and can be used in conjunction with any type of countertop.

The installation process is easy. Cut an opening into the countertop (a template for this purpose is provided with the sink). Caulk the underside of the rim and drop the sink into place. Then touch up by adding another bead of silicone caulk between the sink rim and the countertop. No tile contractor is needed, and the only chance for a leak is if the visible bead of caulk is not maintained. Re-caulk a self-rimming sink at least once a year. That may seem excessive, but it will prevent one of the leading causes of moisture damage in the house.

Sink Rim Details: Tile recessed sink; Self-rimming sink (cast iron or lightweight composite material); Metal rim; Surface-mounted stainless steel sink


Finishes and Compartment Configurations


The sink should fit comfortably into the counter configuration. Given ample counter space, a multi-compartment sink is convenient and is impressive to prospective home buyers. Sink depth is another consideration. The deeper the sink the more versatile—and expensive—it is.

Stainless steel sinks are attractive when new but scratch easily and require special cleaning compounds to maintain the original shine. If you are considering stainless steel, it’s wise to remember that the gauge (thickness) of the metal bas a great deal to do with its lasting quality. Most stainless steel sinks are available in three thicknesses: 20, 18, and 16 gauge. Although the latter is the thickest and the most resistant to dents and bending, it’s designed primarily for commercial use and isn’t available in a wide range of styles, so 18 gauge is the next best choice.

Porcelain is an extremely popular sink finish; it has a high gloss and comes in myriad colors. Porcelain is generally applied to either pressed steel or molded cast-iron shell, with pressed steel being less expensive and more prone to chipping. Cast iron is the better base. It is quieter when the disposer is running, it keeps water warmer longer, and it’s stronger and longer lasting than pressed steel.

Chips can be repaired in any porcelain sink regardless of the base materials. Avoid the do-it-yourself, paint-on type of patch kit; the repairs seldom look professional and can detract from the value of the sink almost as much as the chip. Professional sink repair companies can make an almost invisible patch in a porcelain sink for about a third of the cost to replace the sink.

Lightweight composite materials are a recent development in sink finishes. They are almost as thin as stainless steel and come in a variety of designer colors. Sinks made of acrylic and fiberglass are also available but are not in wide use. Some homeowners may be willing to test the lasting quality of these products, but it’s safer to stay with time-proven materials, such as stainless steel and cast iron.


How to Replace a Tile-Recessed Sink


Several methods are available for replacing an old-fashioned sink surrounded by tile. Although you can use another tile-recessed sink, the least expensive alternative is to use a self-rimming sink for the replacement. Interestingly, many self-rimming sinks have the same inside dimensions as their tile-recessed counterparts, but the rim portion is wider. This makes covering the hole created by the removal of a tile-recessed sink easy to hide. In addition, you can install a larger self-rimming sink by carefully cutting back the existing tile counter with a masonry blade mounted in a small circular power saw.

Replacing a tile-recessed sink with another of the same style, especially when the surrounding existing tile is irreplaceable, can be very expensive. Some companies hand-paint tile to any specification. A local ceramic tile distributor can usually help you find such a craftsperson.

It is less expensive to purchase new ceramic tile sink trim in a contrasting or complementary color. Make your selection carefully. A bad color match can detract from the overall appearance.

Regardless of the type of sink you use for the replacement, success will depend on the painstakingly slow and careful removal of the existing sink trim tiles. Expect to damage the trim tile during removal. It is more important to prevent damage to the adjacent field tiles. Most tile-recessed sinks can be removed easily once the sink trim tiles are out of the way.

Cleaning Grout and Tile


The white powder that builds up on grout is mineral salt efflorescence. Most apparent on medium- and dark-colored grout, it’s best removed with white vinegar. Remove stains from light-colored grout with a strong solution of liquid household bleach applied vigorously with a stiff nylon brush.

Caution: Never mix bleach with ammonia or cleaners containing ammonia. The combination is lethal and can create a poisonous vapor similar to mustard gas.

Ceramic tile can be cleaned with any one of several non-abrasive, off-the-shelf cleaning products. For more information on these products, consult the Ceramic Tile Institute and the Tile Council of America.


Cleaning Plastic Laminate Surfaces and Linoleum


Laminates are not affected by most petrochemical agents. An old carpenter’s trick is to use lacquer thinner to remove especially tough scuff marks on plastic laminate countertops and linoleum. Use lacquer thinner sparingly on linoleum. Test a hidden area first to ensure that the chemical will not damage the surface. Good ventilation is an absolute must when you are using lacquer thinner indoors. The vapors are toxic and highly flammable. Anyone with respiratory problems should not be present during the cleaning process. Wear gloves and eye protection.

Cleaning Porcelain and Fiberglass

Turpentine is effective for cleaning porcelain and fiberglass surfaces, but adding salt to create a paste is even better. Not many stains get by this combination. Turpentine is a petrochemical by-product and should be used with gloves and eye protection in a well-ventilated area.

Cleaning Wood Butcher-Block Countertops

Clean butcher block with a mild solution of liquid dish soap and water scrubbed in with a nylon brush or scrubbing pad. After the surface has dried thoroughly, apply a coat of mineral oil or vegetable oil. If the wood grain raises during the washing process, use sandpaper to smooth the surface before applying the oil. Do not use steel wool or wet-and-dry sandpaper on the butcher block. These materials release fibers and grains that might become embedded in the wood.

Cleaning Fine Wood Cabinets (and Furniture)

A mixture of linseed oil, turpentine, and water is an effective cleaner for fine wood furniture and cabinetry. Mix 3 tablespoons of turpentine together with 3 tablespoons of linseed oil, and then blend this into 1 quart of boiling water. Wearing rubber gloves, dip a rag into the cleaner and wring it out until barely damp. Wash small areas at a time (2 to 3 square feet), and then dry immediately with a clean, soft cloth. When the mixture cools it will separate. Don’t reuse the solution; discard it and make another batch.

Cleaning Glass, Appliances, and Porcelain

One-quarter cup of rubbing alcohol mixed with a quart of water cleans appliances, glass, and highly polished porcelain tile. The alcohol leaves no streaks, and it disinfects as well.

Eradicating Mildew

Use the following mixture to eradicate mildew: 1/3 cup of powdered laundry detergent and 1 quart of liquid laundry bleach mixed with 3 quarts of warm water. Add the bleach to the water and then mix it in the laundry detergent. Even though the solution is fairly mild, wear rubber gloves and eye protection. Keep the surface wet until the bleach turns the gray-black mildew white. Rinse thoroughly with water. This solution is safe for most surfaces, including painted walls, and can be used indoors or outdoors.

Caution: Never mix bleach with ammonia or cleaners containing ammonia; the combination produces a lethal gas.

Adding a Dimmer Switch

Easy and inexpensive to install, the dimmer switch (rheostat) seems to have more impact on the average consumer than projects costing hundreds of dollars.

Dimmer switches are available in a wide range of styles and prices; the lower-priced models work just as well as the expensive ones. They all do the same thing: control the intensity of illumination at the light fixture. For example, the over-the-sink fixture is often a single-bulb incandescent light operated by an independent switch. Leaving that light on during the meal at 25 percent of normal intensity wouldn’t be too bright to distract from the meal and would provide sufficient lighting to make trips to the kitchen safe.

Dimmer switches are available in three types: the rotating control (like the volume knob on a radio), the toggle (like a regular light switch), and the slide switch (with a separate on-off button). The cost is about the same, but the toggle and slide switches have a cleaner look and operate more quietly than some of the rotating controls, which have a tendency to hum.

Even the most expensive dimmer switches can be noisy. Make sure that the switch being purchased has a money-back guarantee in case it hums when in operation. Asking after the fact may not guarantee a refund.


A more significant difference among dimmer switches is whether they are two-way (single-pole) or three-way. Use a two-way dimmer where only one switch controls the light(s). A three-way dimmer must be used to replace a switch when two switches control the light(s).

Dimmers can’t be used with conventional fluorescent lights. You can, however, install special ballasts that allow you to use a fluorescent light with a dimmer.

Installing a Dimmer Switch: Push-in connection; Installing a Three-Way Dimmer: Mark common wire with tape

Caution: Before attempting an electrical project, it’s important to be absolutely sure that the power is turned off—preferably at the breaker panel.

Upgrading a Light Fixture


A tarnished or worn light fixture can detract from the overall appearance of a room. Refinishing a light fixture rather than replacing it’s one of the most cost-effective home improvements, especially if the fixture is 50 or more years old.

The older the fixture the better the chance that it’s made of solid brass or pewter (or a combination of the two). Whereas most of today’s manufacturers would never consider painting solid brass or pewter, in bygone days the practice was commonplace. To find out whether a fixture is solid brass instead of a brass plate, scratch a hidden surface with a nail or a screwdriver. Solid brass will yield a brass-colored scratch. If the fixture is a brass plate, the best bet is to consider painting it. Re-plating is not cost-effective.

Fixtures made of cast iron or steel are almost impossible to damage during the paint stripping and cleaning process and are the easiest to paint.

Most brass or pewter light fixtures can be brought to like-new condition in an afternoon with paint remover, very fine steel wool, and brass polish. In cases where pitting has occurred, you can bring both brass and pewter back to life by sanding before polishing.

For best results, dismantle elaborate fixtures before refinishing, and then rewire them during reassembly. For hidden wiring, use 16-gauge stranded copper wire in a THHN casing. If decorative wiring is required, be sure to use a UL-approved material in a gauge that will support the total wattage of the bulbs.

Polish refinished brass, and then apply a corrosion inhibitor. Several spray-on products are available for this purpose. A coat of clear lacquer is one possibility, but it’s difficult to remove when the fixture begins to tarnish. Unprotected brass will begin to tarnish immediately.

Although replacing a light fixture is easier than refinishing it, replacement is more costly. The price of light fixtures includes a high markup so that lights are expensive even with the 20 to 30 percent discount that you can expect in a lighting store. (It is not uncommon for contractors to purchase light fixtures at a discount of “50 and 10,” that’s, 50 percent off retail and 10 percent at of the remaining 50 percent, or 55 percent off retail.)

When replacing a light fixture, it’s important to keep quality as well as appearance in mind. Good-quality fixtures are made of solid metal (brass is best) and have a glass instead of plastic shades. Crystal is an alternative to glass because of the interesting way that it refracts light. Avoid using an intricate light fixture in the kitchen. Cleaning and maintenance can be a real chore in a room that generates so much greasy steam. Clean lines make for easy-to-clean surfaces.



Replacing Incandescent With Fluorescent Lighting



The least expensive of all lighting improvements consists of replacing a regular incandescent bulb with a fluorescent tube. The room will brighten and the electric bill will decrease. In addition, fluorescent lighting will reduce the load on old wiring, making the house safer.

Many building agencies actually require that fluorescent lighting be at least 50 percent of the lighting used in the kitchen and bath in both new and remodeled homes. The reason: maximum light and energy efficiency.

Adding Task Lighting

Task lighting is the term given to light fixtures installed in specific locations where activities can be accomplished more comfortably with the aid of an additional source of illumination. Although task lighting in the kitchen isn’t a new concept, it’s more affordable than ever before.

The most common type is the under-cabinet fixture (mounted on the bottom of the upper cabinets). Other task lighting includes recessed or surface-mounted ceiling fixtures, hanging fixtures, or a combination of these.

Be careful when adding new lights to an existing electrical line, especially in homes with older electrical circuits already taxed by numerous appliances. It is a common misconception that adding a 75-watt light bulb will have less effect on an existing electrical circuit than a small appliance of greater wattage. In fact, small appliances are generally used for short periods of time, whereas lights often remain on for several hours at a time.


The most cost-efficient way to add any type of task lighting to the kitchen is to install all the lights at one time. This is because when you add a new light fixture you should also add a new circuit at the electric panel. This can double the cost of adding just one light with a switch. The good news is that one electrical circuit for lighting will handle several light fixtures.


Fluorescent fixtures were installed under the upper cabinets to illuminate the countertop and highlight the handsome tilework in this remodeled kitchen.


Adding Low-Voltage Lighting


Low-voltage light fixtures have an advantage over the conventional type in that they place less stress on existing electrical circuits; however, they are usually more expensive. In addition, high-intensity, low- voltage light bulbs are among the most expensive bulbs, they burn out faster than other bulbs, and they may fluctuate in intensity during operation (a condition called strobing).

When considering low-voltage interior lighting, it’s important to see a live demonstration in a room with all the other lights turned off. Shine the low-voltage light onto a wall that you can view from several angles. Give the eye time to adjust to the brightness before moving from position to position. Some angles will not reveal the effect as readily as others. Dimming the lights usually increases the strobing effect.



Installing a GFCI Device



The National Electrical Code now requires ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) at some electrical outlets located in the kitchen. Most building agencies enforce this rule on electrical outlets that are located within 6 feet of a sink. GFCI circuit breakers are safer than normal circuits because they break much faster and because they detect overload on both positive and neutral lines. Regular fusing detects overload only on the positive line. This improvement probably will not bring any return on investment, but it will certainly make the kitchen safer. You can install a GFCI receptacle into an existing plug outlet box in about 20 minutes.





Adding Kitchen Accessories: Under-cabinet fluorescent lights, Sink tilt-out tray, To dining room


Read also  Small Kitchen Upgrades. Part 2. Guide to Cost-Effective Home Upgrades


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