Microwave ovens offer one of the most energy-efficient ways to cook food, but like any cooking method, there are some safety issues to consider. I’ve already written about how to choose a safe microwave oven, including a look at who regulates microwave ovens and how to use a microwave oven safely. This time, I’ll look at some known safety issues with microwaves, the brands you might want to avoid, and the safest microwaves for 2019.
Microwaves to avoid, reconsider, and an extra safeguard
In general, Electrolux over the range (OTR) microwaves seem to develop more problems than most other brands and don’t perform quite as well, heating food unevenly and such. Broken controls and problems with doors closing could lead to increased exposure to microwaves, a higher risk of damage to the microwave and other possible safety issues, not to mention the environmental impact of poor longevity.
Samsung OTR microwaves also seem to have an issue with controls not working properly, while Jenn-Air models don’t always heat food evenly.
As for countertop microwave models, RCA, Frigidaire, and Electrolux (again) seem to perform poorly, while Whirlpool microwaves also have performance and reliability issues and have been subject to safety recalls for catching fire.
The KitchenAid KHMS155LSS, made by Whirlpool, was at the center of a firestorm (literally) just over a decade ago after multiple reports surfaced of this microwave turning itself on and sparking fires.
Microwave oven safety recalls
In 2016, Whirlpool had to recall around 15,200 microwaves due to fire hazards. Five reports, including one house fire, two fires involving surrounding cabinetry, one of smoke and one of a burning smell led to investigations of the microwaves. They found that the affected models ‘arced’, i.e. sparked, igniting a piece of plastic inside the appliance. The 10 affected models were in the WHM53520 series and WM73521 series. Whirlpool took steps to address the concerns by developing door-monitoring software that prevents a microwave from turning on if the door has not been opened in the past 5 minutes.
There are also some reports of the GE JES1072SHSS catching fire, although there’s not enough concern with this one to spark a recall, and many people seem to use it without issue. More than two dozen cases have been filed with SaferProducts.gov citing instances where GE Spacemaker over-the-range microwaves self-started, caught fire, or had issues with shattering glass or running even when the door was open. The GE JES1460DSBB is another GE model to avoid as this one has a really flimsy door that seems unlikely to stand up to much use and may, therefore, pose a higher risk of leaking radiation.
Samsung have also had a recall alert from the CPSC. This time, the issue was not fire but electric shock potential, thanks to a risk of a bolt touching a wire and making the microwave shell ‘live’. All SMH9151x models produced from January through May 2009 were recalled, amounting to some 43,000 units. So, if you move into an apartment with an old Samsung, Whirlpool, KitchenAid, or GE microwave, check the unit number against the recall lists.
There are also a few reports of the Toshiba-EC042A5C-SS getting very hot to the touch, but not spontaneously sparking or catching on fire. Despite this microwave having a lot of great reviews, this tendency to get hot may make it one to avoid if you have a tight space for the microwave and/or tend to store things on or beside the appliance (not recommended!), or if you have kids or vulnerable adults in the home.
Speaking of kids and other vulnerable people, it’s worth noting that no microwave is guaranteed to be safe, so here are some other precautions to take.
While researching this piece for Leaf Score, I confess, I went and unplugged the microwave languishing in the corner of my kitchen. I don’t use this more than once or twice a month, so it was wasting energy anyway, but the reports of self-starting made me look a little differently at this machine that was here when I moved into the house last year.
So, consider this your timely reminded that accidents happen and even proper use of the microwave could inadvertently cause a fire. If you’re concerned about the risk of self-starts, arcing and sparking, consider unplugging the microwave whenever it’s not in use.
You might also want to consider installing the Safe T Sensor. This product plugs into your electrical outlet and your microwave plugs into the sensor, allowing the sensor to interrupt power to the microwave oven at the first sign of smoke. You can also take the step of simply unplugging the microwave when it’s not in use, and never letting the microwave run unattended (as with any cooking appliance).
The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) reports 6,700 average house fires annually caused by microwave ovens between 2011 and 2015, resulting in 10 deaths, 120 injuries, and $33 million in property damage every year. Per fire, there was an average financial loss of $4,900. So, spending a little more on a better quality microwave and some batteries for your smoke alarm, plus a Safe T Sensor, seems like a bargain in comparison.
Other ways to stay safe include registering your microwave with the manufacturer, so you can be informed of any recalls or safety issues. Know where the unit is plugged in and how to cut the electricity supply should there be any problems with the microwave. It’s also a good idea to have a multipurpose fire extinguisher close by and to make sure everyone who might use it knows how to use it safely.
Choosing a safe microwave
Microwaves are typically a heck of a lot cheaper than an oven range, dishwasher, or refrigerator, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think hard about where to spend your money. Getting a subpar microwave may mean you have to tear it out from over your range, get it repaired, or even replace it after a short time. This isn’t good for you bank balance or for the environment, even if you do take your old microwave to be recycled.
Finding a microwave that is reliable, performs well, and meets or exceeds safety standards is best. How do you do that? Here’s a checklist to get your started:
- Check for the safety certificates that come with most microwaves
- Look for safety recalls as listed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
- Run a quick search online for any known safety issues with any model you’re considering
- Look specifically for reviews mentioning issues with door seals and locking, or other safety concerns.
Top tip – if you buy or acquire a microwave secondhand, check the CPSC for any safety recalls!
My other top tip is to look for a microwave with a ‘delay start’ feature. This is a way of ‘safety-hacking’ your microwave to get it to start after you’ve already stepped away from the unit. Yes, it takes a little more programming, but all you need to do is make sure the clock is set, then set the oven to start cooking a minute after the current time. Press ‘start’, then step away to a safe distance (at least 50 cm). Don’t be tempted to use this feature to set the microwave to start cooking while you’re out of the room, though. Unattended cooking appliances are the number one cause of home fires, so always monitor your microwave when it’s in use.
One last thing to note: when choosing a microwave, consider the likelihood that you’ll move house in the next few years. Why? Because built-in and over-the-range microwaves are much harder to relocate, compared to a countertop model. Also, countertop models generally have better ventilation potential, reducing the risk of overheating and damage to cabinetry, or a full-on housefire.
The most reliable, high-performing, safest microwave ovens
At Leaf Score we’re concerned both with safety and with the environment. As such, it’s maddening that the average lifespan of a microwave has dropped by nearly seven years over the last 20 years – from more than a decade to six-eight years – according to a report out of the University of Manchester, UK. By 2020, 16 million microwaves are expected to be discarded each year and barely any of the embedded value in these machines will be reclaimed.
The same report also noted that microwave use in the European Union is responsible for the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of two coal-powered power plants every year. The best way to reduce such emissions is to use microwaves more effectively, including choosing shorter cooking times rather than blasting food unnecessarily.
So, consider safety, reliability, and performance when choosing you new microwave, and make sure to take your old microwave to a local recycling depot where possible.
The best microwave brands
In all honesty, after days of research, there’s very little to distinguish any particular brand from another when it comes to microwave ovens. Almost all brands have their ardent fans and their passionate detractors. Looking at research from Consumer Reports, Wirecutter, Ethical Consumer, and a range of other professional review sites suggests a few top brands, however.
Panasonic and Toshiba feature time and again in lists of top picks, which is unsurprising given the sheer number of happy customers who love their microwaves from these brands. Panasonic offer a range of sizes, while Toshiba seem to specialize in more compact microwaves.
Other brands to look out for include Black & Decker, a company I also favor for lawn mowers because of their environmental policies. Miele are a top pick in terms of ethics, but are a high end brand with a price out of the range of most consumers.
Frigidaire, Hotpoint, Kenmore, and Ikea (yes!) are arguably the best bet for an OTR microwave as these seem to be more reliable and perform well. I also like Ikea’s ever-improving approach to sustainability and environmental awareness.
For countertop models, the best options seem to be those from Avanti and Farberware, both of which seem reliable and perform well.
Before I give you my top picks for microwave ovens, take a moment to consider the size of microwave you might need. Most countertop microwaves range from around 0.5 cubic feet (which can fit most 10-inch dinner plates) to just over 2 cubic feet (which may accommodate plates with a 15-inch diameter). For most homes, a microwave with 1-2 cu. ft. is more than enough. And, the more power and more capacity, the more resources and electricity your microwave will use and the more space it takes up in your kitchen.
Without further ado, here are my recommendations for the best microwave ovens for big families, couples or medium-sized families, and for smaller families, individuals, or folks with tiny kitchens.
Best for big families
Panasonic Microwave Oven NN-SN966S Stainless Steel Countertop/Built-In with Inverter Technology and Genius Sensor, 2.2 Cu. Ft, 1250W
External dimensions (H x W x D): 14 x 23-7/8 x 19-7/16 inches
Internal dimensions (H x W x D): 10.94 x 18.44 x 18.50 inches
Capacity: 2.2 cu. ft.
Turntable: 16.5 inch diameter
The Panasonic NN-SN966S Stainless Steel Microwave is a high-powered, high-capacity (but relatively compact!) microwave that’s perfect for big families or anyone who loves cooking bigger items. It can work as a countertop unit or a built-in, offers 1250 W of power, and has 2.2 cubic feet of space in a pretty small footprint. This is thanks to clever design with less space used for electronics and more space dedicated to interior capacity. This attention to detail also helps make the unit lighter than similarly sized models.
This Panasonic microwave also features inverter technology, meaning a constant stream of energy rather than the pulsing on-off at lower temperatures seen with most microwaves. This enables more even cooking, especially for foods that need to simmer or melt slowly.
The Genius Sensor helps gauge when food is properly cooked or defrosted and minimizes guesswork. It does this by measuring steam output and modulating power and cooking time accordingly. This could be said to be a safety feature, helping to prevent you from accidentally overcooking or superheating whatever you put in the microwave. There are also 14 autocook options that are intuitive and varied.
The stainless steel door and base, and stainless silver body makes for a sleek design that is easy to keep clean and rust-free. This model is available with a dial or touch-button control panel and has a whopping 16.5 inch turntable, so you can fit even large dinner plates and a full pizza!
As for safety, this microwave has an easy-to-use delay start, allowing you to set a countdown timer before the oven starts, so you can step away to a safe distance to minimize radiation exposure. This popular GE microwave offers the same delay start feature and the same 2.2 cu. ft. capacity but costs quite a bit more and takes up a lot more counter space.
One other safety feature worth mentioning for the Panasonic microwave, which tends to be absent on other microwave ovens, is the child-safe door. Instead of pushing a single button or pulling a handle, to open this microwave you’ll need to press a button first and then open the door. Some users may find this annoying, but I think it’s a great feature to help prevent kids or other vulnerable people from getting scalded or burnt by hot food and beverages.
There’s also a child-lock feature to prevent the microwave being turned on accidentally. For most Panasonic models with this feature, press the “Stop” button three times and the “CHILD LOCK” will be turned off. To activate the “CHILD LOCK” feature, press the “Start” button three times.
The Panasonic also complies with 2016 DOE Energy Conservation Standards and is arguably the best high-capacity, high-powered microwave oven around.
Best for mid-size families and couples
Panasonic Countertop Microwave Oven with Genius Sensor Cooking, Quick 30sec, Popcorn Button, Child Safety Lock and 1100 Watts of Cooking Power – NN-SU696S – 1.3 cu. ft (Stainless Steel)
External dimensions (H x W x D): 12 3/8 x 20 7/16 x 16 inch
Internal dimensions (H x W X D): 9 13/16 x 13 13/16 x 15 3/16 inch
Turntable: 13.4 inch diameter
Once again, Panasonic get my top rating for safest microwave oven, this time for mid-size families and couples. This is because their NN-SU696S model has all the safety features of the larger 2.2 cu. ft. model with just a little less power (1100 W) and a little less capacity (1.3 cu. ft.).
This smaller Panasonic model has 7 preset autocook settings, a 13.4 inch diameter turntable, +30 second cooktime, a keep warm feature, and the child safety lock and delay start and timer.
Again, the Panasonic takes up a lot less counter space than models with similar capacity and power, and even a little less than a lower powered, smaller capacity competitor (see Farberware below). It also performs to a high level, offers great reliability, and has the same Genius Sensor as the larger model, meaning you’re far less likely to accidentally undercook, overcook or set fire to your food.
Farberware FMO11AHTBKD 1.1 Cu. Ft. 1000-Watt Microwave Oven with LED Lighting, Cubic Feet, White/Platinum
External dimensions (H x W x D): 12 x 20.2 x 16.9 inches
Internal dimensions: 9.1 x 13.9 x 14.5 inches
Turntable: 12.4 inch diameter
The Farberware Classic FMO11AHTPLB is a 1.1 cu. ft. capacity microwave with 1000 W of power that offers 10 power levels and 6 preset cooking settings. Available in stainless steel, this microwave can handle express cooking, multi-stage cooking, defrosting, and has a kitchen timer. With a strong reputation for reliability and performance, this microwave also lets you save your favorite cooking programs for quick use.
The control panel is simple, clear, and easy to use. It offers 1-6-minute express cook buttons and can defrost based on time or weight. There’s a handy +30 seconds button, and multi-stage cooking option so you can cook without needing to interrupt and reset.
The rotating glass turntable is removal for easy cleaning and for times when rotation isn’t required or cookware won’t quite fit if rotated (such as a glass lasagna pan). There’s also a 1-year warranty and a keypad lock to prevent accidental use.
The reliability, clear labelling, and ease of use, as well as the keypad lock make this microwave a good choice for safety. However, the Panasonic model that takes up around the same amount of counter space offers far more safety features and better performance and all for the same price for the stainless steel model. If you do a lot of microwave cooking and tend to over- or undercook your food in the microwave, consider spending an extra $17 or so to get the higher capacity Farberware below, with inverter technology and Smart Sensor.
Farberware FMO16AHTBSA 1300-Watt Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor and Inverter Technology, 1.6 Cubic Foot
Exterior dimensions (H x W x D): 12.84 x 21.77 x 19.17 inches
Interior dimensions (H x W x D): 10.24 x 15.51 x 17.05 inches
Turntable: 13.6 inches diameter
Capacity: 1.6 cu. ft.
Farberware also offer a slightly larger 1.6 cu. ft. capacity, 1300 W model with inverter technology for continuous energy output and Smart Sensor technology. This one is an Amazon Choice inverter microwave oven with excellent reviews and is a great option if you do a lot of microwave cooking and could do with a helping hand to prevent overcooking or undercooking food.
This Farberware microwave has an energy saver mode for when the microwave isn’t in use, offers a 1-3 minute instant start function, a +30 seconds button, 10 power control levels, defrost function, and a memory function so you can save your favorite cooking settings for ease of use. There’s also a multi-stage function to adjust cooking level mid-cycle without any need for you to reprogram. And there are six one-touch preset cooking buttons for popular foods.
The LED display is clear and buttons are clearly labeled, the interior is easy to keep clean, meaning your microwave will likely work better for longer, and there’s a child safety lock function.
It’s a shame that this microwave doesn’t have a delay start feature, unlike the Panasonics, and it’s also worth noting that this model takes up a lot of counterspace, especially compared to the streamlined Panasonic microwaves. So, if space is at a premium, don’t try to squeeze in the Farberware. You may end up obstructing the vents, causing a safety issue. Instead, get a Panasonic!
Best for singles, dorm rooms, and small spaces
Panasonic Microwave Oven NN-SD372S Stainless Steel Countertop/Built-In with Inverter Technology and Genius Sensor, 0.8 Cu. Ft, 950W
External dimensions (H x W x D): 11 x 19-3/16 x 14-13/16 inches
Internal dimensions (H x W x D): 8 1/8 x 12 3/8 x 13 7/8 inches
Turntable: 11.25 inch diameter
In danger of sounding like a broken record, one of the best options for a safe microwave for dorm rooms, small spaces, the office, or those who mainly use their microwave for mug cakes is… a Panasonic. The NN-SD372S is a 0.8 cu. ft., 950 W model with the Genius Sensor and inverter technology that make this brand a go-to for microwave ovens in any size.
This one features the same delay start function as the larger models. As such, you can set your cook-time and then step away from the microwave to almost entirely eliminate the risk of radiation exposure. It also has a child safety lock feature, turbo defrost, quick minute timer, preset menu items, and easy power adjustment.
And, again, Panasonic devote more space to the internal capacity of the microwave than to the electronics, so this countertop microwave boasts an 11.25-inch turntable but takes up a lot less space than the similarly powered and sized Toshiba and almost the same space as the much lower powered Black & Decker.
Toshiba EM925A5A-BS Microwave Oven with Sound On/Off ECO Mode and LED Lighting, 0.9 Cu.ft, 900W
External dimensions (H x W x D): 11.5 x 19.2 x 15.9 inches
Internal dimensions (H x W x D): 8.7 x 12.36 x 13.66 inches
Capacity: 0.9 cu. ft.
Turntable 10.6 inch(diameter)
The Toshiba EM925A5A is a small but mighty microwave oven with a lot of happy customers. Available in white or black stainless steel, this 0.9 cu. ft. model offers 900 W of power, looks great, and fits nicely into even the smallest kitchen.
This microwave is a really good choice for single folks and anyone who doesn’t need a high-powered, high-capacity microwave but wants a reliable, well-designed model. Toshiba also have a reputation for excellent customer care, so if anything does go wrong, chances are they’ll get it fixed.
Downsides for the Toshiba include no ‘delay start’ function, but the advantages are a small footprint, low energy requirement and eco mode, quiet operation, ability to turn off the beeping sounds, and low price. The door handle is also large and easy to use and the microwave only weighs 27.3 lbs, making it a breeze to relocate or mount in your kitchen.
This model also offers 10 power settings, 6 pre-programmed settings, kitchen timer, and the ability to defrost by time or weight.
Other things I like about this one are the care and attention paid to packaging the microwave to avoid damage in transit. The buttons are also large and labelled clearly, making it much easier to use in low light or if your eyesight isn’t great.
One thing to note is the continued operation of the fan even after the magnetron has turned off. This can spook some users into thinking the microwave is still running even after they’ve opened the door. Toshiba customer service note that the fan continues to run after microwave production has ceased in proportion to cooking time. So, if you just ran the microwave for 10 seconds, the fan will continue to run for another 30 seconds. For more than 10 minutes of cooking time, the fan will run for another 3 minutes to cool down the unity. Rather than being a concern, this is a great safety feature to help prevent the microwave overheating and becoming damaged.
All in all, the Toshiba EM925A5A-BS is also a great little microwave for the countertop as it is easy to use, heats food evenly, and offers one-touch buttons for specific cooking requirements. With this model you can also mute button sounds, which is ideal if you have noise sensitive folks in your family or are trying to have a sneaky midnight snack without waking anyone up.
If space is at such a premium that even the Toshiba won’t fit, consider the Black & Decker microwave oven below.
BLACK+DECKER EM720CB7 Digital Microwave Oven, 0.7 cu. ft., 700W
External dimensions (H x W x D): 10. 2 x 17. 3 x 13. 0 inches
Internal dimensions (H x W x D): 8.11 x 12.05 x 11.97 inches
Turntable: 10 inches
Capacity: 0.7 cu. ft.
Black & Decker’s EM720CB7 Digital Microwave Oven is an affordable and high-performing microwave from a brand with excellent environmental policies and a strong reputation. This 0.7 cu. ft. capacity microwave offers 700 W of power and features a child safety lock and 10 power settings, with a close and kitchen timer. There’s also a 30 seconds express cooking option and six pre-programmed settings for various foods and drinks.
This microwave has a push button door, making access easy, and also features a large LED digital display and clearly labeled control panel. The interior light makes it easy to see how your food is doing, and the removable 10 inch turntable offers flexibility if you need to use rectangular cookware that wouldn’t work with the rotation feature.
This microwave also weighs just 25.4 pounds and is just 10.2 inches high, 13 inches deep, and 17.3 inches wide, making it super easy to relocate and to mount to keep counter space clear.
To use the child safety lock, press and hold the Stop/Cancel button for three seconds (there’ll be a long beep). To unlock, press and hold the Start button for three seconds.
An Amazon Choice for compact microwaves, the Black & Decker costs just $74.99 and is shipped free in the US. It is a dash smaller than the Toshiba, with a little less power and a little less capacity. Both seem to perform well, but the Black & Decker does seem to suffer a little from its lack of heft, in that the microwave may move when you push the button to open the door. This is easily cured by putting a rubber shelf liner beneath the unit or cutting up a liner to put under the oven’s feet.
The other thing differentiating the Black & Decker from the Toshiba is noise. While both seem to operate quite quietly, the Black & Decker is a chirpy machine, with lots of beeps that can’t be disabled. The Toshiba beeps a lot less in general and has the option of a silent mode. In terms of safety, beeps can be very helpful, but for the noise sensitive, the Toshiba definitely wins.