For some high-income homeowners, microwaves are one of the first things they look to replace in their kitchens. Steam and speed ovens are two alternatives that provide many of the same functions as microwaves at a higher quality. There also is a growing preference for the appliance to be hidden.
For most other homeowners, microwaves remain an essential element of the kitchen. Over 344.7 million microwaves were sold in 2017 and 92% households own microwave ovens. Price is one reason why: Currently, speed and steam ovens range from $1,700 to $8,000, while microwave units cost in the hundreds, and even a microwave in a drawer can be had for less than $1,200.
Designers and remodelers across the country are finding new ways to integrate the appliance into kitchens. Karinne Heal, a design consultant in Florida, said homeowners with design in mind will opt for microwaves out of sight in either drawers, kitchen islands, or pantries.
Modifications like the microwave drawer are one of many options for homeowners who don’t want their microwave as a stand-alone appliance. The drawer microwave can be integrated in open floor plans, which typically don't have much wall space in their designs. While microwave drawers are more expensive than a typical microwave, they are currently less expensive than wholesale substitutes like steam or speed ovens.
A deterrent for the drawer microwave, however, is that the installations are often close to the floor making them both accessible to children and tough on the knees and backs of homeowners.
Another alternative to the traditional microwave that is gaining popularity with homeowners, especially on the west coast, is the speed oven, architect Michael Hennessey said. The speed oven is a smaller appliance with convection cooking and microwaving capabilities. Hennessey said the speed oven seamlessly fits into open design plans and can be more favorable to homeowners than microwave drawers because of the ability to place the speed oven at eye level. Hennessey said in many of the custom residential designs his company oversees, customers are opting for speed ovens rather than traditional microwaves.
One of the incentives for microwave alternatives are the improvement in quality. Austin Holsten, vice president of Richmond, Va., upscale appliance distributor E.A. Holsten, said that when children leave the home, the quality of food preparation can become more important than speed and replacing microwaves can become a more attractive option. E.A. Holsten mainly deals with high-end homeowners and Holsten said many of his company’s customers are happy to replace microwaves with another substitute, the steam oven, because of the quality of the product.
Dove Brown, a kitchen and bath designer for remodeling company OHi in Illinois, said many health-conscious homeowners are also opting for steam ovens rather than microwaves. However, Brown said most mainstream clients, ranging from young families to elderly homeowners, still prefer microwaves to the available alternatives. For most remodelers across the country, the majority of kitchen jobs still involve microwaves in some capacity. Microwaves are especially important for families with smaller children because of the convenience of reheating and food preparation.
Microwaves can serve six functions in the kitchen, Holsten said. Microwaves can reheat food, reheat coffee, melt food, pop popcorn, prepare vegetables, and prepare potatoes. Most homeowners primarily use the appliance for reheating food. Holsten said substitute products can perform many of the same functions as the microwave but noted that many homeowners are often reluctant to experiment with new ways of preparing food.
Additionally, in order for substitutes like the steam oven or speed oven to become more reasonable for a broader range of consumers, manufacturers would need to invest in more cost-effective production to drive down the cost of the appliances.
The Future of Microwaves?
While microwaves likely are not going anywhere for most homeowners, Jack Miller of Massachusetts-based Jack Miller Contractors said microwaves may have a smaller role than envisioned 20 years ago, when many expected the appliance to displace the range and oven. The continued innovation in microwaves, allowing the appliance to serve multiple different functions in the kitchen, led some remodelers to believe the microwave will remain essential to most kitchens. In addition to functional innovations, Daniel Bird of Tennessee-based remodeler The Dan Company said future microwave designs may begin to resemble contemporary dishwashers, with hidden controls and a clean face front.