Microwaves have revolutionised the way that we prepare food at home. They allow us to reheat leftovers, thaw frozen food before cooking, and prepare ready-made meals. In many cases, they eliminate the need for traditional cooking entirely.
Like most kitchen appliances, a microwave begins to lose its efficacy once it reaches a certain age, as the wear-and-tear of daily cooking begins to take its toll. And like most kitchen appliances, a microwave will gradually be superseded by newer and better versions of the technology.
More important than either of these two considerations, however, is safety.
Are old microwaves dangerous? Should you be worried once your microwave reaches a certain age?
A microwave oven works by bombarding food with radiation – that might sound scary but it doesn’t cause us any harm, unless that radiation is leaking – but that’s not the only problem you might run into as your microwave ages. Let’s examine some of the symptoms an aging microwave might display, and consider whether each of them warrants a replacement.
A burning smell emanating from your microwave could indicate any number of things. If you’ve reheated food for too long it might burn and the smell may linger, but it won’t be an unpleasant smell. If your microwave smells like burned food, be sure to thoroughly clean the interior before examining other causes.
If you’re reading this article, then it’s likely that you’ll have encountered a more alarming odour: the smell of burning plastic is distinctive, and usually caused by a wire on the inside of the microwave channelling more current than it can handle, melting the insulating plastic.
This could cause radiation to leak, and that’s not good. If it’s happened to your microwave, it’s time to replace it.
It’s easy to become alarmed when a microwave produces sparks, but this phenomenon can actually be caused by a number of different things – and not all of them disastrous. The presence of metal inside the microwave might cause electric potential to build up, eventually arcing across the interior of the compartment in a brilliant flash. Check the interior of your microwave doesn’t contain any scraps of metal – however small – and that any dishes you’re using are microwave-proof.
Some older microwaves actually contain metal in the supporting rack, covered by a layer of insulating paint. If this paint wears out, the metal becomes exposed – causing the same problem.
Finally, the wave-guide cover on the side of the microwave might have been damaged, as the heat from the magnetron (the device which generates the actual microwaves) impacts tiny particles of food that might have caught on the surface. When the wave-guide cover becomes damaged, the result is almost always sparks. In this case, it’s possible to replace it inexpensively without throwing out the entire microwave. On the other hand, if a microwave has reached an age where it’s exhibiting these types of faults, then that’s usually evidence that a replacement is due.
Smoke can be caused by a number of different factors, including burning food stuck on to the interior of the microwave. That said, in order for burned-on food to produce smoke, a microwave would have to be absolutely filthy. Even if you clean your microwave and the problem stops, you’ll have no way of knowing for sure whether the solution is a permanent one. Electrical failures can cause symptoms like this, as high-voltage components in the interior of the microwave fail. An electrician might be able to fix the microwave, but a better solution is almost always a replacement.
The Door Doesn’t Shut Properly
A microwave door that won’t shut properly can cause one of two problems:
- The microwave will sense that the door isn’t properly shut and fail to work at all. That’s the best case scenario.
- The microwave will work as normal, except it will leak radiation into the surrounding area. Microwave burns will damage tissue from the inside, before you feel the heat of the burn, as microwave radiation will penetrate the skin instantly. You really don’t want this to happen.
Microwave doors often come equipped with not one, but several micro switches. These ensure that the door has been closed properly. If any of these fail, the microwave will stop working.
Food Doesn’t Cook Properly
Food that isn’t cooking properly is evidence that an internal component of the microwave – usually the magnetron – has failed. Replacing a device like this is quite straightforward for a qualified electrician but if the microwave is sufficiently old, then tracking down the appropriate component might prove tricky.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, opening up a microwave and poking around inside is a highly dangerous and possibly lethal thing to do. Microwaves contain gigantic capacitors that can shock even after the microwave has been unplugged from the wall, so don’t attempt it – no matter how many YouTube demonstration videos you’ve watched.
Eating out of a rusty tin can lead to severe health problems, as tiny particles of metal will break off and enter into the food you’re enjoying. The same applies when you food using a rusted microwave. If the rust is on the outside of the microwave, it probably won’t be a problem until it eats its way through the inner chamber. However, on the inside it can present a severe risk. If you notice it early you can intervene: clean the microwave and repaint the affected area with microwave paint. When rust inside your microwave progresses beyond a certain point, however, you’ll need to secure a replacement.
Replacing an older microwave with a superior modern one is usually so cheap that repairing is virtually always unfeasible. If you’re remotely concerned about the safety of your microwave, then it’s probably a sign that such a replacement is warranted.