Kitchen & Bath: Finding a Home for the Microwave
You don't have to be a certified kitchen designer to notice
that the microwave oven is typically treated like a leftover
part. Ridiculous, because microwaves have long since grown from
toaster-oven size to that of whole-turkey zappers. Unless your
clients actually want the microwave to occupy valuable
countertop real estate, many locations in the average kitchen
can be designed or modified to accommodate this bulky
To pick the best location, first determine who'll be using the
microwave the most and what they'll use it for. A microwave
that's used as a principal appliance should be located
somewhere between the refrigerator and the sink for
convenience. If the primary cook isn't the primary user, a
location outside the main work triangle makes sense. For
example, the microwave could be located toward the family side
of a snack bar, somewhere in line with the refrigerator to
minimize interference with other kitchen activities (see Figure
Figure 1.To keep casual snackers from colliding
with the primary cook, install the microwave adjacent to the
dining counter, in line with the refrigerator yet outside the
main work triangle.
Remember that whatever comes out of the microwave will be hot
and will require an immediately adjacent landing area for
safety. The vast majority of microwaves are hinged on the
left-hand side and so are best placed to the left of the
Over the Counter
Even if there's countertop space to spare, standard countertop
height isn't necessarily the best height for a microwave.
Ergonomic studies show that the most convenient height for
placing items in and removing them from a microwave is
somewhere between 2 inches below and 10 inches above the elbow
of the primary user (Figure 2).
Figure 2.For safety, as well as ease of use, the
microwave should be placed no higher than the shoulder height
of the primary user. Six inches below shoulder height is better
for older users. The most convenient height, according to
ergonomic studies, is between 2 inches below and 10 inches
above the user's elbow height.
If that user is about 5-foot-6, countertop height is probably
fine, keeping in mind that the interior of the oven will be a
couple of inches higher than the surface it's placed on.
Recognized safety criteria state that the oven shelf should be
located no higher than the principal user's shoulder height and
preferably 6 inches lower than shoulder height. In any case,
the cook should be able to look into the oven and look down
upon the food item.
In fact, the average user will have few complaints with a
microwave installed in the bottom line of wall cabinets, with
its interior shelf or rack about 54 inches above the finished
In some instances, you may not need a special wall cabinet.
Just raise an existing 24-inch-wide cabinet by a foot (provided
ceiling height allows) and hang the oven from its underside.
The resulting staggered cabinet lineup plays right into the
current design trend. Or order a 24-inch-high cabinet to fit
between the standard 30-inchers. Many ovens are designed and
sized for over-the-counter (OTC) mounting and offer optional
hanging kits, while others rest on an open shelf (Figure 3).
Sharp's line of OTC ovens includes a built-in task light for
uninterrupted countertop illumination.
Figure 3.Whether hung from the underside of a wall
cabinet (left) or resting on a shelf (right), the microwave is
at a convenient height when inserted among wall cabinets.
Liberated countertop is task-lit by an integral light in some
Below the Counter
Considering the above guidelines, dropping the oven below
countertop level may not seem like a sensible option. But,
again, ideal height depends on the stature and flexibility of
the primary user. Some people use the microwave from a sitting
position, whether heating tacos at a snack bar or frozen
waffles at the kitchen table. And some use the oven only
occasionally and can afford to lower its profile without
serious inconvenience (Figure 4).
Figure 4.Mounted low under a countertop, a
microwave can serve as a teen feeding station or do occasional
dirty work in a gourmet's kitchen.
Most users under the age of 18 use the microwave to the near
exclusion of every other kitchen appliance and are the least
likely to complain about its location.
Maybe the kitchen's current design won't readily give up space
above or below the countertop. In that case, look to adjacent
wall areas for usable space. A microwave can be set up as an
independent station, complete with a prep surface and dedicated
storage. Plastic wrap, paper plates, microwave-safe dishes, and
other microwave-related implements are handiest if stored in
the immediate vicinity of the oven. A classic hutch-style
cabinet can house the microwave in style, while providing
counter space and storage (Figure 5).
Figure 5.When other locations prove inconvenient
or unavailable, an unused blank wall area can be pressed into
service as a stand-alone microwave center.
Multitasking. A microwave
can easily share space with a conventional wall oven in a
typical tall cabinet. It's best to think in terms of priorities
when deciding on stack order. In most households, the microwave
will be used often during the day and so deserves to be
installed above the oven for convenient access (Figure
Figure 6.Consider sharing a conventional wall-oven
cabinet with a built-in microwave oven. As a primary-use
appliance, the microwave should occupy the top slot for
Consider also the possibility of combining functions. If your
client doesn't require maximum oven capacity, appliances like
the Ultima Cook Oven (KitchenAid, 800/422-1230,
www.kitchenaid.com; $1,230) and the
g2microven (Whirlpool, 800/253-1301,
www.whirlpool.com; price not yet available)
combine convection, broiling, and microwave functions in a
1.4-cubic-foot, single wall unit (Figure 7).
Figure 7.If it's got to be one or the other, you
can still get both with a combination convection and microwave
Just because you can doesn't mean
you should. A common, but not always advisable, option
is the microwave/vent-hood combination appliance, installed
above the cooktop. In effect, you're getting a downgrade in
blower performance, but that's not the worst of it -- imagine a
child on a stepstool groping for a microwave mini-pizza over a
spitting pan of bacon or a steaming pot. Keep safe use in