Spring Computer Cleaning

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March Madness

Spring has sprung and around here that means March Madness.

While it does matter in this state whether you pull for Duke, UNC, NC State (Go Pack!), or Wake Forest; once we get past the deep divisions of the season, another seasonal ritual is just around the corner:

Spring Cleaning!

Spring cleaning can mean many things. In your home: washing windows and floors or hauling off trash. In the office: purging old files, furniture, and assets. Often neglected are your computer hardware assets.

Yes, computers need a cleaning! Not with soap and water, but cleaning PCs, servers, and laptops is an often overlooked step of IT maintenance. When a client brings a computer in for service, we typically give it a good cleaning and return it looking and working better than new, but this is a service item that should be regularly planned out and spring is great time to do it when other clean up tasks are on your mind.

Why does a computer need cleaning?

A computer needs cleaning because a buildup of dust on the internal components can slow airflow and impede the transfer of heat. This can cause the computer to run hot and the fans to run faster and louder than normal. Heat is the number 1 enemy of computers and running too hot for too long can greatly reduce the lifespan of a system. This is why large data centers run massive cooling systems and use air filtration to minimize dust buildup. Most small businesses don’t have these luxuries which makes cleaning out a computer all the more important.

Heating will also cause a computer to run slower because the CPU will automatically throttle back to keep the temperature from rising. No one likes a slow computer! This should be enough of a reason to make you start reaching for your cleaning supplies.

Another good reason to add computer cleaning to your checklist is that dust traps moisture. You wouldn’t intentionally pour a glass of water into your computer, but by letting dust build up inside you are trapping moisture next to the sensitive components. In some bad cases, this can cause rust and corrosion.

The worst example I have seen of this was a computer that came into our lab and was so caked with dust that we couldn’t even work on it. We ran a few initial tests and then proceeded to clean it. There was dust trapped on and under the motherboard, and rust had formed under the dust next to some of the screws and other steel parts. After we removed the dust and exposed the corrosion, the system would no longer boot. The dust was keeping it alive! Jokes aside, it should have never gotten to this point. The PC had clearly been running poorly for a while. This was an older system and was near the end of its service life, but its utility could have been improved with proper maintenance.

How do you clean a computer?

Now that I’ve convinced you that cleaning your computers is a good idea, how do you do it?

First you need to gather the proper materials. You will need:

  • Paper towels
  • Air source (canned air or air compressor with filter)
  • Vacuum cleaner (preferably an anti-static vacuum cleaner)
  • A gentle cleaner/degreaser (409, Windex, Fantastik, etc.)
  • Water

Most of the steps for cleaning a computer are going to be similar for a PC, laptop or server, but some are specific to one or the other (i.e. , it is difficult to open a laptop chassis, so you can skip that step).

Now that you’ve gathered the materials, first start by turning the desktop, laptop, or server off. Remove all cords, including the power cord, any usb drives, wireless dongles etc. Remove the battery if it is a laptop.

First, we’ll begin by removing the heavy dust. This is where the air and vacuum come in. A word of warning, vacuums generate a lot of static electricity in their operation. So do not use one to blow out a computer unless it is a specialized electronic vacuum. Otherwise we use canned or compressed air to blow out the computer, and the vacuum merely to collect the dust.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to perform anything this invasive to clean and maintain your computer.

Caution THIS CAN GET REALLY MESSY! It is best to take the computers outside if possible. (At a previous job we did this on the loading dock out back with an air compressor. Here at Cii, we use a small portable air compressor and vacuum to collect the bulk of the dust.)

Basically you simply blow the air to dislodge the dust and round up the large dust bunnies with the vacuum, or just blow them out of the chassis for cleanup later. You will want to blow through the power supply, and through any fans and heatsinks, plus through any chassis vents where dust accumulates. Also, blow through both ways, from the inside and outside to dislodge dust that may get stuck one way or another. Laptops typically have an inlet or outlet on the side, back, or bottom, servers and PCs will blow straight through, and some PCs will have extra fans on the top, side and front.

Once the dust is loosened, then vacuum up what you can, trying not to get too close to the actual computer components, you don’t want a static discharge to damage anything.

Now that the dust bunnies are tamed you can close up the system and get ready to clean the outside. First, DO NOT spray any cleaner or water directly onto your computer. You want to LIGHTLY moisten a paper towel with a little cleaner or water, and then wipe off your system. You want it to dry off quickly, not letting the device stay wet.

Only use water on the screen. Some have protective coatings that can be damaged by cleaners, and it is safer this way. I only clean a screen if it is visibly dirty and smudged.

You can use the cleaner to remove oil, grease and dirt from the keyboard, mouse, and outside of the computer as well as the chassis of the monitor. Just spray a little on a paper towel and gently wipe down the system. If it has been a while since the computer was cleaned, you may find some stains that are stubborn. Also stay away from License Keys or Serial number stickers, you don’t want to damage them unintentionally.

With a little attention and elbow grease, your computer assets will be shining like new again and may even be running a little faster and/or quieter. This will also help preserve a longer service life for the unit. Check out some of our other blog posts for more computer and business technology tips.