Making Room for the Microwave
Where you choose to place this essential kitchen appliance determines how useful and safe it will be.
Since its invention in the mid-1950s, the microwave has gone from a futuristic machine to an everyday tool. But the popularity of this appliance isn't all that has changed. Its placement has undergone an evolution of its own. Although microwaves began life on the counter, you'll now find them mounted over ranges and built into cabinets above and below counters. However, some spots are better than others.
Over the Range
The most common microwave location, a couple of feet above the range, is the least efficient and the most dangerous. "This placement is bad because it's too high for many people," says Rhonda Moritz, spokeswoman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association in Hacketts-town, New Jersey. "You've got to reach up to put food in or take it out, so your chances of spilling something hot on yourself are greater. You also run the risk of burning yourself on the cooktop." Users who are elderly, disabled or short in stature may have trouble reaching a microwave at this height—or they may not be able to get to it at all. The NKBA's official guidelines recommend placing the shelf or cabinet the microwave sits on well below eye level, at 24 to 48 in. off the ground.
"You can lower an over-the-range microwave so that it's more ergonomically correct, but then you can't use tall pots on the back burners," says Chet Basher, a kitchen designer in Sparta, New Jersey.
This location also isn't conducive to a two-cook kitchen, because it increases the likelihood that people using the microwave and cooktop will be in each other's way. And if all that weren't enough, the advent of the increasingly popular 42-in.-wide, commercial-style range is another reason not to use the over-the-range location. A standard, 27- to 30-in.-wide microwave looks disproportionately small over a 42-in. range, and it also wastes space on either side.
If an over-the-range location still makes sense for your kitchen, be sure there is plenty of open space on both sides of the range to serve as a landing area for items you take out of the microwave, and bring the unit down as far as you can without it getting in the way of pots.
Above the Counter
Far more up-to-date and efficient are abovecounter placements in a wall, on an elevated portion of an island or on an undercabinet shelf. This space-saving strategy is especially convenient for kids, the elderly and the disabled because it allows the microwave to be close to eye level and easy to reach. It also provides users with quick access to counter space, either right underneath the microwave, above it or nearby.
Adequate ventilation, especially if the microwave is built into a wall of cabinetry, is a must. "The manufacturer's instructions will tell you how much cabinet depth you need to have for a built-in," says Sam Cipiti, vice- president of R.M. Tunis Kitchens and Baths in Chevy Chase, Maryland. "It's usually at least 15 in." Trim kits, an option for built-ins you can add at any time, allow at least 1 1/2 in. of ventilated space around the unit. If you have your heart set on a cabinet-wall location but don't have deep enough cabinets, the undercabinet shelf makes a great alternative.
Under the Counter
Kitchens in general may be getting bigger, but many homeowners still have to contend with a shortage of counter space. The unusual but sensible notion of tucking the microwave under the counter helps make the most of limited surface area. "When I bring up this option to people, they're skeptical," says builder Glen Doyle, of Glen Doyle Builders in Princeton, New Jersey, who designed and built the two kitchens shown on this page. "But, believe it or not, it's really very efficient."
The NKBA's Moritz already sees a trend under way. "We're seeing lots of homeowners build a spot for the microwave in the island, about 24 in. off the floor." Undercounter solutions like this work well for disabled homeowners, particularly when there's space for a wheelchair left underneath the microwave. And it's perfect for older children.
It makes sense esthetically, too. Because the glamorized, stainless-steel versions of this homely appliance have yet to take over the marketplace, putting the microwave under the counter keeps it out of sight.
However, households with elderly members or small children should probably think twice before going with this installation—it requires some bending down and leaves a potentially dangerous appliance within reach of young hands.
On a Wheeled Cart
Placing the oven on a cart provides flexibility. If you have the floor space, you won't have to go to the trouble and expense to alter cabinets. Most carts also provide additional storage, and their flexibility can make a kitchen with a poorly arranged work triangle more efficient. But before you start wheeling the appliance around, make sure the electric outlet you use can handle the additional load. If you decide on a cart, be sure it has a heatproof surface and curbed edges so hot food (and the microwave itself) can't fall off.
By the Numbers
19, 24 and 30 in.
Where To Find It:
D. Glen Doyle
153 Carter Rd.
Princeton, NJ 08540
Middlefield, OH 44062
Sparta Trades Kitchens and Baths
580 Rte. 15
Sparta, NJ 07871
R.M. Tunis Kitchens and Baths
7032 Wisconsin Ave.
Chevy Chase, MD 20815
Red Lion, PA 17356-0231