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Engineered stone looks like granite, but is more durable and easier to maintain

Engineered stone countertops are made out of about 90 percent natural stone particles (usually quartz) mixed with about 10 percent artificial ingredients (coloring, resins, glues, etc.). For this reason, many suppliers simply call them quartz countertops. The ground-up quartz crystals and resins are combined under high heat and pressure, then cooled and polished to a gloss or honed to a matte finish. The advantage is that quartz countertops lack the natural imperfections of stone surfaces like granite, soapstone or marble, and they can be manufactured in an enormous assortment of patterns and colors.

The disadvantage, from an aesthetic standpoint, is that quartz countertops (according to some experts) don't have the elegance of stone surfaces and can have a slightly artificial, "uniform" appearance. Others contend, however, that the slight tradeoff is worth it because quartz countertops are nonporous and don't require periodic resealing like granite countertops do. ConsumerReports.org is particularly positive about quartz countertops because they resemble stone, yet don't require the ongoing maintenance.

Another advantage of quartz countertops is that they're made from one of the hardest materials on earth and are pretty much impervious to scratches and stains (though the edges and corners can chip). However, quartz countertops are just as heavy and hard to cut as granite, necessitating professional installation. Dupont Zodiaq, Silestone, Cambria and CasesarStone are a few popular brands.

Oddly enough, in the last few years, the price of the most popular countertop material (granite) has dipped, probably because of its popularity. You can buy a granite countertop for as little as $50 per square foot. Quartz countertops can cost just as much or more as granite. Color choice is excellent; most style mimic the look of stone, but you can also find funkier colors and patterns, as well as solids.

One marked disadvantage of engineered stone countertops, compared to natural stone, is that they're not nearly as eco-friendly, thanks to their non-stone ingredients. Engineered stone isn't among the environmentally sound picks of Green Home Guide, where editors prefer concrete, glass, wood or recycled plastic counters. (The website's editors consider concrete to be an artificial material, but the editors say this surface is a good choice if the aggregate is "recycled and locally sourced.")

Some quartz-countertop manufacturers, however, are seizing on this issue. CesearStone, for example, uses recycled factory material and sometimes recycled glass in some of its countertops. Other companies like Silestone are getting their products certified for low or no off-gassing (the use of paints, sealants, glues and resins in building materials that sometimes results in the release of toxic emissions).

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