Dust bunnies and electronic heat stroke

Computers sometimes need a little tender loving care, particularly in summer. Warm weather can make processors sweat, especially if the inside of your computer case has become a habitat for dust bunnies.

If a desktop PC runs all day long and the casing sits on a dusty corner of the carpet, it’s likely to quickly become a dust trap. If there’s a smoker in the area as well, then the surfaces will also pick up a sticky film.
Together or alone, dusty and smoke assail the fans that are place in the power block, processor and graphics card.

“Quiet-running processor fans in particular often have very fine blades that are afflicted quickly,” explains Christof Windeck, editor at the Hanover-based computer magazine c’t. Dust filters on the intake ports could help, but they are not yet widely used. This is probably because it increases the maintenance effort: the filters must be regularly changed.

Too much dust can leave fans running dry, warns Heiko Loy from the computer mail-order company Pearl.

“The dust is drawn into the fan’s ball bearings. In the short or long run, the fans begin running slower and slower,” he says. The result: the processor gets too hot, the computer slower, and under some circumstances the system may completely crash. The life expectancy of hard drives is also reduced if the cooling system does not function properly.

Windeck advises the use of special monitoring programs to keep an overview of the processor and fan temperatures. These programs, produced by the processor makers, often come included with the computer. There are also software solutions for hard-drive monitoring.

“The problem: there are no universal standards. There is no tool that guarantees correct values for all hard drives,” Windeck says.

If no monitoring programs are available, then users should trust their senses: if the fans grow louder over time or the system becomes more unstable, then it’s worth the time to check under the hood, particularly during the heat of summer.

Amateurs should remember the golden rule of PC maintenance: don’t be over-ambitious. “Never clean a running system,” the saying goes, meaning that opened computers should only be cleaned seldom and very carefully.

“I cannot give a blanket recommendation to open up a computer’s casing regularly,” says Jaroslav Smycek, a computer expert at the consumer central office in Hanover. “Those who trust themselves to do so should carefully remove the dust with a paintbrush and vacuum cleaner.”

Overly aggressive cleaning could damage the components, Smycek claims. Cables and jumpers can easily break off if the suction is too stark. Special brushes and attachments are a good investment for vacuuming inside the PC casing. Another option is to use compressed air from cans.

The fans are particularly sensitive components. Their propellers reach speeds of up to 6 000 revolutions per minute. Even the slightest unbalance causes added noise. PC owners should therefore avoid touching the propellers with their fingers as much as possible.

“There are fan makers who say that once one of these things is set off-balance even once, there’s no hope that it will run quietly again,” Windeck says.

Cleaning flat-screen monitors is quite different from cleaning old tube monitors. For starters, glass cleaners are a no-no. The matte panels on the LCD monitors are highly sensitive, particularly devices with mirrored surfaces. Heiko Loy from Pearl recommends micro-fibre cleaning cloths tailored for TFT monitors.

“The manufacturers recommend slightly moist cloths,” says Christof Windeck. “There is no perfect universal solution, since various materials can be used with plastic surfaces.”

Optical drives need care too. “If a CD/DVD drive is old and starts refusing to read, then the lenses should be cleaned,” says Heiko Loy. Special cleaning CDs with brushes on their bottom can be used to handle the task.

Those looking to install plug-in cards and memory chips are recommended to wear a grounding strap before getting to work. “All processor makers recommend this,” Windeck says. “We only do so rarely and have had almost no problems.”

Yet long-term damage to components cannot be ruled out. His advice: touch the radiator before touching the elements, and never touch the contacts. “The skin fats and acids can attack the contacts. It can work fine 100 times, but the one time it doesn’t, what a headache.”—Sapa-dpa

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