02 February 2008

Microjive talkin' and some notes on ventilation

Like no other appliance that gets so little use in a typical home, the microwave oven gets a huge amount of attention when people are looking at new appliances. Yet a typical homeowner uses a microwave oven to boil water, make popcorn and reheat the occasional leftover.

However, this nearly useless appliance gets slapped up on a wall over the range in an attempt to make it good for something, namely ventilation. So now in addition to making chicken rubbery and unappealing it pushes a few puffs of stale air around. Over-the-range microwave ovens are lousy ventilation systems and placing them so high above the ground makes them uncomfortable to use as a cooking, or reheating, appliance. If you are considering a kitchen renovation in your future, for the love of God don't hang a microwave oven on the wall.

The dirty secret of the appliance world is that the microwave generator of nearly all microwave ovens sold in the US is made by the same company --Sharp Electronics. What this means in practical terms is that the $1100 microwave oven shown here is virtually identical to the $89 one on sale this weekend at Best Buy. At least so far as the microwave oven part of it goes. The $1100 one has an inefficient and ineffective blower motor in it that somehow explains the additional $1000 added to its price.

Any time I have the chance to undo this horrible crime against humanity and good taste (using an over-the-range microwave oven that is), I take the opportunity to bury one as inconspicuosly as I can. My take on kitchen design is that you should concentrate your expenditures on things that work and things you can see. In the photos here, I'm showing you two examples from kitchens I designed. In the kitchen with white, painted cabinets; I put the microwave oven inside the tall cabinet to the right of the range shown. In the cherry kitchen, the microwave is in the tall cabinet to the right of the photo. In each instance, the homeowners were water boilers as are most people. In each case too, we went to an appliance store and bought a counter top microwave oven for under a hundred dollars. At the time of the cabinetry installation, I had the electrician put an outlet inside of the tall cabinet and that was that.

Now, with the microwave oven safely out of the way we could concentrate on actual ventilation over the cooktop in the cherry kitchen and over the Wolf range in the painted kitchen (www.wolfappliance.com). The cherry kitchen has a 36" electric cooktop underneath it and the painted kitchen, a 48" Wolf dual fuel. An electric cook top doesn't generate the kind of radiant heat that gas does, so it doesn't need quite so powerful a blower over it. The primary function of kitchen ventilation is not to remove smoke and grease as you might think. Though they do that, what they are there for is to remove radiant heat from the room while you're cooking. A pro range cranks out a huge number of BTUs that need to go somewhere or they will increase the ambient temperature in your kitchen to the point of discomfort. The hood over the Wolf range in the painted kitchen is by Independent (www.kitchenhood.com) and it has a 1200 cfm blower motor in it. The motor is actually mounted on the roof so that the noise won't deafen anybody. The only sound that large hood makes is the whistle of the air through its grates on its way out of the house. The cherry kitchen has a cooktop, hood, double wall oven and refrigerator, all by Bosch (www.boschusa.com). An electric cooktop doesn't crank out the same heat as a gas one, and in this kitchen the hood has a 600 cfm blower inside of the hood itself. Parenthetically, the power of a ventilation system is measured in cfms, or cubic feet of air per minute moved by the blower motor.
In addition to freeing you from the bondage of looking like you got your kitchen renovation at Home Depot, not using an over-the-range microwave oven opens up a world of possibilities from an aesthetic point of view. The two kitchens I'm using as an example here used stainless steel chimney hoods. The painted kitchen in particular could have just as easily used a wood hood that matched her cabinetry. A cabinetry hood will make your kitchen look less like a professional kitchen, something a lot of people find appealing.
There are a nearly unlimited range of styles of both chimney and island hoods. A less costly option is to use an under-cabinet hood. An under-cabinet range hood like this one from Kitchen Aid has a powerful enough motor to be effective and it tucks up under the wall cabinets above a cooktop or range. Curiously enough, most building codes don't require that cooking appliances be ventilated. The codes kick in only after you decide to use ventilation. There are reams of rules regarding hood placement, so which one to buy and where to put it are decisions best left to a professional.
So the lesson? No more over-the-range microwave ovens! Bury them at any opportunity.

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