Microwave Oven Concerns for Homeowners

microwave and hood combinations are an unsafe and poorly-working option

Microwave-Hood units are an unsafe and poorly-working option!

Microwave oven options was the topic of several discussions during our former internet radio program, “Today’s Home.” We expressed concern about microwave-hood combinations and drawer microwaves. Both appliances are potentially dangerous. You’ve got someone on your side, to help you make informed decisions about products that can affect your safety.

According to National Kitchen and Bath Association design guidelines, the best (and safest) location for a microwave oven is achieved when the bottom of the unit is 3″ below the main user’s shoulder, or a maximum of 54″ above the floor (whichever is lower). If a microwave oven is placed below a 36″ high countertop, the bottom of the unit must be a minimum of 15″ above the floor. There should be a 15” wide by 16″ deep landing area above, below, and/or adjacent to the handle side of a microwave oven, from the front edge of the adjacent countertop.

It has become increasingly popular for homeowners to install two microwave ovens during their kitchen remodeling project. Two units, installed at different heights, makes it easier and safer for users whose height varies more than six inches. A second microwave should not be installed for children under 16 years. Several clients have elected to install two microwave ovens for dedicated purposes in different parts of the kitchen, for their convenience. In 33 years of practice, I’ve helped hundreds of homeowners select and place microwave ovens, with the best safety and function being our #1 goal. Below is a synopsis of concerns I have about microwave oven-hood combinations, and microwave oven drawers.

Microwave Oven + Hood Combinations:

    • They’re too high to be safe…
        • …unless the bottom of the unit is at the height recommended by NKBA, which reduces the area for tall pots to 18″ and limits access to rear burners.
        • It’s difficult to see what’s going on inside the microwave oven. If the food is bubbling and boiling, it could lead to a serious burn, or an accidental spill, if the user isn’t wearing oven mitts.
      • It’s hard to read the controls.
    • They provide poor ventilation.
        • Many microwave oven and hood combinations are recirculating, with no outside exhaust, unless you’re hooking it up to an existing duct, or paying a contractor to vent to the outside. Many states, including Oregon, have outlawed the use of these; check with your building department before you buy one. Recirculating pulls some (not all) of the moisture and grease from the air, but if the charcoal filters are “tired,” cooking odors will recirculate back into your kitchen.
        • The highest cubic feet per minute (cfm) rating for microwave-hoods is earned by Panasonic, which has four models with 420 cfm standard. Most of the other manufacturers make microwave-hoods with 300 cfm, except Whirlpool and Amana, which have units rated for only 220 cfm. Two combination units manufactured by Dacor can be converted to accommodate a 600 cfm exterior motor.
      • Unlike exhaust hoods that are an average of 19″ deep, most microwave oven + hood combinations are 12″ to 14″ deep, which allows steam and grease to escape from front burners.
    • They’re not wide enough.
      • Most microwave oven + hood combinations are only 30″ wide, installed over a 30″ wide range or cooktop, which can result in adjacent wall cabinets being damaged by steam, grease, and heat. A couple of manufacturers make a 36″ wide unit, but there is no difference in the interior dimensions. There are extension kits to make the 30″ microwave-hood 36″-42″ wide, but they’re visually unappealing.
  • There may be insufficient landing space adjacent to the unit.
    • Landing space does not include your cooktop or rangetop!

Microwave Oven Drawers:

Microwave oven drawer is popular, but functional use is limited

Microwave oven drawer is popular, but functional use is limited

Although a microwave oven drawer is safer in some ways, it still presents safety and function problems. At least four major appliance manufacturers have gotten on board to offer these units since Sharp first introduced microwave drawers in 2005, and they still seem to be popular. Looking at technical specifications and dimensions leads one to think that Sharp is the original equipment manufacturer of all microwave drawers. Although the overall exterior dimensions are 24″ or 30″ wide by 15″ high by 23″ deep, the drawers are limited to a MAXIMUM OF 17-3/8″ wide by 8″ high (+/-) by 15″ deep, or 1 cubic foot.

Owners’ manuals contain the following warnings:

    • Do not overheat liquid.
    • Stir liquid before and halfway through heating it.
    • Use extreme care when inserting a metal utensil into hot food or liquid.
    • Do not use straight-sided containers with narrow necks.
    • After heating, allow containers to stand in the appliance at least for 20 seconds before removing them.
    • Cover foods while cooking with paper towels, wax paper, microwave plastic wrap, or a lid. Covers prevent spattering, limit condensation inside the microwave, and help foods to cook evenly. (NOTE: None of the owners’ manuals mention anything about how hard it might be to clean these appliances.)
    • Turn chicken, hamburgers and roasts at least once during microwaving to speed cooking. Rearrange foods such as meatballs halfway through cooking, both from top to bottom and from right to left.
    • Keep the waveguide cover clean. Food residue can cause arcing and/or fires. The waveguide cover is located on the inside top of the microwave drawer area. Carefully wipe any food spatters with a soft damp cloth immediately after they occur. Do not remove the waveguide cover.
  • ALWAYS use potholders to prevent burns when handling utensils that are in contact with hot food. (“Utensils” also means containers. Why do they offer this advice? To protect you, and to protect themselves.)

Tips To Help You Be An Informed Purchaser:

    • Do not buy major appliances online without seeing them in person. (There are many more reasons for this recommendation, but that’s another topic.)
    • Remember the NKBA guidelines cited above when shopping for a new microwave oven.
    • Do not let anyone talk you into buying a microwave-hood combination because it’s the only thing that will fit into the available space. You probably have more (and safer) alternatives!
    • Keep wall cabinets at least 3″ away from the edge of your range or cooktop on both sides, if possible, a total of 6″ difference, to prevent them from being ruined by steam, grease, and heat.
    • Bring your largest baking container with you when you shop for a new microwave, to verify that you can continue using it.
  • Bring a measuring tape and a small spiral binder when you shop, to take and write down important measurements which may impact your ultimate decision.

Armed with honest, important information (not from a salesperson!), you’ll be able to make a decision that will give you pleasurable and safe microwave cooking for years!

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