Your Computer's Two Worst Enemies

Category: Reference

Heat is the deadly enemy of the sensitive electronics inside of your computer. Dust and other debris that gets inside of your computer is the biggest cause of overheating and other malfunctions. Read on to learn the three most important places that need regular cleaning, to keep your desktop or laptop running in top form...

Should I Dust My Computer?

Yes, but skip the Lemon Pledge. There are no polished wood surfaces inside the desktop system unit or your laptop case. It is important to get the grunge out of your computer to prolong its life. Dirt, dust, pet hair, food crumbs and even tiny insects (yuck) can affect your computer in a negative way.

In my article Overheating: Enemy Number One I discussed the impact that excess heat can have on your computer's electronic components. Those problems can include sluggish performance, software crashes, random reboots or shutdowns, the dreaded Blue Screen of Death, and even fire. In that article, you'll also find links to free software to monitor your computer's internal temperatures.

Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of compressed air. To minimize the amount of gunk that gets into your computer, thereby lengthening the time you can go without cleaning, here are a few things you can do:

Cleaning Your Computer

Get the computer off the floor where most of the gunk is. Keep it on your desktop, or on a small table at least a foot above the floor. Your computer has one or more fans inside the case which draw in air to cool the components. You don't want it sucking in air from the dirtiest place in your home or office.

Keep pets and their hair out of the room in which your computer resides.

Don’t smoke around your computer. Tar and particulates from cigarette smoke make a sticky, smothering sludge on a computer’s components that traps more dust.

Control the air quality in the computer’s room. Keep windows and doors closed. Put passive air filters in the room’s ventilation grills, but not over the computer’s air intake vents. Consider a room air filter for your computer’s room. A HEPA filter is best. Do not use an ion-generating air purifier; the electrically charged ions remove dust from the air by causing it to stick to surfaces, including your computer’s innards.

If you do all of the above you can probably go a year without opening up the computer’s case to clean inside. If you’re careless about air quality and smoke around your computer, you may need to clean its innards every three months. But it can't hurt to do a cleaning more often.

Always unplug everything from your computer (desktop or laptop) before opening up its case; not just the power cable but also monitors, printers, USB devices, Ethernet cables, and anything else. Eliminate any possible path for static electricity to flow into your machine.

Computing in a Vacuum

Many geek websites say that you should not vacuum dust out of a computer. Instead, they recommend blowing it out with canned compressed air (which is not air, by the way, but denser, complex gases which are more easily compressed into dense liquid form, packing more gas into a can). The rationale for this advice makes no sense whatsoever.

“Vacuuming generates static electricity that can harm electronics,” they say. Well yes, rubbing air molecules rapidly against plastic surfaces can generate static electricity. But as far as static electricity goes, it doesn’t matter if the air is moving towards a vacuum or away from a high-pressure area!

After opening the desktop's system unit case, a soft-bristled brush to loosen clinging dust and a mini-vac are my preferred tools. In addition to any visible dust, take a closer look for dirt on the fan blades and heat sink.

I think it’s preferable to lift dust out of a computer with a vacuum than to drive it deeper into the nooks and crannies with a blast of compressed gas. But to avoid generating significant static electricity, the suction should be no more than is absolutely necessary. A household vacuum cleaner, even a handheld Dirt Devil™, is more than adequate. You can even buy USB-powered mini-vacs with a variety of useful brushes for computer cleaning.

I've heard warnings that a vacuum cleaner might suck electrical components right off the motherboard. That sounds unlikely, but you don't want to get the nozzle that close to the components anyway. Use your brush, and always hold the vacuum nozzle at an angle to the surface being cleaned.

Cleaning Your Laptop

If you have a laptop, clean dust and hair out of the air vents with a Q-Tip. Using compressed air will only send the dirt INSIDE your laptop, but a low-power vacuum can be used to draw out dust and hair trapped inside the vents. I recommend using a toothpick to keep the fans from spinning, as you can damage them if they spin too fast.

If you continue to have overheating issues after cleaning the vents, you may have dirt trapped inside the laptop case. Opening up a laptop can be tricky, because so many components are packed in so tightly. Wires, ribbon cables and electrical components can be damaged if you're not very careful. For inside the case cleaning, I recommend taking your laptop to a service center rather than doing it yourself.

Cleaning the Keyboard and Mouse

Keyboards are another matter; they tend to collect larger, heavier crumbs of food, and insects. Using a high-power vacuum cleaner on the upper surface of a keyboard won’t do the circuit board inside any harm.

Keyboards also get liquids spilled on them. If you frequent humor websites while consuming coffee or soda, you might have this problem. That sticky goo can mix with dust to form nasty sludge between the keys. Isopropyl alcohol (at least 60% solution) and a Q-Tip are best for cleaning such messes.

You may have heard that keyboards are dishwasher-safe; perhaps you’ve even seen YouTube videos demonstrating this technique. I wouldn't recommend it unless you've already tried other methods; you can get a shiny new keyboard for ten dollars. But apparently there's no reason it won’t work if the keyboard is left disconnected until it dries completely. Try it if you can live without a keyboard (or use a dry spare) for at least 48 hours. Do not use any detergent, just plain water. Put the keyboard keys-down in the upper rack and whatever you do, do not use “heated dry” or the plastic may melt. Did I mention that you can buy a brand new keyboard for ten dollars?

Most mice use optical sensors these days, but if you’re still using a mouse with a rolling rubber ball, you need to open that thing up once in a while. If you're moving the mouse, and the cursor stay still or jumps erratically, that's a sign that gunk has accumulated on the ball or the rollers inside. Rotate the cover on the bottom of the mouse to remove it, then let the cover and ball fall into your hand. Clean the ball with a lint-free cloth and set it aside. Inside, you'll see three rollers that are probably caked with gunk. Use your fingernail, and/or a Q-tip with a bit of isopropyl alcohol to clean the rollers. Before replacing the ball and cover, tap the mouse on a hard surface several times so that any dirt or crud inside will fall out. Clean the mouse pad when you're done.

Consider treating yourself to an optical mouse for about $15, and you'll never have to look at the dirty innards of a mouse again. To clean the optical sensor (the red or blue glowing “lightbulb” on the mouse’s bottom), remove the battery and wipe the sensor window gently with a Q-Tip wetted with isopropyl alcohol.

Do you have any computer cleaning tips? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Your Computer's Two Worst Enemies"

(See all 22 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Danny G
24 Oct 2014

I got this kit:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000BSJCLY/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1


Posted by:

John Tyler
24 Oct 2014

It was mentioned in the article about monitoring temperature. There is a free utility called "Speccy" from Piriform the same people that created "Ccleaner". It will give the temperature of your drives plus a lot of information about other components in your computer. Best of all it's free.


Posted by:

Carole
24 Oct 2014

I don't have any suggestions, but I do have a question. Years ago, when I opened up my computer and found some tiny spiders and a cobweb inside of it. How do you keep them out? It doesn't make any difference how clean it is around one's computer, they can still sneak in to take up residency.


Posted by:

sandy
24 Oct 2014

My optical mouse still manages to collect cat hair inside the battery compartment. Family hazard. We have cats that send SMS messages, and my DIL walked in to find her cat looking at a 'questionable' website! And yes, I have run several keyboards through the dishwasher with no ill effects. Of course, I make sure it is completely dry before reinstalling.


Posted by:

bb
24 Oct 2014

The two worse spots for dust to collect on the desktop is under the CPU fan on top of the heat sink and inside the power supply. One would have to have a pretty powerful vacuum to clean out either place.

And that's why I always recommend a blower, not a sucker. Use short blasts from a air can or, my preference, an oilless air compressor. (The oilless is important, some compressor inject oil in the flow to lubricate tools. It's good for them, not so good for the inside of your computer!)

Sure you can use a q-tip for the fan, and this may be necessary if the user was a smoker. (I hate cleaning smoker's computers!) But you are not going to be able to get a q-tip inside the power supply with disassembling it. (not recommended.)

And a hint: do this outside! There is sometimes an amazing amount of dust inside some computers.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
24 Oct 2014

Bob, excellent tips!!! Too many computer users, NEVER clean out their computers, they simply buy another one. So, silly and really not smart.

I learned, right out the shoot ... Too clean out the dirt and dust bunnies, when I got my first computer. It had an AT Board and seemed to accumulate, a lot of dust, more than dirt. I learned, where to look for "hidden" places, inside my tower, to clean it all out. I even used my vacuum with the tool brush, for safety, to clean out the stuff, at the bottom of the inside tower.

As for my keyboards, quite a few years ago and only with a corded keyboard ... I used my dishwasher, to clean them. It was always on the top rack, with the keyboard facing downward and I only used hot water. I allowed them to dry by air, for several days, before using. At that time and even now, I always have a couple of keyboards handy, when I need them. In fact, right now, I have 2 corded keyboards and 2 wireless keyboards, as extra. Nothing worse, than NOT having a back-up, when you need one. Been there, done that.

I also, kept about 4 mice extra. I always, want a corded mouse, because it can be much easier to do a "clean install" of an OS, with a corded mouse, as long as there is a PS slot, you can use. No PS slot ... Then you are good to go, with a wireless mouse, that has a USB connection.

About once a year, I also, take out my component cards and dust them off, with a microfiber cloth, where it will not disturb the gold contacts. While, these component cards are out of their slots, I then, use compressed air, to clean out the empty slots. You would be surprised, just how much those slots can get some grunge, inside of them, making the component(s) not work as well or a lot harder.

Must WARN ... If, you have a laser mouse ... Do NOT use compressed air to clean it. Should the compressed air, release any gas, it could easily ruin your mouse. The same warning goes to "dusting" out your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM ... It is so easy to get gas to release, instead of compressed air ... It will definitely, ruin your ROMs. I learned the hard way. I did use the compressed air and gas got on the laser portion of my CD-ROM, it would not read or write. I damaged the laser portion.

Must admit, I have had pet hair on my computer desk, as well as having smoked, in the past. Both of those issues, can really play havoc, on the inside of your computer. So, I have learned to open the tower and dust more frequently, to keep it as clean as possible. My Kitty Kitty goes wherever she wants to and she likes to get up on my desk, when I am at my computer. She wants me to scratch her. Listen ... Dogs have owners ... Cats have staff ... Okay?!!!

Must admit, today computer cases are so much easier to open, than in past years. Usually, all you have to do, is pull or push in a handle and it opens, for you. I really like that feature. I remember, the days when you had at least 4 screws to unscrew and that was only the outside, there were more inside. I also, tried to teach all of my family and friends, that I repaired their computers, for them ... The importance, of cleaning the inside of the computer case. Plus, I would show them how to do it, safely.


Posted by:

Sheri
24 Oct 2014

I've always kept my PC tower off the floor and have often advised friends and family to do so. But whilst I'm sure keeping pets out of the room, not smoking in the room and buying passive air filters for the room would all be beneficial, they are all easier said than done! Because most smokers I know smoke even more when they are on their computers! And if you've ever tried keeping a dog or a cat out of the room, didn't you mind the constant scratching at the door and whining?


Posted by:

Smoky Lowe
24 Oct 2014

I have a door to the computer room and my two cats know they can not come in, also I Have cleaned way to many smoke filled computers, I use a shop vac to blow the dust out also a small soft paint brush to clean the fins and fan blades. The brush works on the keyboard also. Very good article and advice. Thank you again for all your help.


Posted by:

RandiO
24 Oct 2014

There is a patented, non-toxic and biodegradable product in the market called "Cyber Clean" compound that is putty-like soft gel. Product is readily available for purchase in most e-retailers, such as amazon.com. This Cyber Clean gooey/sticky substance can be re-used multiple times. Their website (http://www.cyberclean.net/) states "Visibly removes dust and crumbs, penetrates in cavities and cleans where conventional cleaners fail" and "Simple, quick and easy to use!" It is especially effective for use on keyboards, fan screens and printed circuit boards (PCBs); after carefully using a vacuum cleaner to remove the top layer of dust and particles.
[IMHO: 1)It is not recommended to use pressurized aerosol cans, which can cause dust particles to lodge themselves further into the nooks/crannies and connector interfaces of keyboards and PCBs. 2)Vacuum cleaners can develop static electricity that electrostatic-sensitive PCB' active devices such as Integrated circuits (processors, RAM, etc.) that can incur permanent damage from.]


Posted by:

Robert Kemper
24 Oct 2014

Thanks for that excellent article on cleanig your computer, Bob. I was slightly over due on cleaning
mine, and was glad for the timely reminder.


Posted by:

Jan
24 Oct 2014

Have Speccy free utility previously mentioned. Tells me my CPU temp is 32 deg, but how do I tell whether this is OK or not?


Posted by:

Jack
25 Oct 2014

I've worked on many desktop systems, and got tired of buying compressed air cans. Some systems were so filthy that I regretted even bringing them into the building.
Now, I just open the case outside and use a small electric leaf blower to blow out the dust (from several feet away, of course). Bingo - no cleanup required, no compressed air cans, no nasty stuff brought into the building. I've never had a problem using this method.


Posted by:

Dean
25 Oct 2014

I have cleaned countless keyboards in the past and have found they are being manufactured to be easier to clean.

Many keyboards have a plastic tray that the buttons are attached to. This tray usually has an elevated section that prevents most debris from entering the inside of the keyboard where the electronics are.

The keys can be popped off with a screwdriver and once the keyboard is disassembled, the plastic tray can be hand washed in the sink. No real need to put it in the dishwasher. There may also be some metal springs that return the buttons to their upright position that can be removed and cleaned as well. Just be aware of their positions for reassembly.

The electronics of a keyboard usually consist of two or three plastic sheets with printed circuits on them and a rubber sheet with buttons that pop up and down making contact with the circuits. These can be wiped off, but be careful not to separate them. their alignment with each other is critical. And dirt rarely gets in these areas.

All of these components can be removed and the plastic housing can be hand washed. Make sure everything is completely dry before reassembling.

I would NOT recommend putting an unassembled keyboard in the dishwasher as this can trap a lot of water, especially between the circuit board sheets. You would have to wait days for it to completely dry out, if it ever did.

Disassembling a keyboard and cleaning it like this usually only requires a small phillips screwdriver and is well worth the time. Your keyboard will run like new again.


Posted by:

Dean
25 Oct 2014

Another option your readers might be interested in if they want a really cool system that they NEVER have to clean is a mineral oil computer.

This consists of a sealed tank ~ aquarium ~ with all but the hard drive and CD drives inside and filled with mineral oil. The advantage of these are multiple.

This eliminates the need for traditional cleaning of the internal components, as dust and debris are not introduce into the system. They also run much cooler because the heat dissipates much more efficiently through the oil. As a result, the system can be greatly overclocked without fear of overheating. Lights and decorative items can also be added much like a regular aquarium and are strictly for looks.

Here is a great video that shows the build process.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtufuXLvOok


Posted by:

David
26 Oct 2014

Stick some plastic stick on feet under the laptop to raise it by about 1/4 of an inch improves the airflow. As I was already using Speccy" it dropeed the temperature by approx. 5C for you US readers about 8F.


Posted by:

Tom Van Dam
28 Oct 2014

I'm finally glad to hear someone make a statement about vacuuming vs. blowing dirt out of a computer. In conjunction with the one comment from a user, yes the vacuum might not be able to get deep into some cracks but at least the vacuum will remove the bulk of the dirt so that if you absolutely have to blow some crevices in the back corner out, there won't be a cloud of smog emerging from the case. This will also reduce the amount of canned air one needs. I work for a company and it gets very expensive to constantly use cans and the shop compressed air is too forcefuly (yes it is filtered air). I finally went to a unit called Metro DataVac Electric Duster. I got one for about $55 which is quickly paid for by not buying the cans.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
29 Oct 2014

@Dean ... Thank you, so much for the link to seeing a Sealed Fish Tank Aquarium Computer, filled with Mineral Oil!!!

I was totally fascinated with the whole idea. I do know, that oil or coolant, does cool down heated components. I worked in surgery and knew to slowly, squirt water, in a syringe, on the high speed dental drills or the drills that needed to go through heavy, thick bones.

Also, my Hubby was a machinist, for over 40 years, and I learned real quick like, when we were first married, to keep his work clothes ... AWAY from the regular clothes!!! The stick and oil was unbelievable. Of course, that was over 50 years ago and today's machine shop coolant, in the machinist world, is so much different. It is a "lighter" oil and hardly, has any smell.

I am STILL trying to "wrap" this concept, in the videos. I do NOT doubt doing this, it just seems strange ... Really strange. :O)


Posted by:

Geoff Greig
01 Nov 2014

I have to disagree with you Bob. The number one worst enemy of your computer is the users of it.

They do far more damage than heat or dust.


Posted by:

Ed
19 Dec 2014

One item you didn't mention to keep your laptop cool is an external plug-in electric cooling fan, upon which the laptop rests. I've been using one for years under my XP OS Gateway laptop and have never had an overheating problem.


Posted by:

Ron Pollitt
09 Apr 2015

I take the PC outside and blow it out with the shop vac. The vac of course, doesn't have any dust in the canister. Works like a charm, better than compressed air.


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