A Dirty Computer Can Overheat and Slow Down, Sometimes Causing Damage and Error Messages
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A Dirty Computer Can Overheat and Slow Down, Sometimes Causing Damage and Error Messages

Heat dissipates quickly in newer computers, but can cause damage in a computer with dust build up on the fans and other internal parts

August 4, 2021

We know the importance of keeping software updated in order to keep our computers running smoothly. Not many people know about the importance of keeping things clean inside our computers in order to get the longest life and best performance. A computer that is clogged with dust and isn't able to breath properly is prone to overheating, which can cause slowdowns, shutdowns, and even heat damage.

Heat Can kill electronics and slow speed

Heat is the often the cause of many electronics failures. A computer that is starved for air flow will not only work harder and hotter, but will also slow down because of heat buildup. Many of today's modern computer components sense temperature spikes and slow down in an attempt to keep the temperature within specifications. If it is unable to keep the temperature within check, your computer might shut down frequently in order to prevent damage. Such is especially true in laptop computers, which are some of the most difficult computers to clean as they often require extensive disassembly of of unit.

But heat can also cause damage if too much builds up and it has nowhere to go. The circuit boards in modern electronics have a lot of very small circuit pathways that can easy short out if enough heat is present to cause warping. Preventing heat buildup can prevent this damage.

what can I do?

Take a small vacuum attachment and suck the dust from the computer case and from the fans and heat sink assemblies. Whenever working inside a computer, you should use an electrostatic device, such as a wristband, and unplug the unit. Static electricity can damage the sensitive components of your computer and make them completely unusable. Try not to touch any electronics while sucking the dust out. If you choose to use a can of compressed air, use short duration bursts kept a safe distance from the components. Using compressed air for too long or too close to the components can damage them. The compressed air would be best saved until after you vacuum the dust away as it can blow the dust all over the place. Most power supplies on a computer can't be opened, so compressed air might be your only option to clean them. If you are working with a laptop, you should be able to easily remove the bottom cover by removing the small screws holding it in place.

you can and probably should remove fans

Most fans attached to the computer case can be easily removed. These fans are usually the largest on the computer and are mounted in the rear. There may be additional fans in the front of the case that are just as easy to remove, often being held in place by a plastic retainer that simply pops out. They are connected to the main board via a small wire that can easily be removed by gripping the connector and pulling. When you remove a fan, you can clean the delicate fan blades of dust and grime buildup. Alternatively, you can buy a new fan if yours is too far gone or making unusual noises. Reinstall in the same location.

cleaning fan blades

With the fan removed from the case, a small cloth dipped in a mild rubbing alcohol solution works wonders to clean the blade. Try to gently turn the fan. There will be a very slight amount of resistance, which is normal. Any binding fan or one that spins without any resistance at all should be replaced.

The processor fan

Most computers have a small fan on the processor heat sink, which is a radiator-like device located somewhere on the main board. Some computers funnel incoming air from the case fan via a plastic shroud leading directly to the heat sink instead. The heat sink and processor fan area is notorious for dust buildup as the air must pass through very narrow passages and can easily clog. Make sure that dust and hair are removed from the heat sink. You may be able to easily remove the processor fan with a simple clip, retainer or screw. If you feel comfortable in doing so, you can remove the fan and clean the fan blades in much the same way as the case fan. You might find q tips dipped in rubbing alcohol to be more effective than a large cloth. These blades are delicate, so use a light touch.

removing heatsinks

If you decide to remove the aluminum heat sink to give it a good bath, simply remove the clips or screws, release the pressure lever and remove. But be sure to have a small tube of thermal compound ready. You can buy it at any electronics store as a small tube of paste for about a dollar which you then apply to the processor before reinstalling the heat sink. The compound will solidify shortly after making contact with the two components and facilitates heat transfer between the processor and heat sink assembly. Make sure the thermal compound is for your type of heatsink as some do not work with certain types of metal.

High end video cards

If you have a separate video card, you may consider cleaning it, as well. Many of the high performance video cards have integrated fans that can also become dirty. Use great care when cleaning one of these components as the static electricity can easily damage these several hundred dollar components. These fans, just as all the others, are removable and can be cleaned. Usually, a small screwdriver is needed.

how often should I clean my case?

How often you clean your computer is a matter of debate. Some clean it yearly while others clean it monthly. We think three-four months is a good range. If the computer is always on, you have pets, you smoke, you have a lot of carpet or the computer is kept on the floor, you will probably need to clean it more regularly. If you have any doubts as to your abilities to clean your computer, consider taking it to a computer repair facility. They'll be willing to help you clean it out for a small fee.