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A clean computer is a working computer – an important distinction for those who are plagued with frozen screens and unexplained problems with their machines. Spending time cleaning out files and running anti-virus programs isn’t enough to keep your computer truly spotless – for that it must be as clean on the outside as it is on the inside.
Housecleaning for Computers
Nobody likes a dusty house, and computers are certainly not an exception. While dusty conditions may make us sneeze, dusty conditions can actually harm or even kill your computer. This is why you have to regularly clean the computer's actual components: the tower and what's inside.
Inside the hard case of your computer there are many components that run very hot as they work. To keep things in check, a fan runs to help cool everything down. That’s one of the noisiest things you hear when your computer is running, incidentally. When regular household dust settles onto your CPU, it lands on the outside and on the inside as well. At some point, the normally inert dust starts to take a tole. It's not that it actually interferes with the electronics; it's that it prevents them from shedding heat, acting as a blanket that can ruin everything.
Additionally, the hot hair blown around by the fan inside your computer comes out special vent holes designed for this purpose. Dust can settle into these vent holes sealing them up. When dust is blocking the vent holes, the hot air can’t escape and the computer ultimately overheats. If the dust makes it inside the computer, it can also land on the circuit board, insulating it and causing short circuits.
Cleaning your computer requires special tools as you’ll need to work carefully to avoid damaging your machine. To properly clean your computer, you’ll need:
- A can of compressed air - You can get these at any office supply store. The idea here is to touch the internal components of a computer as little as possible.
- A clean, dry cloth - Preferably this would be a cotton or microfiber cloth specially designed for cleaning computers, hence it would have anti-static properties. These can be bought at any office supply or computer supply store and they aren't expensive. You can even buy wipes that are pre-coated with anti-static cleaning fluid. If you can't find those, then get . . .
- Some non-static computer cleaner - again, you can get this at an office supply store.
- The right environment - This is more important than it seems. Remember that static is your primary enemy so you want to take precautions. Also remember that you're going to make whatever surface you're working on very dusty. Protect the surroundings as well as the machine.
- A dust mask - A rag or t-shirt may do the job. This one is you're call, but if you're computer has gathered a lot of dust and grit, it's a good idea to take some precautions for yourself. A face cloth and protective eyeware can help ease the normal assault of allergens and other irritants a good cleaning can stir up.
STATIC in MIND - the most surefire way to protect against static shocks is to buy (or make yourself) a static wristband. This makes a ground: it's a wristband that puts a piece of metal in contact with your skin and then connects via a wire to something else made of metal. It works by taking that hair-standing, wool-sock-charging, doorknob-shocking charge and continually dispersing it through the metal thing you're tethered to, not the computer.
Start by picking your computer up off the floor. Computers sitting on the floor are in a prime location to collect dust, dog hair and pet dander that settles there. After you've unplugged everything, put the tower on a good work surface.
STATIC in MIND - avoid a plastic table-top for a work surface. Plastic is renown for generating static, especially outdoor plastic chairs and those latex balloons that you can rub against your hair and then stick to the wall with static charge. This is why there's no need to use latex gloves when working on a PC, in fact it's discouraged. Wood and laminate surfaces are great. If you really want to go all out, you can buy professional insulating pads to set your computer on.
Then take your (anti-static) dry cloth and your computer cleaner. Wipe down the computer casing using the cloth (or wipe) you sprayed with computer cleaner. Don't spray the cleaner onto the computer casing itself, and focus only on lightly removing dust from the major housing. Once the visible dust is removed, turn your attention to the air vents. Use your compressed air to gently blow away any dust you see on or just inside the air vents. The goal here is to get dust away, not blow it inside the case, so it's a good idea to come at it from an angle, paying special attention to any vent holes and to the ports where wires plug in.
STATIC in MIND - cleaning one or two PCs shouldn't be a major investment, but that being said, don't skimp on the anti-static precautions. Using special sprays and cloths may sound unnecessary, but it's not. Remember the components of computers aren't so delicate that they can't be touched, but an errant static spark (just like the ones that you get in the winter) can damage a circuit. Of course water is a bad idea, and so are any normal household cleaners. For the protection of your PC, it's not too much to spend a few bucks on some essential precautions.
Cleaning Inside the Case
First thing's first: is your computer still under warranty? The likelihood is that it's not since it's old enough to have accumulated a detrimental level of dust and debris, but of course some spaces are dustier than others. Opening the case will often void the one or two year warranties that comes with many namebrand PCs like Dell or HP. Look around the edges of the panel to see if there's a warranty notice anywhere. If there is, try just cleaning the outside and then replacing the system in a well-ventilated and cleaned area. This might solve the problem(s).
If not, it's time to go inside . . .
Start by removing the computer case. You can do this by unscrewing the screws holding it in place on the back of your machine. The left panel (as you look at the front of the machine) is usually the best to open. Be mindful that some manufacturers include hidden screws, so you may have to search a bit to find them. True, grit can make a panel sticky, but if you find that it's just not giving when you pull hard, stop and look for any extra screws, clamps or even special levers that need to be pulled. Different manufacturers use different methods of keeping the cases shut.
It's time for the spray again. Using the straw-like tube that comes with the spray, do a sweep of the machine's internal components. Be sure to remove dust from the tops of cards, panels, hard drives and from the inside of any hard-drive bays. You don't have to know what something is to see that it's dusty. One thing to look for in particular are any metal grates that look like a series of thin plates stacked parallel to each other. These are heat-sinks, metal structures designed to siphon heat away from important components (like the CPU).
Without touching these, be sure to remove dust from between the sheets. The biggest cause of computer freezing is an overheated video processing unit or VPU. This is a secondary processor in addition to the main one and could be on the primary mother board or on a card. The best rule of thumb is this: if something inside the computer has a fan dedicated to it, it's important.
DUST in MIND - the spray dusters will sometimes shoot out cold bursts of fluid. This is the liquid-form of whatever gas is being held under pressure. Since this is a gas at room temperature, you will see it evaporate within seconds. It won't harm electronics.
It should go without saying that you don't want to use a duster, a rag or any sort of spray inside the system. These things can produce static and often get snagged on components. A vacuum is not a wise choice for any internal cleaning either; but there's nothing wrong with using a vacuum as a ventilator. Prop up the hose of the vacuum near your work area (but not inside the computer) and let it capture some of the ambient dust that blows out.
DUST in MIND - one thing you certainly can touch are the fans. Being just plastic, you can handle them readily. Be sure to get as much of the dust out of the fans as possible, even gently turning the tines with your fingers as you go.
When you're finished, it's time to close up the system and put it where it needs to be.
Taking Care of the Outside
Consider the location of your computer again. If it’s close to the floor or sitting on carpet, which doesn’t allow the computer to “breathe” properly, decide if there would be a better location nearby – a cabinet in your desk, on a small ledge or even on the desk beside you. Most people don't want to share real-estate with an ugly computer tower, but doing small things to keep the system ventilated can often make a significant impact on its performance. Some options might be
- Keep it on the floor but raise it up off the carpet - Do you have a milk-crate? A sturdy box? A low plant or TV stand?
- Keep it in the cabinet but make sure it's got the passage needed to pass air through the system. That means having a place near the front and sides for air to go in and having one near the back for it to go out.
- Keep it on the desk behind the monitor
- Keep it on a nearby bookshelf or cabinet
HEAT in MIND - Remember, a computer keeps cool by circulating air. Lock it up in a cabinet and it can't move the air in the front (or sides) in such a way as to effectively carry heat out the back. You don't have to dedicate a golden pedestal for the computer, but see if there's a way to open up that cabinet that it's sitting in. Any options for vent holes?
Protecting your computer from dust protects you from blue screens and frozen screens. Giving your computer a well-ventilated home is just as important as the cleaning you just completed.