How do self-cleaning ovens work?

The oven heats itself to an extremely high temperature, which burns away any food residue inside and turns it to ash. It’ll typically reach somewhere between 470-500°C or 880-900°F. Some ovens have different cycle lengths for light or heavy soiling – anywhere from 90 minutes to five hours. A typical cycle length is three hours. If you are starting the process, remember to factor in the cooling-down period afterwards, which can last for another couple of hours.

The entire oven, including the door, will get extremely hot and should not be touched. During the cycle, your oven door will probably lock. It’ll remain locked, once the process is complete, until the oven has cooled to a normal baking temperature.

You should consult your oven’s instruction manual to find out how often to use the self-cleaning process. Some manufacturers recommend monthly usage, to stop debris building up inside. Others say you should only use it a maximum of six times a year in order to protect your oven from wear and tear.

Self-cleaning oven advantages

You don’t have to clean your oven

No need to expand on this. This is the real benefit and its advantage to you is obvious. (Except, see the first point of: Self-cleaning oven disadvantages.)

You can avoid cleaning fumes

Oven cleaners are the worst. In order to get rid of burnt-on food, which is just very crispy organic matter, they have to be very good at dissolving organic matter. Coincidentally, this is the same stuff your hands are made from. The active ingredient in oven cleaner tends to be sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye. There is a rich and colourful history of lye being used to dissolve corpses.

Still, your oven cleaner is highly unlikely to harm you if you keep it away from your skin and clean in a well-ventilated room – but using it is unpleasant and it may well irritate your respiratory system. If you breathe in spray, you can get anything from a runny nose to lung inflammation.

A self-cleaning oven means throwing out the caustic cleaner and wafting away its associated fumes.     

You can save energy

Self-cleaning ovens can save on energy. As they are made to withstand the extremely high temperatures of a self-cleaning cycle, they are very well insulated, which makes them more energy efficient than other ovens.  

You can save money

Even though the cleaning cycle costs you in power, it’ll save you money as the cost of electricity (pennies) will be less than the cost of an oven cleaner, gloves and a sponge (pounds). Plus, you save on the cost of your time.    

Self-cleaning oven disadvantages

You do – sort of – have to clean your oven

Nothing in life is perfect. Before your run the self-cleaning cycle on your oven, you should clean your oven. Not properly, just to remove any chunks that have landed on the oven floor and might cause a fire. And, yep, after the oven has self-cleaned, you’ll need to run over the inside with a damp cloth to remove the ash left behind.

Also, in most cases, you’ll have to remove the racks and clean them by hand. If you leave them inside during a cleaning cycle, it will dull the metal and they'll need to be polished with vegetable oil to regain some sheen.

Oh and the frame, seal and door edges will need a quick going-over. So there’s unfortunately no way to avoid at least some cleaning.

You may just be replacing cleaning fumes with smoke

Self-cleaning ovens get extremely hot in order to burn away food residue. Unfortunately, this creates smoke and the pervasive smell of charred nastiness. It may well create a lot of smoke. It may well set off your smoke alarm.

There have been cases in which ovens have caught fire during a self-cleaning cycle. This is usually due to spilt fat or oil inside the oven, or an excess of food debris. Many people report small fires in the oven and most say that flames will go out after a minute. However, others report cases in which their oven doors have shattered.        

Minor fires during the cleaning cycle happen frequently enough that the GE Appliances website features advice on what to do if “there are flames inside the oven”. Basically, the advice is to turn off the oven, wait for it to cool and clean it by hand, then restart the self-cleaning operation. You see the problem here? The more useful the self-cleaning programme would be to you, the less you should probably use it.   

It may not be energy efficient after all

Obviously, running the oven – and at such a high temperature – is going to eat up electricity and add to your bill. Will that really be balanced out by improved insulation? 

However, there are things you can do to minimise the cost. The best time to run the self-cleaning programme is just after you’ve cooked – as long as you remembered to remove any pieces of food debris before cooking, when the oven was cool. Using the function at this point, when the oven is still warm, will save some electricity in the heating process.

It may damage your oven

As the oven gets so hot, its parts will suffer more wear and tear than through ordinary use. There are certain oven parts that are more likely to be damaged when self-cleaning cycles are run regularly. This includes the locking mechanism, the thermostat, thermal fuses and electronic boards. Some of the parts most likely to be affected would render the oven useless and would require professional oven repair.  

Numerous sources report that self-cleaning functions are associated with the most calls to repair or servicing services. However, this may be in part because people don’t realise how hot the oven is going to get, or are concerned by smoke. They may also not be aware that the self-cleaning process is automatic once started, and become concerned when they are locked out of the oven.

It’s a safety hazard

Not only is there a danger of fire, but carbon monoxide is produced when you run a self-cleaning cycle. 

If you take precautions, you can minimise risk. Make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector nearby. Do not run a self-cleaning cycle while you’re out, as it’s a fire risk. You must make sure that the room is well-ventilated. Turn on the extractor fan and open nearby windows.   

You should also evacuate your pets during the process to protect them from smoke inhalation. Ventilating the room is not enough. Birds are especially susceptible to smoke; it can be toxic to them.

Finally, you should ensure that no-one touches the outside of the oven until the process is complete and the oven has cooled.   

To buy or not to buy?

If you read all of the information above, you’ll have a good sense of whether or not it’s worth it to you.

Once you know how to prepare your household and your oven for a self-cleaning programme, you can obviate some of the risk. However, the increased wear and tear on components is harder to avoid. 

If you are time-poor, disabled or have physical problems tackling the cleaning, then the potential repair costs may be worth it.   

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