There are three styles of microwave ovens, the most common being portable models that can be placed on the counter, on a microwave stand or on a shelf in the kitchen area. The other two types include built-in models that are integrated within the cabinets and over-the-range microwaves.
Note that there are microwaves that have a second appliance within its design, such as a microwave and toaster unit or micro and coffee maker. These are not as common but are very convenient for tiny kitchens.
Since built-in microwaves are custom installs, this article touches slightly on those but looks mostly at the benefits and constraints of the two most popular types - the counter model and microwaves that are designed for installing above the range.
Portable Counter Microwaves
This is the most affordable kind of microwave oven to buy, though prices can vary depending on features and whether it has a convection cooking function. Versatile in terms of placement, this type of microwave offers the consumer the best variety when it comes to capacity, preset functions and other features, as well as easy, no-fuss installation. The only requirement is a handy plug-in.
While this is the most popular, a counter microwave does take a reasonable amount of counter space and that can be a problem for small kitchens. However, a counter microwave is the easiest when it comes to finding a replacement, since size is usually not a constraint but a matter of convenience.
While an over-the-range microwave oven may be the most stylish, it might not be the best microwave option for you for a number of reasons. This type of microwave is specially combined with a range hood/venting system that incorporates a lighting fixture. This multi unit is ideal for providing lighting and exhausting heat/fumes during cooking and many love this type mainly for these features.
Note that you cannot install a portable counter microwave directly above the stove. Only microwaves that are designed as above-the-range units can safely be placed there and they must be installed according to recommended safety guidelines and clearances. Complete installation guidelines are usually available from the manufacturer for each model of microwave.
This type of microwave does require some planning when it comes to installation. You need an electrical plug-in and in most cases, need to install venting to the exterior of the home. Note that there are some models that offer a simpler hook-up with or without venting. Depending on the level of difficulty and your handy person skills, you may or may not need to contract professional help with the install.
Over-the-range microwaves vary considerably in terms of pricing, brand, exhaust system and lighting features. Most of these microwaves have smaller (and limited) capacities and some have less variety in terms of features and preset functions.
The most important thing you should consider for this type of microwave is the ease of access. For short people, access is extremely difficult, if not impossible. With a cooktop in full use, you have a limited area to set the hot dish after removing it from the microwave.
Access for children for heating left-overs or making popcorn is also difficult or impossible and could be hazardous should someone be cooking on the stovetop. Range hoods do need occasional cleaning, but when combined with a microwave, they are usually lower in proximity to the stove's cooktop and that means more grease splatters and more cleaning.
Replacing an over-the-range microwave might also prove troublesome given the limited capacity constraints and should one part of the multi function appliance cease to work, the whole unit might need to be replaced.
You can't beat the style though and the fact that you save the counter space for much-needed workspace and food prep area. Prices vary for this type of microwave, but there are many nice models in the lower price range.
Though not as common, the built-in microwave looks awesome because it integrates completely within the cabinetry. This requires much planning when cabinets are installed in new or renovated kitchens. Custom-installed microwaves are more costly, require professional installation and offer less variety in terms of brand, capacity and features. The biggest constraint with this type of microwave besides price, is finding an appropriate replacement, should the need arise.
How Do You Decide Which Microwave to Buy?
If you have ample space in the kitchen and can place a portable unit on a shelf, microwave stand or right on the counter, this is the most affordable, easiest to place and provides the best access. This is the best choice for those who are short, for kids, or those who like an easy access to the microwave. It's also the better option for those who move a lot and don't want to have to replace this handy appliance every time they relocate.
For those who want an exhaust fan above the stove and really need the extra lighting, have no problem with the higher access, installing an over-the-range microwave is a good option. Look for a microwave that blends well in terms of finish and styling with your range and other kitchen appliances, for the best overall look.
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