Ask the Experts: Are downdraft ranges all hot air?
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This week’s questions are all about downdraft ranges, which vent cooking odors and smoke through a fan built into a cooktop’s surface, rather than up above in a range hood.
Why do downdraft ranges have such a bad reputation?
Judy wrote to say she's looking for a downdraft range from anyone but Jenn-Air:
“Based on the poor Jenn-Air ratings, I am determined not to buy a Jenn-Air, so I am waiting for an alternative to appear,” she said. “I have been very frustrated with lack of choices and not understanding why.”
Well, Judy, based on the user reviews we found online, it would be easy to assume that Jenn-Air makes a lousy product. But the truth is, downdraft ranges are inherently flawed. Jenn-Air only builds them because a small percentage of consumers can’t install anything else in their homes.
In general, downdraft ranges get a lot of complaints because it's impossible for a downdraft's airflow to be as effective as traditional ventilation. For one thing, they can’t move much air without extinguishing gas burners. As it stands, customers often complain of flickering flames when the fan is on.
More importantly, the downdraft fans are constantly fighting basic physics. Hot air rises, after all, along with all the grease and smoke and steam that comes from sautéing, boiling, and frying. That’s why most kitchen ventilation is installed above the cooking surface. In contrast, a downdraft range must pull air against its natural tendency, and it tends to do a poor job.
However, if you have a kitchen design with a cathedral ceiling, don’t want to block sightlines, or it's otherwise impossible to install ventilation above the rangetop, downdraft is pretty much your only option.
What brands make downdraft ranges?
Melodee was also looking for a Jenn-Air alternative, and asked about KitchenAid’s new downdraft ranges:
“I read about the Jenn-Air, which has such a dismal history of customer satisfaction.”
Fielding had similar concerns:
“I'm interested in purchasing a down draft that is not Jenn-Air.”
The natural disadvantages of downdraft are exactly why most other manufacturers got out of the category, leaving Jenn-Air as the only brand to continue building the style of range it first introduced in 1961.
In 2015, KitchenAid announced a new lineup of downdraft models, which generated a lot of interest among our readers.
However, folks like Melodee who are looking for a Jenn-Air alternative are out of luck: the new KitchenAid and Jenn-Air models are basically identical. Jenn-Air and KitchenAid are both owned by Whirlpool Corp, and the ranges are made in the same factory, relying on the same design.
Your only real alternative would be to install a standalone pop-up ventilation system, which sits behind a cooktop and rises up only when needed. These can be pretty expensive, and require some remodeling—but they come in many styles, are made by multiple manufacturers, and can be compatible with different kinds of cooktops. With the exception of a few models from Dacor that fit behind a range, pop-up models are only compatible with cooktops.
What about recirculation?
Finally, Fred asked:
“If I should wait for availability of the new KitchenAid or Jenn-Air products, would the optional kit for filtered recirculated air with no external venting be equally as effective as venting the downdraft through ductwork to the outside?”
Indeed, the newest downdraft ranges all come with recirculation kits, which don’t require an external vent. This is a good solution if you live in a home where it’s impossible to vent your kitchen to the outside due to cramped quarters or building codes. Recirculation also doesn’t pull conditioned air out of a kitchen, which can save on heating and cooling bills.
Still, you should know that recirculation has its drawbacks.
Instead of simply exhausting smoke, grease, hot air and cooking smells outside, a recirculating (aka “ductless,” or “duct-free”) kit simply passes air through an active charcoal filter before venting it back into the kitchen.
The filter will remove some odors, but it requires replacement every 6-12 months, and—generally speaking—doesn’t do as good a job as a ducted model when it comes to heat, smoke, and steam.
The best choice for kitchen ventilation will always be a vented range hood, which is why commercial kitchens have such strict building code requirements. Any other installation will require some compromises—but those are the tradeoffs of turning a dream kitchen into reality.
Updated May 23, 2016. An earlier version of this article said that pop-up ventilation systems can fit behind ranges. Most can only fit behind cooktops.