Notes on the Troubleshooting and Repair of Microwave Ovens
Copyright (c) 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction of this document in whole or in part is permitted if both of the following conditions are satisfied:
Radar Range anyone? ------------------ Remember when you actually had to use the real oven to defrost a TV dinner? Think back - way back - before VCRs, before PCs (and yes, before Apple computers as well), almost before dinosaurs, it would seem. There was a time when the term 'nuke' was not used for anything other than bombs and power reactors. For a long time, there was controversy as to whether microwave ovens were safe - in terms of microwave emissions and molecular damage to the food. Whether these issues have been resolved or just brushed aside is not totally clear. Nonetheless, the microwave oven has taken its place in virtually every kitchen on the planet. Connoisseurs of fine dining will turn up their collective noses at the thought of using a microwave oven for much beyond boiling water - if that. However, it is difficult to deny the convenience and cooking speed that is provided by this relatively simple appliance. Microwave ovens are extremely reliable devices. There is a good chance that your oven will operate for 10 years or more without requiring repairs of any kind - and at performance levels indistinguishable from when it was first taken out of the box. Unlike other consumer electronics where a new model is introduced every 20 minutes - some even have useful improvements - the microwave oven has not changed substantially in the last 20 years. Cooking is cooking. Touchpads are now nearly universal because they are cheaper to manufacture than mechanical timers (and also more convenient). However, an old microwave oven will heat foods just as well as a brand new one. This document provides maintenance and repair information applicable to most of the microwave ovens in existence. It will enable you to quickly determine the likely cause and estimate the cost of parts. You will be able to make an informed decision as to whether a new oven is the better alternative. With minor exceptions, specific manufacturers and models will not be covered as there are so many variations that such a treatment would require a huge and very detailed text. Rather, the most common problems will be addressed and enough basic principles of operation will be provided to enable you to narrow the problem down and likely determine a course of action for repair. In many cases, you will be able to do what is required for a fraction of the cost that would be charged by a repair center - or - be able to revive something that would otherwise have gone into the dumpster or continued in its present occupation as a door stop or foot rest. Should you still not be able to find a solution, you will have learned a great deal and be able to ask appropriate questions and supply relevant information if you decide to post to sci.electronics.repair. In any case, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you did as much as you could before taking it in for professional repair. You will be able to decide if it is worth the cost of a repair as well. With your new-found knowledge, you will have the upper hand and will not easily be snowed by a dishonest or incompetent technician.
Microtech maintains a web site with a large amount of information on microwave oven repair including an on-line Tech Tips Database with hundreds of solutions to common problem for many models of microwave ovens. There are also an extensive list of microwave oven related links to other interesting sites (including this document!). The comprehensive Safety Info is a must read as well. Microtech also offers instructional videos and books on microwave oven and VCR repair. It is quite possible your problem is already covered at the Microtech site. In that case, you can greatly simplify your troubleshooting or at least confirm a diagnosis before ordering parts. My only reservation with respect to tech tips databases in general - this has nothing to do with Microtech in particular - is that symptoms can sometimes be deceiving and a solution that works in one instance may not apply to your specific problem. Therefore, an understanding of the hows and whys of the equipment along with some good old fashioned testing is highly desirable to minimize the risk of replacing parts that turn out not to be bad.
The MIDES (Microwave Oven Diagnosis Expert System) site represents an interesting and possibly useful approach for isolating the cause of many common failures. It will take you through a customized step-by-step procedure based on your symptoms (and specific microwave oven model in some cases) and the results of its suggested tests. For the novice, this may be an effective way of obtaining a solution quickly as long as you follow the extremely important safety information provided by MIDES (or this document). You will not be forced to acknowledge that you have read, understood, and followed their safety precautions and warnings before performing each test.
* Bad interlocks switches or door misalignment causing fuses to blow or no operation when the start button is pressed. Locate and replace defective switches and/or realign door. * Arcing in oven chamber: clean oven chamber and waveguide thoroughly. Replace carbonized or damaged waveguide cover. Smooth rough metal edges. Touch up the interior paint. * Blown fuse due to power surge or old age: Replace fuse. On rare occasions, the main fuse may even be intermittent causing very strange symptoms. * Erratic touchpad operation due to spill - let touchpad dry out for a week. * Bugs in the works - the controller circuit board is a nice warm safe cozy place to raise a family..... More detailed explanations are provided elsewhere in this document.
With small to medium size microwave ovens going for $60-100 it hardly makes sense to spend $60 to have one repaired. Even full size microwave ovens with full featured touchpanel can be had for under $200. Thus, replacement should be considered seriously before sinking a large investment into an older oven. However, if you can do the repair yourself, the equation changes dramatically as your parts costs will be 1/2 to 1/4 of what a professional will charge and of course your time is free. The educational aspects may also be appealing. You will learn a lot in the process. Many problems can be solved quickly and inexpensively. Fixing an old microwave for the dorm room may just make sense after all.
To assure safety and convenient, follow these recommendations: * Read your users manual from cover to cover especially if this is your first microwave. What a concept! If nothing else, you may discover that your oven has features you were not aware were even possible. In any case, there may be requirements or suggestions that are specific to your model and will enable you to get the most performance from your new microwave. * Select a stand-alone unit rather than a built-in if possible. It will be cheaper to buy, cheaper and easier to service, and possibly more reliable since ventilation and adjacent heat producing appliances will not be as much of a factor. * Select a convenient location - easy access and not too high or too low. This is particularly important if the door of the oven opens down instead of to the left side (only a few models are built this way, however). * Put the microwave oven on its own dedicated 3 wire grounded circuit. Temporary use of a 3 to 2 prong adapter is acceptable only if the outlet box is properly grounded to begin with (BX, Romex, or conduit with ground). Make sure the outlet is in good condition in either case. Check that the plug (or adapter) fits tightly and that there is no appreciable heating of the outlet during use of the microwave oven. If there is, spread the metal strips of each of the prongs apart if possible and/or replace the outlet. A grounded outlet is essential for safety. Microwave ovens are high power devices and a separate circuit will eliminate nuisance fuse blowing or circuit breaker tripping when multiple appliances are being used at the same time. It will also minimize the possibility of Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) between it and any electronic equipment which might be on the same circuit. A GFCI is not needed as long as the outlet is properly grounded and may result in nuisance tripping with some microwave ovens. Inexpensice outlet testers are available at hardware stores, home centers, and electrical parts distributors, to confirm that the outlet is properly wired and grounded. * Allow adequate ventilation - do not push it up against the wall or wedge it under a tight fitting wall cabinet (or inside one for that matter!). Leave at least 2 inches on all sides and top if possible. * Do not let children use the microwave oven unless properly supervised. It is very easy to cause a fire through the use of excessive times or power settings. Even something as simple as microwave popcorn can explode and/or catch fire if heated for too long - e.g., 5 minutes instead of my precisely determined 3:41 on high :-).
Most people do not do anything to maintain a microwave oven. While not much is needed, regular cleaning at least will avoid potentially expensive repairs in the future: * Clean the interior of the oven chamber after use with a damp cloth and some detergent if necessary. Built up food deposits can eventually carbonize resulting in sparks, arcs, heating, and damage to the mica waveguide cover and interior paint - as well as potentially more serious damage to the magnetron. If there is any chance of food deposits having made their way above the waveguide cover in the roof of the chamber, remove the waveguide cover and thoroughly clean inside the waveguide as well. * Clean the exterior of the cabinet and touchpad in a similar manner. DO NOT use a spray where any can find its way inside through the door latch or ventilation holes, or a dripping wet cloth. Be especially careful around the area of the touchpad since liquid can seep underneath resulting in unresponsive or stuck buttons or erratic operation. Do not use strong solvents (though a bit of isopropyl alcohol is fine if needed to remove sticky residue from unwanted labels, for example). * Inspect the cord and plug for physical damage and to make sure the plug is secure and tight in the outlet - particularly if the unit is installed inside a cabinet (yes, I know it is difficult to get at but I warned you about that!). Heat, especially from a combination microwave/convection oven or from other heat producing appliances can damage the plug and/or cord. If there is evidence of overheating at the outlet itself, the outlet (and possibly the plug as well) should be replaced. * Periodically check for built up dust and dirt around the ventilation holes or grills. Clean them up and use a vacuum cleaner to suck up loose dust. Keeping the ventilation free will minimize the chance of overheating. * Listen for any unusual sounds coming from inside the oven. While these appliances are not exactly quiet, grinding, squealing, scraping, or other noises - especially if they were not there when the oven was new - may indicate the need for some more extensive maintenance like belt replacement or motor lubrication. Attending to these minor problems now may prevent major repairs in the future. * Keep your kitchen clean. Yes, I know, this isn't exactly microwave specific but cockroaches and other uninvited guests might just like to take up residence inside the electronics bay of the oven on the nice warm controller circuit board or its neighborhood and they aren't generally the tidiest folks in the world. If it is too late and you have a recurring problem of cockroaches getting inside the electronics bay, tell them to get lost and then put window screen over the vents (or wherever they are entering). Such an open mesh should not affect the cooling of the electronic components significantly. However, the mesh will likely clog up more quickly than the original louvers so make sure it is cleaned regularly. If possible, clean up whatever is attracting the unwanted tenants (and anything they may have left behind including their eggs!!). WARNING: See the section: "SAFETY" before going inside. CAUTION: Do not spray anything into the holes where the door latch is inserted or anywhere around the touchpad as this can result in internal short circuits and costly damage - or anywhere else inside, for that matter. If you do this by accident, immediately unplug the oven and let it dry out for a day or two.
You have probably been warned by your mother: "Wait a few seconds (or minutes) after the beep for all the microwaves to disappear". There is no scientific basis for such a recommendation. Once the beep has sounded (or the door has opened), it is safe. This is because: 1. There is no such thing as residual microwave radiation from a microwave oven - it is either being produced or is non-existent. 2. There is little energy storage in the microwave generator compared to the amount being used. The typical high voltage capacitor - the only component that can store energy - has a capacity of less than 15 W-s (Watt-seconds) even for the largest ovens. Power consumption is typically 800 to 1500 W depending on oven size. Therefore, the capacitor will be fully drained in much less than .1 second - long before the beep has ended or the door has cleared the front panel. (Based on the numbers, above, for a 1500 W oven with a capacitor storing 15 W-s, it is more like .01 seconds!) WARNING: This only applies to a *working* microwave oven! If there is no heat, the magnetron may not be drawing any current from the HV power supply and the HV capacitor can remain charged for a long time. In this case, there is a very real risk of potentially lethal electrical shock even after several minutes or more of being unplugged! See the section: "SAFETY" if you will be troubleshooting a microwave oven.
WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! Microwave ovens are probably the most dangerous of consumer appliances to service. Very high voltages (up to 5000 V) at potentially very high currents (AMPs) are present when operating - deadly combination. These dangers do not go away even when unplugged as there is an energy storage device - a high voltage capacitor - that can retain a dangerous charge for a long time. If you have the slightest doubts about your knowledge and abilities to deal with these hazards, replace the oven or have it professionally repaired. Careless troubleshooting of a microwave oven can not only can fry you from high voltages at relatively high currents but can microwave irradiate you as well. When you remove the metal cover of the microwave oven you expose yourself to dangerous - potentially lethal - electrical connections. You may also be exposed to potentially harmful levels of microwave emissions if you run the oven with the cover off and there is damage or misalignment to the waveguide to the oven chamber. There is a high voltage capacitor in the microwave generator. Always ensure that it is totally discharged before even thinking about touching or probing anything in the high voltage power circuits. See the troubleshooting sections later in this document. To prevent the possibility of extremely dangerous electric shock, do not operate the oven with the cover off if at all possible. If you must probe live, remove the connections to the magnetron (see below) to prevent the inadvertent generation of microwaves except when this is absolutely needed during troubleshooting. Discharge the high voltage capacitor and then use clip leads to make any connections before you apply power to the oven. The microwave oven circuitry is especially hazardous because the return for the high voltage is the chassis - it is not isolated. In addition, the HV may exceed 5000 V peak with a continuous current rating of over .25 AMP at 50/60 Hz - the continuous power rating of the HV transformer may exceed 1500 W with short term availability of much greater power. Always observe high voltage protocol.
These guidelines are to protect you from potentially deadly electrical shock hazards as well as the equipment from accidental damage. Note that the danger to you is not only in your body providing a conducting path, particularly through your heart. Any involuntary muscle contractions caused by a shock, while perhaps harmless in themselves, may cause collateral damage - there are many sharp edges inside this type of equipment as well as other electrically live parts you may contact accidentally. The purpose of this set of guidelines is not to frighten you but rather to make you aware of the appropriate precautions. Repair of TVs, monitors, microwave ovens, and other consumer and industrial equipment can be both rewarding and economical. Just be sure that it is also safe! * Don't work alone - in the event of an emergency another person's presence may be essential. * Always keep one hand in your pocket when anywhere around a powered line-connected or high voltage system. * Wear rubber bottom shoes or sneakers. * Don't wear any jewelry or other articles that could accidentally contact circuitry and conduct current, or get caught in moving parts. * Set up your work area away from possible grounds that you may accidentally contact. * Know your equipment: TVs and monitors may use parts of the metal chassis as ground return yet the chassis may be electrically live with respect to the earth ground of the AC line. Microwave ovens use the chassis as ground return for the high voltage. In addition, do not assume that the chassis is a suitable ground for your test equipment! * If circuit boards need to be removed from their mountings, put insulating material between the boards and anything they may short to. Hold them in place with string or electrical tape. Prop them up with insulation sticks - plastic or wood. * If you need to probe, solder, or otherwise touch circuits with power off, discharge (across) large power supply filter capacitors with a 25 W or greater resistor of 5 to 50 ohms/V approximate value. For the microwave oven in particular, use a 25K to 100K 25 W resistor with a secure clip lead to the chassis. Mount the resistor on the end of a well insulated stick. Touch each of the capacitor terminals to the non-grounded end of the resistor for several seconds. Then, to be doubly sure that the capacitor if fully discharged, short across its terminals with the blade of a well insulated screwdriver. I also recommend leaving a clip lead shorting across the capacitor terminals while working as added insurance. At most, you will blow a fuse if you should forget to remove it when powering up the microwave. * Connect/disconnect any test leads with the equipment unpowered and unplugged. Use clip leads or solder temporary wires to reach cramped locations or difficult to access locations. * If you must probe live, put electrical tape over all but the last 1/16" of the test probes to avoid the possibility of an accidental short which could cause damage to various components. Clip the reference end of the meter or scope to the appropriate ground return so that you need to only probe with one hand. * Perform as many tests as possible with power off and the equipment unplugged. For example, the semiconductors in the power supply section of a TV or monitor can be tested for short circuits with an ohmmeter. * Use an isolation transformer if there is any chance of contacting line connected circuits. A Variac(tm) is not an isolation transformer! The use of a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) protected outlet is a good idea but will not protect you from shock from many points in a line connected TV or monitor, or the high voltage side of a microwave oven, for example. A circuit breaker is too slow and insensitive to provide any protection for you or in many cases, your equipment. A GFCI may, however prevent your scope probe ground from smoking should you accidentally connect an earth grounded scope to a live chassis. * Don't attempt repair work when you are tired. Not only will you be more careless, but your primary diagnostic tool - deductive reasoning - will not be operating at full capacity. * Finally, never assume anything without checking it out for yourself! Don't take shortcuts! As noted, a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) will NOT protect you from the high voltage since the secondary of the HV transformer is providing this current and any current drawn off of the secondary to ground will not be detected by the GFCI. However, use of a GFCI is desirable to minimize the risk of a shock from the line portions of the circuitry if you don't have an isolation transformer. An isolation transformer is even limited value as well since the chassis IS the HV return and is a large very tempting place to touch, lean on, or brush up against. And, of course, none of these devices will protect fools from themselves! Take extreme care whenever working with the cover off of a microwave oven.
Many problems have simple solutions. Don't immediately assume that your problem is some combination of esoteric complex convoluted failures. For a microwave oven, there may be a defective door interlock switch or just a tired fuse. If you get stuck, sleep on it. Sometimes, just letting the problem bounce around in your head will lead to a different more successful approach or solution. Don't work when you are really tired - it is both dangerous (particularly with microwave ovens) and mostly non-productive (or possibly destructive - very destructive). If you need to remove the cover or other disassembly, make notes of which screw went where - they may not all be identical. More notes is better than less. Pill bottles, film canisters, and plastic ice cube trays come in handy for sorting and storing screws and other small parts after disassembly. Select a work area which is well lighted and where dropped parts can be located - not on a deep pile shag rug. Something like a large plastic tray with a slight lip may come in handy as it prevents small parts from rolling off of the work table. The best location will also be relatively dust free and allow you to suspend your troubleshooting to eat or sleep or think without having to pile everything into a cardboard box for storage. A basic set of high quality hand tools will be all you need to work on a microwave oven. These do not need to be really expensive but poor quality tools are worse than useless and can cause damage. Stanley or Craftsman are fine. Needed tools include a selection of Philips and straight blade screwdrivers, needlenose pliers, wire cutters and wire strippers. A medium power soldering iron and rosin core solder (never never use acid core solder or the stuff for sweating copper pipes on electronic equipment) will be needed if you should need to disconnect any soldered wires (on purpose or by accident) or replace soldered components. However, most of the power components in microwave ovens use solderless connectors (lugs) and replacements usually come with these as well. See the document: "Troubleshooting and Repair of Consumer Electronics Equipment" for additional info on soldering and rework techniques and other general information. An assortment of solderless connectors (lugs and wirenuts) is handy when repairing the internal wiring. A crimping tool will be needed as well but the $4 variety is fine for occasional use. Old dead microwaves can often be valuable source of hardware and sometimes even components like interlock switches and magnetrons as these components are often interchangeable. While not advocating being a pack rat, this does have its advantages at times.
Don't start with the electronic test equipment, start with some analytical thinking. Many problems associated with consumer electronic equipment do not require a schematic (though one may be useful). The majority of microwave oven problems are easily solved with at most a multimeter (DMM or VOM). You do not need an oscilloscope for microwave oven repair unless you end up trying to fix the logic in the controller - extremely unlikely. A DMM or VOM is necessary for checking of power supply voltages (NOT the high voltage, however) and testing of interlock switches, fuses, wiring, and most of the components of the microwave generator. This does not need to be expensive but since you will be depending on its readings, reliability is important. Even a relatively inexpensive DMM from Radio Shack will be fine for most repair work. You will wonder how you ever lived without one! Cost: $25-50. Other useful pieces of 'test equipment': * A microwave leakage detector. Inexpensive types are readily available at home centers or by mail order. These are not super accurate or sensitive but are better than nothing. Also see the sections: "Microwave leakage meters" and "Simple microwave leak detectors". * A microwave power detector. These can be purchased or you can make one from a small neon (NE2) or incandescent bulb with its lead wires twisted together. Sometimes these homemade solutions do not survive for long but will definitely confirm that microwave power is present inside the oven chamber. Note: always have a load inside the oven when testing - a cup of water is adequate. * A thermometer (glass not metal) to monitor water temperature during power tests. * High voltage probe (professional, not homemade!). However, this is only rarely actually required. Low voltage, resistance, or continuity checks will identify most problems. WARNING: the high voltage in a microwave oven is NEGATIVE (-) with respect to the chassis. Should you accidentally use the wrong test probe polarity with your meter, don't just interchange the probes = it may be last thing you ever do. Unplug the oven, discharge the HV capacitor, and only then change the connections. There are special magnetron and microwave test instruments but unless you are in the business, these are unnecessary extravagances.
It is essential - for your safety and to prevent damage to the device under test as well as your test equipment - that the large high voltage capacitor in the microwave generator be fully discharged before touching anything or making measurements. While these are supposed to include internal bleeder resistors, these can fail. In any case, several minutes may be required for the voltage to drop to negligible levels. The technique I recommend is to use a high wattage resistor of about 5 to 50 ohms/V of the working voltage of the capacitor. This will prevent the arc-welding associated with screwdriver discharge but will have a short enough time constant so that the capacitor will drop to a low voltage in at most a few seconds (dependent of course on the RC time constant and its original voltage). * For the high voltage capacitor in a microwave oven, use a 25 W or larger 100 K ohm resistor for your discharge widget with a clip lead to the chassis. The reason to use a large (high wattage) resistor is again not so much power dissipation as voltage holdoff. You don't want the HV zapping across the terminals terminals of the resistor. * Clip the ground wire to an unpainted spot on the chassis. Use the discharge probe on each side of the capacitor in turn for a second or two. Since the time constant RC is about .1 second, this should drain the charge quickly and safely. * Then, confirm with a WELL INSULATED screwdriver across the capacitor terminals. If there is a big spark, you will know that somehow, your original attempt was less than entirely successful. There is a very slight chance the capacitor could be damaged by the uncontrolled discharge but at least there will be no danger. * Finally, it is a good idea to put a clip lead across the capacitor terminals just to be sure it stays fully discharged while you are working in the area. Yes, capacitors have been known to spontaneously regain some charge. At worst, you will blow the fuse upon powering up if you forget to remove it. WARNING: DO NOT use a DMM for checking voltage on the capacitor unless you have a proper high voltage probe. If your discharging did not work, you may blow everything - including yourself. A suitable discharge tool can be made as follows: * Solder one end of the appropriate size resistor (100K ohms, 25W in this case) to a well insulated clip lead about 2 to 3 feet long. Don't just wrap it around - this connection must be secure for safety reasons. * Solder the other end of the resistor to a well insulated contact point such as a 2 inch length of bare #14 copper wire mounted on the end of a 2 foot piece of PVC or Plexiglas rod which will act as an extension handle. * Secure the resistor to the insulating rod with some plastic electrical tape. This discharge tool will keep you safely clear of the danger area. The capacitor discharge indicator circuit described in the document: "Capacitor Testing and Safe Discharging" can be built into the discharge tool if desired. Again, always double check with a reliable high voltage meter or by shorting with an insulated screwdriver! Reasons to use a resistor and not a screwdriver to discharge capacitors: 1. It will not destroy screwdrivers and capacitor terminals. 2. It will not damage the capacitor (due to the current pulse). 3. It will reduce your spouse's stress level in not having to hear those scary snaps and crackles.
You will void the warranty - at least in principle. There are usually no warranty seals on a microwave so unless you cause visible damage or mangle the screws or plastic, it is unlikely that this would be detected. You need to decide. A microwave still under warranty should probably be returned for warranty service for any covered problems except those with the most obvious and easy solutions. Unplug the unit! Usually, the sheet metal cover over the top and sides is easily removed after unscrewing 8-16 philips head sheet metal screws. Most of these are on the back but a few may screw into the sides. They are not usually all the same! At least one of these includes a lockwasher to securely ground the cover to the case. Make note of any differences in screw types so they can be put back in the same place. The cover will then lift up and off. Note how fingers on the cover interlock with the main cabinet - these are critical to ensure prevention of microwave leakage after reassembly. Discharge the high voltage capacitor as described in the section: "Safe discharging of the high voltage capacitor" before even thinking about touching anything. A schematic showing all of the power generation components is usually glued to the inside of the cover. How much of the controller is included varies but is usually minimal. Fortunately, all the parts in a microwave can be easily replaced and most of the parts for the microwave generator are readily available from places like MCM Electronics, Dalbani, and Premium Parts. Reassemble in reverse order. Take particular care to avoid pinching any wires when reinstalling the cover. Fortunately, the inside of a microwave is wide open and this is not difficult. Make sure ALL of the metal fingers around the front edge engage properly with the front panel lip. This is critical to avoid microwave emissions should the waveguide or magnetron become physically damaged in any way. Confirm that the screws you removed go back in the proper locations, particularly the one that grounds the cover to the chassis.Go to [Next] segment
Go to [Table 'O Contents]