Silver Bullets, Cosmic Rays and Tired Computers

Category: Hardware

An inquisitive reader asks: “Sometimes my computer acts strangely when it has been running for several days without turning it off. I have heard about something called ‘electron buildup’ but I am not sure I should take it seriously. Can electronic devices really suffer from fatigue if they are on too long?” It’s actually a great question! Read on for my thoughts on contumacious computers, cosmic rays, and more...

Do Computers (and other gadgets) Ever Get Tired?

Until recently, I might have dismissed the notion that electronic "gunk" can accumulate in a computer or other electronic device, 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, counted to ten, 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 notice a slowdown in my Internet speed. Sometimes my Roku streaming box stops working and I have to restart it. Perhaps you've also found that a shutdown/restart cures a host of ills with your phone or computer. 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.

In 1999 I met Jerry Foutz in a networking group, and I can tell you he was a Scientist with a Capital S. There aren't many people 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 was "just unplug it."

silver bullet

Totally Cosmic, Dude.

In a fascinating article on electronics trouble shooting, Foutz talked 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, an error in calculation, or an infinite loop in software. Wow!

For lots more technical details, and even some suggestions on how better design can help to prevent this problem, see Jerry's full article on Trouble Shooting Electronics. (Sadly, Jerry has passed away, but his wisdom lives on in the Internet Archive.)

Of course in the case of computers running complex operating systems 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. Let me caution that whenever possible, you should try to use the shut down command (or power switch if that's not an option) for your electronic device (especially computers) before pulling the plug, to avoid the possibility of damage.

AskBob Readers Agree

I’ve heard from readers over the years who have come to similar conclusions. Here are snippets from some of those conversations:

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

"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." – RJ

"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!" – Corley

"I have a Xerox DocumentCentre machine 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." – Chris

"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 things 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!" – Eric R.

"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). Unplug and reseat all the cables and cards while you are at it. This helps because the connections get a thin coat of oxides, and 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." – S.O.

"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 and my connection was dropping at least 3 or 4 times a day that I knew of. My ISP 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." – Dan

Pardon me, while I reboot my computer, printer and modem. Do you have a similar anecdote to share? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Silver Bullets, Cosmic Rays and Tired Computers"

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
05 Sep 2023

I have all my 120 volt, 24-hour electronic hardware on a power strip. That power strip is plugged into a weekly timer that shuts the power strip down for 2 minutes every Wednesday at 3 AM. This eliminates such problems occurring while using these devices. This is an example of the weekly timer:

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

Very interesting article by Jerry that you linked to. I recommend everyone read it. Now I know why my ISP always insist on that routine (again in my case, as I have done it before calling) before offering any solutions.

Even though I have known for years to do it, I never knew the technical why of it. I also never realized it applied to any "microprocessor-controlled system. Your microwave, VCR, and fancy coffee pot are non-computer examples."

It was frustrating to learn that one of our laptops has a pretty much inaccessible battery for non geeks, so hopefully I'll never need to go that far to fix a glitch.

We do power down all our computers every night, and the modem and router get the full disconnect and reboot monthly.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

This story reminds me of the first episode of "The IT Crowd." You can find at the very least the clip on YouTube.
It will resonate with all.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

I use an outlet strip, too, it has a on-off rocker switch that I find easier than unplugging things. I do shut down my pc and the TV I use for a monitor, then toggle off and on (after 10 seconds) the rocker switch to my (modem & router) everything on the outlet strip. Easy re-boot.
Also, I use CCleaner (free version) in my PC daily:
At shutdown, and often at startup as well.It clears my cache, my cookies, my internet history quick and easy. It doesn't lose my browser's passwords or form filling info (not set to do that). And typing just the first letter, then in browser searches still suggests and opens the pages I use regularly. I like that with all cookies gone no one knows who I am or where I go (until I login). Even my bank doesn't know me. They send me a security alert email that an unknown machine has logged into my acct. I use AdBlocker, for my browser, and also for Youtube and get virtually zero unwanted pop ups or ads.

Posted by:

Bruce Rickter
05 Sep 2023

I've been retired for 10 years, but when I was working we called the Great Electronic Fix-it. PC's, printers, etc. Whenever they misbehaved, we just unplugged then, waited for about 5 minutes and plugged them back in. Good to know that even 20 years ago we were doing the correct thing.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

My Win !0 computer runs 24-7 and I rarely have problems. Same for my cable modem (I actually have a "gateway" - combo modem and router). But when something starts acting hinky, I have found over the years that a complete "Power Down", wait a minute and restart will cure a host of problems. If you need to restart your modem, you might as well do a restart on the computer at the same time.

When restarting your computer, do not use "Restart". Use "Shutdown" to do a complete power down. If you are really compulsive, pull the power cord at the same time, although I've never had to do that.

Posted by:

Fred Glidden
05 Sep 2023

I had a theory that just part of the software like an important file crashes and causes the electronic device to get wonky, something that can't restart until the software is restarted.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

If I'm ever on life support, I want you to PULL THE PLUG -- and then plug it in again and see if that helps.

Posted by:

Mike Davies
05 Sep 2023

If it's a laptop, should you take the battery out as well?

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

Several of the modems I have had over the years suffered from what I called "stale connections" (for lack of a more technical term). Main symptom would be a gradual slowdown in internet speed and the subsequent dropped connections and sluggish web page responses. I usually fixed it by powering the modem and router off for twenty minutes or so; this would force the ISP to assign a brand-new IP for a fresh start.

I saw this problem with many of my individual clients as well. For some of them who felt sufficiently competent I left written instructions and labeled switches so they could try the fix on their own before involving me in a service call.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

@Bruce Rickter:
That's what we had to do when the Boeing 757 first came into servive early 1980's. One occassion, arrive Acapulco with a 'no-go' message and no maintenance support. During the crew change, shut down the power, wait a minute, power on and - hey presto - no fault message.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

@Mike Davies:
The latest laptops are not user-friendly for changing a battery.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2023

I usually hibernate my laptop at night so that I don't have to keep reopening files and webpages I'm working on but, after about a week, I often notice minor issues such that it is time to reboot.
After a recent problem with an update, I now shut down then restart rather than just restart as that doesn't always give a clean reset.
I also have a calendar item to reboot my phone on a regular basis to cure occassional issues.

Posted by:

David Lagesse
05 Sep 2023

Ditto for TVs and Monitors, saved me the purchase of a new one!

Posted by:

tom r
06 Sep 2023

going back 25-30 years we had a refrigeration computer that had a small time clock attached to the communication modem that would kill power to the modem for 20 minutes or so once a week at 2am. It seemed to solve the problem.

Posted by:

Chris Faulkner
06 Sep 2023

I have a Netgear Nighthawk modem that occasionally throws a wobbly.
Turn it off, take out the battery for 20 seconds.
All good again, till next time.

Posted by:

06 Sep 2023

I recently came across this info on computer rebooting, that might be useful:
Dave is a retired Microsoft engineer and in this video covers the types of shutdowns and how these evolved.
As he points out powering off the computer likely doesn't do what you think it does, i.e. a complete system refresh.
He covers the evolution of rebooting that changed with Windows 8.
Interestingly, starting with Win 10 there is a difference between desktops and laptops.
Surprisingly, he misses holding down the shift key while rebooting procedure.

Finally, some good advice from the comments on how to quickly shut down when you want to go to bed, or have to quickly leave:
Good tip for when an update comes: Don't choose "update and shutdown", always choose "update and reboot". And then, when your system is in POST, press the Power button to turn it off. ( may require you hold down power button for several seconds ) Next time you turn it on, the update process will continue. Otherwise it might take a while, sometimes even rebooting multiple times, until it finally completes the update and turns off. Sucks if you want to go to bed.

Posted by:

MYOB Computers
06 Sep 2023

As one the Old Dinosuar computer Repair techs left alive, just a note.

ALL devices build up static charges over time. Even more so the tinier they get.

A LOT of problems will go away with a Shutdown and a good Cleaning,Dusting,Re-seating of components and done Routinely!

Static buildup is a Huge problem where I live. Today we are enjoying a Relative Humidity of 12% and it goes lower very often. Perfect weather for Static Buildup.

No one can avoid static emissions. Your body generates it. That why we wear our GROUNDING straps to work on OUR Computers!

Posted by:

07 Sep 2023

Some good advice from Bob Rankin on needing to reboot a computer or cellular telephone if it is acting up.Occasionally in my area,I will get a power hit that will cause my computer to act strangely. A simple reboot will cure the problem.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Silver Bullets, Cosmic Rays and Tired Computers (Posted: 5 Sep 2023)
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