What Clearance is Required for Microwaves? Everything You Need to Know

No matter what type, microwaves require adequate clearance on all sides. If it is placed in a confined space with improper airflow, the motor could overheat, and the oven could break. Overheating also increases the fire hazard. But what is the right microwave oven clearance?

The ideal countertop microwave clearance is about 3 inches on all sides, 12 inches on top, and 1 inch at the rear. Built-in microwaves also require a similar clearance – in this case, the mounting and trim kit generally maintain the clearance. The proper over-the-range microwave clearance is at least 24 inches of clearance above the stovetop.

Why do Microwaves Need Space Around Them?

When buying a microwave oven, one of the most popular pieces of advice is to maintain the clearance on all sides.

The main reason microwaves need space around them for proper functioning. Like all electric appliances, microwave ovens have motors that generate cooking power. While cooking food, the microwave also generates steam.

Proper airflow around the unit prevents overheating, reducing the chance of malfunctions and the fire hazard.

Adequate clearance also allows the oven to expel steam properly.

In fact, your microwave oven will expel steam no matter where it is installed. If it is placed too close to a wall or cabinet, all that steam will condensate on the colder surface. Not only does it increase the chances of overheating, but all that moisture can penetrate the kitchen cabinets or the walls, leading to a range of problems.

Some of the most common issues include damp spots, swollen kitchen cabinets, peeling paint on walls, and mold and mildew issues.

How Much Clearance Do You Need Around a Microwave?

The amount of clearance needed around a microwave depends on your microwave type. There are three major types: over-the-range, countertop, and built-in microwaves.

Over-the-Range Microwaves

The most important thing to consider when installing an OTR microwave is the over the range microwave clearance code.

Generally, this is the same as the clearance code for the range hood – considering that OTR microwaves also have a range hood function: the stove needs a free space of at least 24 inches above the cooking surface. However, if your cooking appliance or microwave is not listed in the code, or the microwave or range’s manufacturer requires a different clearance, you might have to maintain a free space of at least 30 inches.

Note that some sources state that you could work with a clearance of only 18 inches; however, this wouldn’t comply with the code and your home might not pass an inspection.

Similar to built-in microwaves, the unit would also require around 3 inches of clearance on both sides, top, and 1 inch of rear clearance.

Countertop Microwaves

Countertop microwaves are designed to sit on a flat and hard surface, be it a countertop, table, a shelf, or even inside a cabinet that is large enough to provide sufficient clearance.

Talking about clearance, most manufacturers recommend leaving an empty space of at least 3 inches on the sides and 1 inch behind the microwave. You should also avoid covering the top with anything, including small appliances – most manufacturers require a clearance of at least 12 inches above the microwave.

The reason you should leave the top clear is that most countertop microwaves use top vents to prevent overheating and manage the steam build-up during cooking.

Built-In Microwaves

Built-in microwaves are designed to go inside a cabinet or a microwave drawer. They require similar clearance on side and rear as countertop microwaves, with the main difference that you can cover the top (a minimum clearance should be maintained, but the mounting brackets ensure that.

Generally, built-in microwaves use front vents to prevent overheating and release steam. Because of this, you can also install them under a shelf if you want a hanging microwave but don’t want to install it over a cooking range.

What is the Minimum Clearance for An Over The Tange Microwave?

As explained above, the minimum clearance between an OTR microwave oven and the stovetop is at least 24 inches, if both appliances are listed in the code, and the manufacturer doesn’t specify otherwise. If the appliances aren’t listed, or there are different requirements, the minimum clearance is 30 inches.

OTR microwave Installation Diagram
Photo: OTR microwave Installation Diagram

However, you don’t have to maintain this clearance for a hanging microwave that sits over a counter rather than a stovetop.

In this case, you can install the microwave at any height. However, considering that you might want to work comfortably on the counter, you should allow for a clear height of at least 18 inches over the counter. That’s around 54 inches above the floor, considering a standard floor cabinet height of 36 inches.

What is the Proper Distance to Separate a Microwave and Range top?

The proper distance between a microwave and range top is a distance that gives you plenty of space to cook while allowing the built-in range hood to work properly.

Typically, that’s 24 inches above the stovetop. A higher clearance might be required if the appliances aren’t approved for over-the-range applications or if your range requires more free space.

When maintaining the correct clearance, the bottom of the microwave might not align with the bottom edge of the other suspended cabinets, sitting slightly higher. This is normal and also applies to range hoods.

Other important safety clearance measurements microwaves should have?

In addition to the above, you should also consider a few other things when measuring the space for your new microwave:

  • Most units also need a front “clearance” of about 3 inches from the edge of the counter. This would let you open the door in all safety.
  • You should never place a microwave over or near a heat source, except for over-the-range microwave ovens.
  • Never place a countertop microwave inside a cabinet unless you have enough top clearance. You should never remove the microwave’s feet either just to make it fit in a space.
  • Never cover the top of a countertop microwave with items, including cookbooks, small appliances, decorative items, etc.
  • Always use appropriate mounting brackets and trim kits when installing a built-in microwave. These accessories are designed to help you maintain an adequate clearance.

How much space do you need around a microwave for ventilation?

Ventilation requirements can vary from microwave to microwave. Generally, about 3 inches of clearance on the sides (and top) and about an inch of rear clearance would suffice. However, your microwave might come with different recommendations. Always read the user manual before installing or placing your microwave on the countertop.

Where should you place your microwave in the kitchen?

Microwave placement often requires careful consideration. Here are a few things to consider:

Your kitchen size

Do you have plenty of counter space or is your kitchen rather small? An OTR microwave could be ideal for a small kitchen, replacing the range hood. A countertop unit might suit a larger kitchen, especially if you cook a lot and need a separate, more performing range hood.

Type of microwave

Do you want a standard microwave oven, a combi one, or a microwave with convection cooking? The latter is generally larger and might not be suitable for an over-the-range installation.

Situation

Where do you want to use the microwave? You can opt for any microwave type for your home. A built-in or over the range unit might be more suitable for an RV or tiny home. A countertop unit might be the only one you could use in a dorm.

Microwave in upper cabinet, how much clearance is needed?

It depends what sits under the microwave. If it’s the countertop, the minimum recommended clearance is 18 inches. You would need at least 24 inches of clearance for an over the range installation.

Do I really need 12 inches above the microwave?

Yes, you really need 12 inches of clearance above the microwave, if you have a countertop unit. This clearance is needed to avoid overheating and let the steam escape without damaging other appliances or surfaces.

Can I put the microwave near the stove?

No, you should never put a microwave near a stove (or another heat source), unless the microwave is designed for OTR installation. In this case, however, you should maintain the minimum clearance requirements according to the manufacturer and the code.

Can you put an over-the-range microwave above a stove?

Yes, you can put an over-the-range microwave above the stove, as long as the minimum distance between the two appliances is at least 24 inches.

Conclusion

The minimum clearance required for microwaves can differ between various microwave styles.

Generally, countertop microwaves require about 12 inches of clearance on top, 3 inches on the sides, and an inch of clearance at the rear. Built-in microwaves have similar requirements, except for the top clearance that is not needed.

OTR microwaves usually require at least 24 inches of clearance from the stovetop, 3 inches on the sides, and one inch at the rear. However, the rear clearance might be different if the microwave has external venting. No matter what microwave type you have, we hope this guide can help you install it properly.

About Justin Schwartz

Justin Schwartz is an experienced editor and food blogger based in New York. He focuses on healthy eating and living. When he’s not acquiring and publishing cookbooks, you can find Justin sampling food in New York’s restaurants or trying new recipes in his kitchen.

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