Granite Material & Industry Problems, Page 1

Granite is such a beautiful material but what makes it beautiful also makes it a
poor material for a countertop.  The amount of information on granite issues is
so massive that most subjects cannot be dealt with properly on a single page so
follow the highlighted links to more info on the subject.

Granite is a natural product whose beauty comes from the porosity, crystalline
quartz structure, fissures, movement of the conglomerate mineral composition,
veining, and grain.

Granite forms as molten magma or sub ducted sedimentary rock, deep within
the earth under tremendous heat and pressure.  Once polished to a high gloss,
the variation of the minerals from slab to slab and the sheer variety of stones
available ensures that your countertop is one of a kind.

It can have very hard minerals as part of the composition in addition to the
quartz content.  

It is very dense  and heavy , making a massive countertop,  available in large
slab sizes, and varieties are available from all over the world.  There is a boom
in granite use currently, driven by lower prices caused by import material, a
surge in the number of  shops fabricating granite due to the ease of fabrication
and the high profit margin.

Wow, sounds like I sell granite!   Yes, I do, but like any material, what makes it
good can also make it bad.   Being a multi-material shop, we have no reason to
avoid talking about the weak points of countertop materials.  Below are the key
issues of granite, with a very brief description and a link to a page that
discusses the issue in detail.

Granite is a natural product, strip mining is used to extract it, resulting in
massive pollution and permanent land loss.  Hardly the green product some
sites claim it to be.

It is a
porous material as well as permeable, and has massive capillary action,  
leading to
 cleaning damage, efflorescence, staining, water marks, soap stains,
surface haze,
bacteria and mold colonies resulting in odor and health risks, and
sink rail splitting from rod corrosion.  Porosity also leads to water damage in
granite, hydrolysis, hydration, even  bacteria that actually eat the stone. Sealers
are necessary to keep the top looking decent,  with some very
harsh and
dangerous chemicals or solvents as well as stripping solvents used in
maintenance .  Recently, some companies are offering lifetime warranties
against staining, yet upon reading the fine print one can see that at best the
warranty is worthless.

The
crystalline structure is a product of the minerals it is composed of, quartz,
fieldspar, silica, and mica being the main ingredients, along with a wide variety
of minerals in various combination.  Unfortunately, while quartz is very hard, it
shrinks as it cools, resulting in fissures and porosity.  The very hardness of the
quartz leads to  "plucking", where the saw blades and tooling plucks quartz
crystals out intact instead of cutting them, resulting in a "pit" that requires  
resining, which leads to yellowing, fading, and  more chemicals. Donnyification
(the use of wood stain on granite) is used attempt to match edges to the
resined top, which lasts about as long as you would think it would.  
The quartz is also responsible for radon gas, which is a byproduct of radioactive
decay of radium found in all granites.  The more quartz, the more radon and
radioactivity in the granite.  As the radon breaks down, the loss of electrons and
particles deteriorates the atoms that form the crystalline lattice of the quartz,
causing the top to slowly deteriorate and the lead levels of the granite to
increase.

The feldspar in the granite is eventually turned into clay if any moisture is
present.  The silica present leads to silicosis in workers, especially those who
smoke.

The fissures lead to cracking, breakage, flaking, and even more fissures as the
material ages.

The conglomeration of material that makes granite so interesting leads to many
issues, water damage, etching caused by trace minerals,  unknown composition
from slab to slab, oxidation, rusting, yellowing, flaking, abrasions, hard and soft
areas that make edge work challenging, and stone that can be crumbled with
bare hands.   Many stones are sold with mesh backing that holds it together for
polishing and shipping, a sure sign that while it might be pretty, it is pretty weak
as well.  Some minerals that are present in some granites are soft enough that
table salt can scratch the granite.

Veining and movement are caused by the mixing of magma with streams of
minerals causing veins which while unique also form weak points in the slab.  
Matching  the material at seams can be difficult for stones with a lot of veins,
grain and movement of colors.  Samples from a slab will look a dozen different
ways due to the lack of consistency,  making it hard to match other materials to
the countertop.  Grain can also cause a lot of waste  during cut out.

The very heat and pressure that form the granite causes stress in the material
after it is extracted, cut into slabs, and polished.  The Marble Institute of
America, the MIA, has seam standards that reflect this, allowing for 1/32 of an
inch "lippage" at the center of a seam.  Some granite is so stressed that it has
been known to stop a 40 horsepower diamond saw while cutting, or after cutting
partially through, it snaps like a gun shot, breaking along fissure lines instead of
cutting straight.   Slabs can bow as well, even sag into a curve if not stored with
continuous support.

Sub ducted sedimentary based granites can be flaky and weak, with a lot of
variation in mineral composition.

Polished granite is one of three finishes available, flamed and honed being the
other two.  While polishing creates a high gloss, it also makes it possible to
damage with cleaning products or scrub pads, etch with common household
food items, and on some granites finger prints, crumbs, even cleaning streaks
can be troublesome.   The flamed finish  is pretty bumpy, normally used for
floors.   But like the honed surface, it is near impossible to repair when
scratched.

Variety of granite is increasing due to the demand for granite, yet many
materials  currently sold would have been rejected years ago as being too
weak, soft, or brittle for countertop use.   The sheer variety of material leads to
problems knowing how a stone will hold up, as well as the trade practice of
renaming stones for marketing purposes, leading to multiple names for the
same stone.   The differences in performance of all these varieties of "granite"
can lead to wild claims by the salesmen, scratch resistant, stain resistant and
invisible seams are the most abused claims.   Due to the wide variety of stones
and their varying performance, a blacklist was put together by one stone
association but this list was removed from public access once consumers found
out about it.

The hardness of granite means that it is also very brittle resulting in  breakage,
sink rail failure, poor quality edge work bad due to hard and soft spots in the
granite, increased cost of fabrication costs due to the diamond tooling needed
and extra time needed.   Many stone sellers will claim that the cabinets are to
blame when a granite top breaks instead of the extreme brittleness of the
material.

The high density of the material make a substantial top but lead to worker
injuries, even deaths from slabs falling on workers, so much so that OSHA is
currently inspecting granite shops as a priority.   There has been at least one
death of a consumer, or rather a consumer's six year old child, from A frames
collapsing and falling domino style.  

The density also makes granite a heat sink, so any hot pots set on a granite top
will transfer heat quickly, resulting in burns from homeowners touching the
granite where the pot had set just a short time before.  High heat will also
damage the stone itself, causing quartz crystals to expand and pop out, even
cracking the stone itself from excessive and rapid heat expansion.

World wide availability has given the consumer a wide range of choices, yet
many of these countries do not have the infrastructure to deal with the
environmental damage, nor the social costs from worker deaths and injury,
exploitation of workers,  and even the use of child labor to process quarry scrap
into export products.  India, Africa, Brazil, and China are the worst offenders,
but socially responsible granite is a rare find.  Some countries are considering a
granite export ban until these issues have been addressed.

Strangely enough, there is even a terrorist connection with the granite industry.  
Osama Bin Laden's family have extensive holdings in the granite industry, a fact
that many in the granite industry would prefer to remain unknown.   Perhaps it
takes someone with connections to keep quarries operational in some of the
war torn countries.   I know that your average American consumer would prefer
to know if their hard earned money might become available to terror groups or
those funding road side bombs in Iraq.

Many countries, alarmed by the surge in granite use in homes, have sponsored
studies into the health aspects of granite, mostly radiation issues and Radon
gas exhalation rates.   China was so concerned with the radiation levels of
granite that they started classifying and regulating it into four levels, with only
the safest level being suitable for use in Chinese dwellings.  Silicosis is a well
studied problem from the last century, once almost eradicated as an industrial
disease, yet making a comeback due to the boom in granite countertop
fabrication.

The lower prices of exported granite from China is mostly due to the banning of
the three lower levels from being used inside Chinese dwellings, yet the
regulations do not prohibit export.  In the mid '90's, when the ban became
effective, the Indian granite industry was reeling from the price drops, as well as
the Brazilian granite industry which was saved by a 40% drop in their currency
that allowed them to continue exporting stone.   The demand for cheap stone
slabs has opened up quarries with poor quality equipment and inexperienced
labor, leading to calibration issues, kerosene lubrication to cut costs of
production,  poor quality polished surfaces, and chemically doctoring of stones
to resemble high demand stones. The sudden drop in material costs made
granite affordable, leading to today's bargains.   Who would have ever thought
that granite could be bought for less than a laminate countertop?

However, there was a lag of a few years between rock bottom material pricing
and the retail pricing levels leading to an abnormal profit margin on granite
fabrication.    As in any other market, high profit margins soon lead to more
competition.

Employees started quiting their jobs and opening up their own shops due to the
low entry level requirement of tools and equipment.  While some of these
workers were experienced, most were not, and few had the experience or
business skills to run a reputable shop.   The lack of financial backing,
supervisory experience, and accounting systems that kept quality levels
reasonable in the experienced shops were absent in these new shops, leading
to a lot of customer complaints.

Bad reputation for stone and shops came quickly, causing these shops to drop
pricing in an attempt to survive.  Reputable shops soon found they had to
match these prices, leading to a downward spiral in pricing, a boon to
consumers, or at least to the lucky ones that happened to find a decent shop.
Currently the prices seem to have bottomed out with some of the newer shops
going out of business, which will lead to higher prices as the market stabilizes.   
Whether the granite industry can recover from the loss of reputation and
consumer complaints is yet to be seen.  The west coast is having a surge of
large homebuilders refusing to install granite due to warranty issues, relying on
Quartz or Solid Surface instead.

Recently, on a consumer complaint site called Rip Off Reports, I ran across this
quote from an outraged consumer, no doubt plagiarized from somewhere :

"The granite business has been described as a long dark hallway through the
countertop industry where thieves run free, and good men die like dogs for no
good reason.  There's also a negative side."

Without a reputable trade organization that regulates the trade practices, it will
remain an industry rift with false advertising, lack of certification or industry
response to problems, leading more and more consumers likely to have a bad
experience.

There is one stone association attempting to raise quality levels, but they are
finding it difficult to get consensus on standards due to the variety of shops
represented, from China blank driveway fabricators to full service fabrication
shops.   One man's definition of quality is another man's shoddy work.  To
complicate matters, there are the old school shops and the newer shops with
totally different ideas of how stone tops should be made.

Many of the older shops simply do not like change.  The old MIA standards are
good enough in their view, while the newer shops tend to think that things can
be done better.  Few of the old shops will seal granite counter tops, thinking it a
waste of money.   In their defense, most of the stone these shops learned to
work with years ago did not need sealing, if it was that porous, it just wasn't
used.   To them, saying that stone needs water tested frequently and sealed is
an admission of weakness of the material.   Many of the old shops will not rod
sink and cooktop rails, after all with no warranty on the tops, it is just added
expense on their part.

Another example of poor quality standards is the MIA seam standards.  .  
Granite typically has visible seams, which the
MIA industry standards say can
be up to 1/16th of an inch wide, with another 1/16 of an inch bevel on each
side, making an average seam up to 3/16 of an inch across, with up to 3/32 of
an inch "lippage" (one side higher or lower).That is over a 1/16th of an inch.  
When you add in tolerance levels, seams can be 1/4"  wide and still meet
industry standards. Seams are unsanitary, trapping bacteria and mold, and
seams can pop apart easily if the home or
cabinets settle.

One stone fabricator brought up a good point, that the Solid Surface industry
was fortunate that the manufacturers' warranties made standards essential.   
New brands had to offer long warranties as well to compete, many even upping
the ante to 15 years over the standard 10 year warranty.

To get a certification, solid surface shops have to have at least one certified
person for each brand they sell.   Most manufacturers' require tooling and shop
requirements, preferring those shops with an investment to protect over
someone working out of a pickup truck.  But the stone industry has few entry
barriers, merely the ability to pick up the slab or the ability to unload a slab from
the slab yard's truck.  Some stone fabricators have it loaded on their trailer,
then cut it up while on the A frame to save the expense of a fork lift as well as
shop overhead by using customers driveways.

With little tooling, experience, nor decent working conditions, it is no wonder
poor quality tops get made.  Many shops are rented industrial park buildings,
making it easy to pick up stakes and change names when a reputation for  poor
quality work catches up with them or their "lifetime" warranties start costing them
money.

Illegal workers find granite work a good niche, low cost entry levels, a large
amount of unskilled labor needed, no certification or regulation required.   
There is little to force these companies to provide worker's compensation
protection for the workers, nor general liability insurance leaving homeowners
wide open to injury lawsuits and  property damage.

Granite is available in large slabs that can minimize seams, averaging 50 to 60
square feet.  It also leads to a lot of waste, averaging 35% industry wide.  A
good solid surface job, using smaller sheets and even half sheets, will have little
waste.  A full sheet of solid surface is around 30 square feet, a half sheet 15
square feet.  Scrap from one sheet can be used for edge buildup, seam blocks,
backsplash, window sills, even seamed and glued into larger pieces for
countertops.  The average stone shop has tons of scrap littering their yards,
even more is sent to the landfill.

By far the worst problem caused by the large slab sizes is the injury and
accidental death of workers.  A full size granite slab will weigh over one
thousand pounds, enough to crush a man, even amputate limbs.  Slabs are
handled with slab clamps which grab the center of the sheet.  If the slab breaks,
the suddenly unbalanced slab can easily crush feet and  hands, even swinging
out of control to kill workers.   A-frame failures have killed many workers, falling
like dominoes, dozens even hundreds of slabs collapsing in some cases.
Rodding rusting through
causing crack behind sink.
White spot in slab,
inclusion, pretty common
in lesser grade material.
Three dark spots down
center, Thought to be
from suction cups used
by installer.
Plumbers putty used to
seal soap dispenser, near
impossible to remove.
Thought to be alcohol
stains from installation.
Same as above, alcohol
stain in Uba Tuba.
Scotch brite damage to a
vanity top.
Thought to be hydrogen
peroxide from mouth wash.
Damage.
Click on thumbnails for larger view.