One of the biggest complaints I hear from other professional about the work triangle is that it’s obsolete because microwave ovens were not available at the time that the original study was done. I think that is nonsense! As long as you understand what it does and how a microwave works on a fundamental level and how it is used on a functional level, (that does vary greatly from one family to another) you can easily figure out which type of microwave to buy for your kitchen and how to incorporate it into the work triangle.
Power is obviously critical to microwaves, being an electric appliance. However, size is equally as critical — in the wrong way you may at first be thinking. If you read the wattage rating on two microwaves, as a consumer you might think “okay, these two microwaves are identical in efficiency because they have the same power rating.” If, one is a small countertop microwave with a 1000 watt power rating, and the other choice a large microwave that’s twice as big with the same power rating, most people think they’ll just buy the bigger one since they can fit bigger items in it while still keeping the same power.
The problem is that microwaves work by emitting and bouncing around microwaves inside the oven, back and forth through the food over and over again. If you have a bigger microwave, you have a bigger volume that these waves are bouncing around in.
Microwave efficiency, is ruled by a physics concept called the inverse square law. Meaning, in this example, if one microwave is half the size (volume inside) of another microwave with the same power rating, the smaller one will actually be 4 times more efficient than the larger one — the inverse of 1/2 is 2 and 2 squared is 4 .
In turn, the bigger microwave oven cavity as in our example, would need to have 4 times the power (4000 watts) rating of the smaller oven to be as effective as a smaller microwave. These numbers all relate directly to how powerful the oven needs to be based on oven size and how long the food needs to be in the oven to heat up.
So in general, you’re better off with a smaller microwave that has a good power rating than a bigger microwave that has the same power rating, because it’ll be more effective and get things cooked more quickly. Except for dual capacity ovens which use both microwave and conventional cooking, but those combo micro/ovens when used only as a microwave will follow this rule.
A microwave oven does need to be placed in the work triangle for it’s most obvious purpose of use: near-instant cooking times. In contrast, with a regular wall oven, you generally bake or roast something anywhere from half an hour up to hours at a time. Because you don’t need to frequently interact with your food throughout that process, you’re able to place an oven on the outskirts of the kitchen, even outside and away from the active work triangle area, without any loss of function and convenience. Foods placed in a microwave oven are cooked for a handful of minutes at most, sometimes just a few seconds. Because of its quick-use nature and wide versatility in what it can be used for, microwave ovens should be in the work triangle. There are two elements that are important to understand that are used in conjunction with a microwave oven, and they also happen to be part of the kitchen work triangle:
- A water supply: very often, you’re adding water to what you put into the microwave
- Your refrigerator/freezer: these are the sources of many microwaved items
So, the key for microwave oven placement is real simple: the closer you put it to a refrigerator and/or water supply, the better off you are. Simple rule. No need to make the work triangle obsolete.
Different Microwave Types
One problem about microwave ovens is that most homeowners and professionals don’t even know all the different options that are available for a microwave. Most people are only aware of three basic microwave types:
- A freestanding microwave that sits on the countertop
- A built-in microwave that typically goes in above another built-in oven in a tall cabinet
- A combination unit integrated with a range hood, a microwave-hood combo.
I’m going to talk about each one of those in-depth to let you know their pros and cons, but first, there are two other types of microwaves available that allow you to put a microwave in the work triangle without giving up counter space, in my opinion a key concept for a microwave, since the microwave should be in the work triangle where usable counter space is at a premium. I’m going to talk about those first because I recommend use of one of those more often than any other microwave and if you want your kitchen to really work, you’ll to want to use one of these two microwaves instead of all the other options, listed above.
The first of these two other types of microwave is one that I am not fond of, the “under the counter microwave”. It literally mounts underneath your countertop in a base cabinet, like a built-in wall unit only much lower. It typically functions more like a microwave drawer. My biggest concerns about this microwave deal with how you use a microwave ideally and safety.
Ideally, a microwave should be slightly below eye level when in use so that you can peek in to see how its cooking. In the event you turn it on for too long of a time, which is easy to do (I do it all the time) you want to be able to see what’s going on at a glance. That way, if something’s burning or needs more time added to it, you don’t have to go out of your way to see if that’s the case. The best way to accomplish that is to position the microwave so that you are able to look down into it at a slight angle — in other words, just below eye level. In most kitchens for most adults, that is with the bottom of the microwave no higher than 54″ off the floor. If you put a microwave below the countertop, you’re putting it below waist level and will have to be bending over to look inside, and load and unload item from the microwave, which is not ideal.
In regard to safety, a microwave is the one device in a kitchen that, in my opinion, you want to keep away from young kids.
You don’t want young kids (primarily 2–6 year-olds) to be able to reach it because you’ve got no idea what they’re going to put into it or how long they’ll set the cook time for. They could put a cat or a dog in there — even elderly people have been known to do that — but kids would be more prone to doing something like that because they don’t understand the concept of what’s going on. I’ve always felt that under the counter microwaves are such a huge liability in this regard that it makes me very uneasy. I’m fearful of it and I don’t like it. I actually have no photos of this application in my gallery because after I make my customers aware of my safety fears and all the other options they have available, they choose one of the Over the Counter options, in the next section.
Even older kids in kitchens with hard-to-access microwaves are prone to accidentally misuse them
Now, I’m not telling you not to use these. As with all the things I talk about, I’m merely trying to give you the pros and cons that you likely won’t hear from anyone else, from other contractors to appliance salespeople. I feel there are much safer and more functional alternatives to under counter microwaves, the “Over the counter Microwaves”.
Over the Counter Microwaves
This is the option that seemingly nobody knows about, not even appliance salespeople, which is a real shame because it’s the one I prefer to use most and have gotten the best client feedback for in my 41 years in this trade. I send people down to appliance wholesalers and if they don’t ask for sales people who I regularly work with they repeated end up guided to a different type of microwave.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients go to an appliance distributor and say they want an “over-the-counter” microwave, just to be told “oh, you mean the over cook top microwave,” and are shown microwave hood combo units built into a range hood, because the sales person had no idea what an Over the Counter Micro was. No, those aren’t it!
An over-the-counter microwave is meant to be bolted to the bottom of a wall cabinet or attached to the wall so the bottom of the micro is above the countertop, leaving the counter space available for other use. Unfortunately, there’s only two manufacturers that make them, and they’ve both got their own little idiosyncrasies in terms of pros and cons and installation constraints.
The first one of them is part of the GE Spacemaker series. GE drives me crazy because every year, they change the model number and hide it deep within their catalog, which is primarily why it’s so hard to find when talking to the average appliance salesperson. It’s the only microwave that’s listed as a “countertop microwave” in their Spacemaker series, and while it can be used as the freestanding countertop microwave they classify it as, the unit becomes exponentially more functional when the optional “wall cabinet installation kit” accessory is brought into the mix.
This GE microwave happens to be 24″ wide and has four holes at the top of the microwave that are covered with little buttons. If you remove those buttons, you can use the installation kit—which is really just 4 specialized bolts—to hang the microwave from a wall cabinet above it. You can see these bolt heads inside the cabinet, but it doesn’t disrupt use of the cabinet and lets you get the microwave unit up off the countertop. This installation method also gives more flexibility on how much vertical clearance you can get with the reclaimed counter surface. For instance, in installations where it’s top is attached to a standard wall cabinet bottom or in a corner under regular wall cabinets, the average space between the countertop and bottom of the microwave is about 6 or 7″. I’ve done other installations where I’ve reduced the height of the cabinet the microwave is mounted to, leaving the bottom edge of the microwave flush with the bottom edge of the surrounding cabinetry, which is normally 54″ off the floor, leaving an 18″ space between the micro and the counter. Because this microwave vents from the bottom, it works without you needing to worry about ventilation.
The second of the over the counter microwaves which is a much cleaner looking and aesthetically pleasing microwave made by Sharp, their model R1214. The R1214 model has a stainless steel exterior, but they do have other finish’s, white-1211, black-1210, etc. This microwave is not a countertop microwave. It is meant to be installed between two wall cabinets. The sides of this microwave are not very attractive looking because it’s meant to be covered up by cabinets on eache side, similar to a slide-in range.
That feature does limit where you can place it much more than its GE counterpart. Nonetheless, it stands out nicely and has a really attractive look. Not only that, it has a feature that the GE over the counter microwaves do not: it has a rotating turntable in it, and a slightly larger cavity. Turntables make microwaves more effective because they heat food more evenly.
If you consider these two, you can pick whichever one you want as they’re both very good. Most of my clients prefer the Sharp since it’s a nicer looking microwave once it’s installed, but it does have the downside of being more limited on where you can put it. The GE, because of the way it attaches to the bottom of the cabinet when mounted can be put in any number of places.
One place where I really like mounting the GE microwave is in the corner, because corners in kitchens where you have an L return are pretty much dead areas that you can’t use for counter space and most people just keep miscellaneous things stacked there. You might as well put the microwave there, because that corner is usually right near the water supply and/or refrigerator in the kitchen.
The cost between the two is about an even wash. I think the last time I had a client buy one, the Sharp model was about $340. The GE model was about $260, but with the $60 trim kit, it’s about $320, so the net difference was about $20, so cost shouldn’t be too big a deciding factor in terms of which one you ultimately choose.
The biggest issues for me are what you want it to look like and the available options for placement. I highly recommend these microwaves because they give ideal placement, using space that you’re never going to use otherwise while you maximize your kitchens usable counter space.
The Mainstream Microwaves
Freestanding Countertop Microwaves
This microwave type needs very little introduction as it’s the kind most likely to be found in a residence and on sale everywhere. Countertop microwaves do not require any special installation or mounting hardware, they can be simply taken out of the box, plugged in, and put immediately to use.
Their biggest benefit is their versatility in placement, they can be put wherever you have a counter top. Conversely, their biggest downside is the amount of counter space they take up, and the fact that you can never use that counter space as a work area.
Standard kitchen countertops will have a depth of 25 1/2″, and while microwaves do not have a set “standard” size, the minimum depth measurement is 16″, which by the numbers should leave 8–9″ of usable counter space but it will most likely be much less, making the space unusable as a work area.
One way to make a counter top microwave more usable is to create spaces in your design where counter tops are deeper than the normal 25 1/2″ as in the pictures below which has a standard 24″ deep base cabinet on the kitchen side and a 12″ deep cabinet on the back side of the peninsula, with an overall counter depth of 39″. In this case, in my own home, I created a stone enclosure to hide the micro, can opener, and food processor from view from the family room. That enclosure also acts as a place for vases and plants on top, and also hides the sink and main kitchen work area from the family room. That counter space 16″ deep in front of the microwave is the most used food prep area in my kitchen, being between the sink and cook top.
Microwave/Range Hood Combination Units
Microwave/Range Hood Combination (Microhoods) were pioneered by GE in the late 1970’s with their Space Maker unit. It bolts over the cooktop.
I have used them sparingly. The reason why? They don’t operate or function as well as other options.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the ideal height for a microwave is slightly below eye level so you can easily see into it, no higher than 54″ off the floor is ideal. If you put that microwave/hood over a cooktop and you mount it no more than 54″ off the floor, you wont be able to use your large pots and pans on the rear burners of the cooktop which are normally the largest burners, because the hood will be in the way of taking the lids on and off those pots and of stirring the pot contents also. If you mount the micro/hood higher up high so you can still use large pots and pans you wont be able to see in the microwave, and will actually be lifting objects over your shoulders to place items in the microwave for heating. If you have to raise items above your shoulder level to put it into something, you’re putting stresses on your shoulders that you shouldn’t have to put on them. This becomes an extremely important consideration for the elderly, as they’re like to develop strength and joint problems with their shoulders and elbows because of having to lift things in and out of the overhead unit. They’re not very functional, and depending on the user, could be an easily overlooked health/safety problem.
The other main reason why I don’t like those microwaves is that the fan in them doesn’t do a very good job of venting. They simply do not do as good a job at venting as a stand alone vent does. Some of them don’t even vent outside the house, they just circulate the air inside the house. I believe that if you’re going to have a vent, get one that really works and is going to do the job. What’s the point of paying extra money for a fan in a vent that doesn’t work? As I said earlier, these units neither function nor operate well.
There is one last reason why I don’t like these microwaves, but it isn’t directly related to how these units work in day-to-day use. I do not like when big manufacturers engage in deceitful advertising. When those microwaves were first brought to market, GE engaged in some highly deceptive promotion. Any advertising that manufacturers use should be straightforward and tell you exactly what the pros and cons of a product are. In the early 80’s, they promoted this product with a TV commercial in which a young and pretty gal comes on-screen, goes on about how great this new microwave is, and walks over to the microwave above her cooktop showing how convenient it was to get in and out of it. Microhoods were so great and going to save everybody time and space by integrating the microwave with the range hood.
But if you paid really close attention to this young woman as she walked over to this cooktop to do this, her waist and hips were actually well above the cooktop cooking surface area and the microwave itself was below her shoulder level. While this is possible for me because I’m 6’7”, it’s impossible for an average size woman (and again, many men too) to have that be the case. They had her on a platform that was putting her on much higher ground than she would be in a real kitchen. It was a totally deceitful ad. When those first microwaves came out, the specifications on them required them to mounted so low that you couldn’t put any large pots or pans on the back burners, which typically on most cooktops, were the bigger burners. When you install any appliance, you must install it to manufacturer specifications. If you don’t install an appliance to manufacturer specs you void the warranty, which means when you have a service call made and a tech is sent out there to do work on it, you’re going to incur an out-of-pocket cost rather than be covered by the warranty. Back then, I had multiple people complain that they couldn’t use the back burners at all. All I’d be able to say was “well I’m sorry, but I can’t raise it because that violate the manufacturer’s specs”, the only other option is to put in a real hood and add a counter top or undercabinet micro. Manufacturers do go through a learning curve with their appliances. Within a decade later, they changed the specs and started mounting them higher like they should, but that just puts the microwave higher which helps with pots on back burners, but put the micro at a more conveneint height for most people.
There are also some repair issues my clients have had with these units I want to share with you. When these first microhoods came out, they originally had dials because back then we didn’t have touch controls then. Nowadays, they all have touch controls on them. Touch control devices work by sensing and responding to the heat from your body, which means that if you have a cooktop underneath this microwave, the heat from your cooking could drive them crazy. Not only that, they will also cause the circuit boards to go fail sooner. In my experience, you’re relatively safe if you place these units over an electric cooktop. Electric cooktops only heat the surface of the cookware that is making contact with the burner, whereas a gas cooktop heats everything. When you turn on a gas burner, the air temperature in the room begins to change immediately, and I’ve had more customers have had problems with these units when installed over gas cooktops than any other cooking surface. I have had multilpe clients that put these units over gas cook tops tell me they have had multiple circuit boards for the touch controle replaced, and when their warrante was up it was cheaper to replace the microhood than pay for a new board.
Save There’s many microwaves that are built into wall ovens, and in general, I like them. They’re generally really good ovens, and the ones I’ve been really fond of are the ones that multitask and be a convection oven with a microwave function built into it. These units are aesthetically attractive and I’ve had a lot of feedback from customers that found them to be really good products. That said, they are bigger cavities than standalone microwave units are, as these are real ovens that has a microwave in it. Some come as separate units that install above the wall oven, which then leaves you wasting a lot of space, because you’re stacking a smaller unit on top of a larger unit while still giving up the same amount of horizontal clearance as the wall oven beneath it. Not only that, but wall ovens are generally going to be further away from your water and from your refrigerator, as covered at the beginning of this article.