Do Computers Get Tired?

Category: Hardware

Sometimes my computer acts weird when it's been running for several days. I've heard about something called 'electron buildup' but I'm not sure I should take it seriously. Can electronic devices really suffer from fatigue if they're on too long?

A Silver Bullet?

NOTE: This article was orginally published on this site a few years ago, but I accidentally deleted it from the content manager. I'm reposting it here, along with the comments that readers made. Feel free to post additional comments if you like.

Until recently, I would have dismissed the notion that electronic gunk can accumulate in a machine and cause it to act erratically. But a few months ago my high-speed Internet connection, which is normally rock solid, started getting flaky. I unplugged my cable modem, plugged it back in and voila... things were back to normal.

And since then I've repeated the procedure a few times with good results, whenever I noticed a slowdown in my Internet speed. So I started thinking... maybe electronic devices and appliances really do get tired, clogged with electrons, or whatever. It turns out that there is some good science to support this layman's observation.
silver bullet

Jerrold Foutz is a Scientist with a capital S. There aren't many people alive who know more about how electronic gadgets (especially power supplies) are supposed to work. So you might be surprised to hear that when your computer, microwave, VCR or high-tech coffee pot isn't behaving, his best advice is "just unplug it."

Totally Cosmic, Dude.

In a fascinating article on electronics trouble shooting, Foutz talks about something called a Single Event Upset (SEU) that can cause electronic circuitry to malfunction. An SEU can be caused by a power glitch, or a cosmic ray passing through a integrated circuit, and can actually flip the logic state (from 1 to 0 or vice versa) of a circuit. A cascading effect may trigger a hardware lockup or an infinite loop in software.

For lots more technical details, and even some suggestions on how better design can help to prevent this problem, see the full article on Trouble Shooting Electronics.

Of course in the case of computers running complex operating system and application software, other factors may come into play. Sloppy coding practices can result in 'memory leaks' which over time will cause performance to degrade. But from the end user perspective, the problem looks no different than a hardware error caused by cosmic rays.

Fortunately, the solution is the same in both cases: shut it down, turn it back on, and things will be good again... for a while.

Comments From Readers

Posted by: Howie Mirkin -- "I've also noticed that after a few days, if I run the windows recovery console, i.e., chkdsk /r Windows XP always finds errors on at least one drive, and when it finishes, XP runs faster and better than before. I've used it for recovering from errors resultin g from a faulty keyboard and faulty mouse. When I had the mouse problem, I couldn't even get XP running, but after running the Recovery Console, XP completely recovered as if nothing had happened. An SEU seems like a good explanation."

Posted by: R J Williams -- "It may seem like a hassle but I also notice that when turning off the PC and Modem and printer I will wait about 2 minutes then take apart the tower and PROPERLY give it a cleaning. I can look over all the board items and make sure all is ok and viola. It really does seem to help."

Posted by: Corleyy -- "I feel validated finally. I've used this "unplug-replug and restart" method for several years and knew it worked, but didn't know why it worked. Now I know!"

Posted by: Chris -- "I have a Xerox DocumentCentre 440 ST sitting here in my office. Whenever I have a problem with rollers or kicker motors not working right, or even just the machine not booting up right, the first thing the Xerox support people tell me to do it power the system down, unplug for 60 seconds, and then re-plug. Now it makes sense."

Posted by: ErisRaven -- "You are spot-on with the 'unplug your modem' bit. As someone who works for a cable company, let me pass along this advice:
Any time your cable modem seems slow, or you lose connection altogether, unplug all of your devices. Modem, router (and for the record, a 'wireless device' really is a router!), and computer. Disconnect all cables from the modem, and let thigs sit for five minutes. Plug things back to the modem, and wait for another five. Then, do the same for the router, if you have one. Once both of them are humming along, plug the computer back in and restart it.
Eighty percent of the time, this routine will save you a call to tech support!"

Posted by: SoloOwl -- "You really should clean out the dust bunnies and roach nests in your computer once a year (twice if you have a lot of pets). Fred Langa gives details on cleaning your computer, with photos of enough dust to make a whole 'nuther squirrel, at --
Unplug and reseat all the cables and cards while you are at it. This helps because the connections get a thin coat of oxides &c; the friction from unplugging and plugging back scrapes off the gunk and makes a better connection. Be sure to discharge your own static buildup by touching the metal framework before you touch the circuits."

Posted by: Dan -- "I too had problems with my cable modem, Bob. It's a long story but I found that my orignal modem had a known sync issue (Toshiba 1100) and my connection was dropping at least 3 or 4 times a day that I knew of. RoadRunner refused to adknowledge the issue. I wound up swapping out my modem and got a much older modem. During the first couple of weeks, my connection would drop once in a while. After a few calls to tech support they pushed another firmware. My connection has been solid ever since. It seems to get "bogged down" every once in a while I just unplug it and everything is back to normal. I have to do the same with my router once in a while."

Posted by: LazerDave -- "Be very careful when cleaning inside your case, though. Just recently I accidentally sucked a capacitor off the motherboard, thought it was a loose screw at the time, and was greeted by a very odd smell when I powered up the box again... Needless to say, I won't be using the upright vacuum's hose attachment to clean cases anymore..."

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Most recent comments on "Do Computers Get Tired?"

Posted by:

10 Aug 2009

My modem, router, and all peripherals are on one surge suppressor power strip, which I turn off when I am not using the computer. Whenever I remove or install a component on the MB, I turn off the computer, turn off the PS switch, and depress the computer power-on switch. The computer comes on momentarily, as the capacitors discharge. At this point it is safe to remove or install components. There is no need to wait with this method, as is necessary if you just turn off the computer and wait for the capacitors to bleed down on their own.

Posted by:

10 Aug 2009

This is really interesting. I always wondered why the techs always say to unplug my router for one minute.
Regarding the last post by LazerDave. I was taught to NEVER use a vacuum to clean my computer because the vacuum creates static electricity. If it discharges...KABOOM! - fried circuitry and all the problems and expenses associated with it.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2009

Yes this is my experience also - latest culprit is the wireless router/modem supplied by Verizon for FIOS service - a weekly restart helps a lot. For some more enlightenment and fun, go to Google and search for "winrot"

Interesting paper on the SEU, yes randomness and chaos rule.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2009

I never use a vacuum cleaner for cleaning my 'tower.' With as many grand-kids that we have, there is always an airbed around, with the ever handy inflator.

I unplug everything and take the tower outside to blow it clean. It's a lot cheaper than the $7.00 can of 'air' and with various inflation tips, you can control air flow.

Just don't use an air compressor. Your computer won't appreciate the oil or water that can accumulate in the tank.

Posted by:

Walt Kowalczyk
12 Aug 2009

Working as a Computer Scheduler and Operator we would, at times, come across jobs that mysteriously failed; no code errors, no contention or space issues, no discernable reason at all for failing. So, we would run the job again, and it would run to completion without any problems. We would just chalk these unexplainable errors up to "Transient Dust". Which brings us, pertinent to the issue here, to that other Operations aphorism, "When all else fails, reboot". Unplugging a piece of equipment and waiting two or three minutes before plugging it back in, can often accomplish wonders.

As to standard vacuum cleaners, that's a big NO. The static electricity generated by standard vacuum cleaners can definitely present a hazard. At one job I worked our IBM Tech had a specially built vacuum he would bring when he had to vacuum spilled old toner out of our large, floor model, laser printers. Because as well as blowing circuit boards the static electricity caused by a standard vacuum cleaner could even ignite the toner or its dust. For circuit board work there are even plastic screwdrivers and tweezers that should be used, even if the power is off. Because, in some equipment, as well as static electricity there may be charged capacitors nearby that continue to hold their charge after the plug has been pulled.

Posted by:

12 Aug 2009

Good one Bob! Most modern electronic equipment use a stripped down version of some Linux operating systems. Over a period of time, memory leaks can occur and this slows down the equipment. Broadband routers, Hard Disk DVD Recorders, HD Video Converters etc,. all use some form of Linux. Restarting such equipment once is a while is a good thing.

Posted by:

Johan Mackey
15 Aug 2009

FYI - I clicked on the first artical on this subject that you provide to us.. title: "Speed Up your PC (Free!)" but I got this message: This Web page has been identified as Dangerous...

If you think this website should not be blocked, please notify Trend Micro by clicking this button."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Classic example of a "false positive" by a security program. Please report this error to Trend Micro, thanks.

Posted by:

08 Apr 2010

Anyone ever had their keyboard go haywire after a few hours of use? Mine starts printing gobbly gook but only in email. I have checked, changed, revised, various email programs. It's the keyboard, I am sure. Any similar experiences or answers? Thanks

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