Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blow it out your computer! (05/2006)

Q. I have been told the reason my old computer went bad is because I didn't clean it and dust on the inside caused it to get too hot. I just bought a new Dell and want it to last longer than the old one. It was only two years old. They also said cigarette smoke had a lot to do with it too. Can you tell me the best way to keep a computer in good working order? Thanks J.W.T.

A. A typical computer Central Processing Unit (CPU) runs as hot as the hot water from your kitchen faucet or about 120 degrees Fahrenheit if all cooling fans are operating correctly. Dust acts as a thermal insulator so that build-up can cause the processor to heat up beyond the maximum operating temperature of about 180 degrees. If this happens, monitoring software is supposed to shut the system down before any damage occurs. This monitoring technology isn’t foolproof and may not always prevent the CPU from reaching dangerous levels. Repeated “thermal incidents” can cause premature failure of the CPU. Perhaps this is what happened to your old system.

I recommend you open up your case and inspect the dust level about one a year. Once you do it once or twice, you'll get an idea of the time it takes for dust to build up inside your computer. My personal computer needs a cleaning about every four years but we see year-old systems in the shop filled with dust so use your own judgment.

Getting rid of the dust is really easy. Most new computers have a side panel on the left side of the computer (as you are facing it) that is removed using thumb screws located on the back of the computer. If you remove this side panel and your first reaction is “Ewwwwww!” then it’s time to blow the dust out.

Some people remove the dust indoors using a vacuum. This is okay in a pinch but if you have a severe case of dust-itus, you’ll need to purchase a can of compressed air from an office supply place, take the system outside and blow it out. These cans of compressed air come with a little straw that attaches to the business end of the spray nozzle. Most of the dangerous dust build-up occurs around a copper or aluminum block of metal called a heat sink as well as inside the power supply unit. Give those areas a little extra squirt of air to make sure they are dust free.

The only problem with cigarette smoke (as far as I know) is that it makes the computer smell bad and coats the innards with icky brown stuff. But you just never know. As soon as I tell you it doesn’t do any harm, someone smarter than I will prove that second hand smoke causes hard drive cancer. So, go ahead and quit smoking. I did that a while back and haven’t had computer problems since.

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