Infrastructure
Commentary
2/25/2005
08:43 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary

Langa Letter: Getting The Grunge Out Of Your PC

Fred Langa cleans the dirtiest PC he can find, and along the way shows you how you can easily tackle yours.



In our last article, Curing Laptop Overheating, we showed you, step-by-step, how to make your laptop run cooler--and quite possibly last longer--by thoroughly cleaning the dust and dirt from its cooling system.

All PCs can benefit from a little regular physical housekeeping. You see, a PC's constantly whirring fans draw in a huge volume of air. Even in a seemingly clean environment, the amount of dust and dirt that can build up inside a PC's case is nothing short of astonishing. This layer of dust literally acts like a sweater on your PC's delicate electronics, preventing them from getting rid of their heat, and heat is the enemy of all electronics.

At best, excess heat will shorten the life of a PC; if allowed to worsen, it may cause erratic behavior, data errors, spontaneous reboots, and other intermittent problems; and in the worst cases, a PC can literally cook itself to death.

So you see, it's not a matter of being fastidious to clean out a PC from time to time: There are real, tangible benefits in terms of increased longevity and reliability.

Still, few users bother to clean their PCs--apparently thinking it's some arduous, complex task, requiring exotic gear and specialized knowledge. But it's not hard at all.

Our test system: The dirtiest PC I could find!

(click image for larger view)


Our test system: The dirtiest PC I could find!
Over the next few pages, let me show you just how easy it can be to clean even a seriously dirty system. (Yours probably won't be as bad as the one I'll show you.) After seeing how easy it is to handle this worst-case system, it'll be a snap for you to clean your PC, and accrue all the benefits of having a cleaner, cooler-running, longer-lasting machine.

(By the way: The article mentioned previously also contains some generally useful information on cleaning PCs that will help provide a foundation for this article. If you haven't read the earlier article yet, it might be good to take a moment now to do so.)

Like many dirty PCs, our test PC looks fine from the outside: You can't tell from a casual inspection if a PC really is OK, or is slowly cooking to death on the inside.

This specific unit is an ancient Dell that was removed from service in a standard office-type environment: It wasn't in an especially dirty location--in fact, the workspace was cleaned regularly--and there was nothing about the installation to suggest a problem with dust and dirt.

The air intakes on the front of the PC likewise look OK: Nothing to suggest the need for a cleaning. But as we'll soon see, looks can be deceiving.



Even the air intakes look fine;
no hint of trouble here.

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Even the air intakes look fine; no hint of trouble here.

The PC's fans, on the back of the unit, tell a different story. In Photo 3, you can see the dirt and dust inside the power-supply fan.

A look at the power-supply exhaust fan on the back of the case begins to hint at trouble.
A look at the power-supply exhaust fan on the back of the case begins to hint at trouble.

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The case/CPU cooling fan, next to the power-supply fan and similarly visible only from the back of the PC, also shows heavy dust buildup.



Likewise, the case/CPU cooling fan also shows heavy dust buildup.

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Likewise, the case/CPU cooling fan also shows heavy dust buildup.



A Look Inside
The next step is to open the case to actually look inside the PC. Different PC case designs open in different ways, but it's usually a fingers-only exercise with newer PCs, and at worst, may require removal of a few screws. It's not hard at all.

To see what's really going on, we have to open the case. Most newer PCs require no tools. Instead, finger-operated clips and large thumbscrews make access a snap.
To see what's really going on, we have to open the case. Most newer PCs require no tools. Instead, finger-operated clips and large thumbscrews make access a snap.

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In most vertical "tower" or "mini-tower" case designs, the left side of the case (as seen when you face the PC from the front) is designed for easy removal. Here, we've set our test PC on what would normally be its right side, and are preparing to remove what's normally the left side of the case, now facing up for easy access. This Dell design is meant for tool-less access: The side panel is held in place with two squeeze-clips on the rear corners of the panel and one knurled screw in the middle of the panel's rear edge. In Photo 5, I'm pointing at one of the squeeze-clips, and you can see the knurled screw already loosened and protruding from the case on the right side of the photo. It's a "captive" screw; it can't be removed fully from the panel, so it can't be dropped or lost. You just loosen it until it turns freely, and leave it in place.



Most case-latching mechanisms are very simple, like these L-shaped slots.

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Most case-latching mechanisms are very simple, like these L-shaped slots.

There's no single standard way of removing a PC's side panel. The Dell's is held on by small teeth that engage L-shaped slots along the body of the PC: You slide the side panel straight back a short distance, then lift away from the PC body. In other designs, you pull the panel straight back all the way. Other panels are hinged from an edge, or pull straight out, and so on--just work carefully, and in good lighting, and you should be able to see how your side panel comes off.

If you've never opened a PC before, the jumble of wires inside may look intimidating. But we're here for simple cleaning, not re-wiring.
If you've never opened a PC before, the jumble of wires inside may look intimidating. But we're here for simple cleaning, not re-wiring.

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In this instance, the visible portions of this case interior don't look too dirty. I've seen instances where cases have been nearly filled with fluff, carpet fibers, pet hair, and the like. While this isn't the worst PC I've ever seen--not by a long shot--it definitely does need cleaning, as you'll soon see.

A closer look shows a light to moderate dust buildup on what's normally the bottom of the case; but still, this isn't an alarming amount of dirt--yet.



The closer you look, the more dust you'll find.

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The closer you look, the more dust you'll find.

In this Dell design, a plastic shroud acts as an air duct between the CPU and the cooling fan on the back of the PC. This duct ensures that air drawn by that fan must pass over the CPU's heat exchanger first; in effect, concentrating the cooling airflow over the CPU. In other designs, the CPU has no shroud or ductwork. But where such ductwork exists, it must be removed so you can access the parts beneath it.

In most systems, the worst dust is on the fans and around the CPU; in this system, both are beneath this shroud.
In most systems, the worst dust is on the fans and around the CPU; in this system, both are beneath this shroud.

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Note: All the normal common-sense rules of working with electronics apply here: Work in a clean, well-lighted area. Make sure the PC is powered off and unplugged before you open it. Eliminate any static electric potential between you and the PC by touching an exposed part of the metal framework of the PC; and so on. If you're unfamiliar with these basics, see articles like this, this, or this; or how-to guides like this, this, or this. A Google search can turn up any additional information you may need.

This shroud is held in place with two snap-tabs; easily released with a fingernail or a small screwdriver. You unsnap the tabs, and the whole shroud simply lifts off. Other designs may use clips or screws, but the idea's the same.



The shroud is held on with two simple snap-tabs, and is easily removed with fingernails or a small tool.

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The shroud is held on with two simple snap-tabs, and is easily removed with fingernails or a small tool.

Once the shroud is off, you can begin to get an idea where all the dust went.

The inside of the shroud offers a hint as to what lies beneath.
The inside of the shroud offers a hint as to what lies beneath.

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This is why the rest of the case was fairly clean: When the fan shroud concentrated the airflow over the CPU and heatsink, the dust and dirt in the air was likewise concentrated. This is by far the dirtiest place in this system. And note: Some systems will be much, much worse than this!



Even in clean workspaces, PCs pick up and astonishing amount of dust and dirt.

(click image for larger view)

Even in clean workspaces, PCs pick up and astonishing amount of dust and dirt.



Digging Deeper For Dirt
There are other dirty pockets, too. The power supply has its own cooling fan; it draws some air from inside the case through these slots cut into the front edge of the power supply housing. As you can see, dirt and dust accumulate here, as well.

The power-supply housing's air intakes also show some significant dust build up.
The power-supply housing's air intakes also show some significant dust build up.

(click image for larger view)

And consider this: The power supply fan (visible in Photo 3) was dirty; and the intake for that fan, shown above, also is dirty. Therefore, the inside of the power supply also must be dirty. It's not wise to open up power supplies due to the high-voltage components inside, so we'll have to find a way to clean the inside of the power supply in a later step, despite not being able to open it up.

If the air entering the power supply was a source of dust, what about where air entered the system as a whole? In this system, the intake air holes are on the front of the case (as shown in Photo 2). They appeared clean, but that can be deceptive because those air intakes are not the true metal front of the PC, but rather are part of the mostly decorative plastic "bezel." Looking at the bezel may or may not tell you what you need to know about the true front of the case. So: It's smart to pop the bezel off to see what's going on underneath.



For a thorough cleaning, you have to remove the case's front bezel, usually held on by snaps or screws.

(click image for larger view)

For a thorough cleaning, you have to remove the case's front bezel, usually held on by snaps or screws.

In this instance, the bezel has plastic prongs that fit into slots on the front of the PC. To make it easier to remove the bezel, the mounting slots are marked with arrows stamped into the metal of the PC's front. In Photo 14, you can see one such arrow next to my finger. The stamped arrow is pointing to the mounting slot.

Photo 15 (below) zooms in a little tighter and shows you the lower bezel mounting slot, which also is highlighted by a stamped arrow. To release the bezel, you flex each prong just enough to allow it to be pulled out of its slot.

This case design uses stamped arrows to show you the bezel attachment points.
This case design uses stamped arrows to show you the bezel attachment points.

(click image for larger view)

Here's the bezel partially pulled away from the front of the PC, which is lying on its right side on a work table. You can more clearly see the bezel's prongs now: Those prongs snap into the slots on the case marked by the stamped arrows we saw in previous photos. The other side of the bezel is held with simple L-hooks; once the prongs are released, the whole bezel swings out and away from the PC with little resistance.



I stopped removing the bezel at about the halfway mark so you can see how it's attached: The PC is lying on its right side, and I'm lifting the front bezel out and away from the metal front of the PC case. Other case designs may use somewhat different bezel mounting details, but most follow the same general pattern.

(click image for larger view)

I stopped removing the bezel at about the halfway mark so you can see how it's attached: The PC is lying on its right side, and I'm lifting the front bezel out and away from the metal front of the PC case. Other case designs may use somewhat different bezel mounting details, but most follow the same general pattern.

Of course, other designs may differ in the details, but the bezel-mounting concepts are usually generally similar.

Here's why it's a good idea to remove the bezel: Although the bezel's own air-intake holes were clean, look what was accumulating underneath! This is a close-up of the floppy drive opening; other areas under the bezel were similarly dirty.

Just as we suspected, the area beneath the bezel turns out to be a mess. Here, the floppy drive is growing a sweater.
Just as we suspected, the area beneath the bezel turns out to be a mess. Here, the floppy drive is growing a sweater.

(click image for larger view)

Remove any plug-in cards from the system so they and the area beneath them can be cleaned. Make note of any wires you disconnect; a digital camera can be a real help in making a record of your PC's internal setup, so you can recreate it later.



As a final step before we actually start cleaning, we'll remove the system's plug-in cards; a simple screwdriver operation.

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As a final step before we actually start cleaning, we'll remove the system's plug-in cards; a simple screwdriver operation.



Digging Deeper For Dirt (continued)
Here's why it's smart to remove the plug-in cards: In this system, a swirl or eddy of air has deposited little drifts of dust on the motherboard and card sockets. It's much easier to clean these when the cards are out of the way.

Removing the plug-in cards will let us clean dust like this off the motherboard.
Removing the plug-in cards will let us clean dust like this off the motherboard.

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You also may wish to unplug any cables or wires that get in your way. Make a note of what goes where (take a digital photo if you wish; or mark the cables with a permanent marker). Most cables are either "keyed" with specially-shaped plugs that can't be plugged in the wrong way, or have color coding so you can correctly orient them when you put them back. Note the two flat gray cables in the photo: they both have one edge marked with a red stripe. That red stripe should end up in the same place when the system's later reassembled.



Optional: You may find it easier to clean if you unplug various cables to get them out of your way. But if you prefer, you can work around them.

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Optional: You may find it easier to clean if you unplug various cables to get them out of your way. But if you prefer, you can work around them.

Don't pull on the wires or cables directly. Either pull on the plastic connector itself; or, as shown in the photo, pull on the flexible plastic pulling-tab, if your cables are so equipped. Either way, the idea is to keep the mechanical strain off the actual wires and cables.

When a system's this dirty, I use a very slightly water-dampened cloth to wipe off the worst of the dirt and dust. The cloth should be dampened only just enough so that the dust will cling to the cloth instead of being scattered by it; if you can wring drops of water out of the cloth, it's too wet! You want it just barely dampened; no more.

A barely damp cloth can help get the worst of the grunge off the system. See the full text of this article for precautions.
A barely damp cloth can help get the worst of the grunge off the system. See the full text of this article for precautions.

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Working slowly and carefully, I gently wipe where I can. We'll clean more thoroughly later, but this step gets the grossest clumps out of the way.



The same barely damp cloth can easily clean the exterior of the power supply.

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The same barely damp cloth can easily clean the exterior of the power supply.

I also gently wipe down the interior of the case and t0"> usty exterior of the power supply.

Using the barely-damp cloth, I clean everywhere my fingers can reach.
Using the barely-damp cloth, I clean everywhere my fingers can reach.

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Likewise, I clean what I can off the front of the case, in the area normally beneath the bezel. (It may be hard to tell in the photo; but you may be able to see that my damp cleaning cloth is now distinctly gray.)

Our test PC uses an old CPU design, but almost all PCs will have some kind of CPU carrier with a heat sink mounted atop the CPU. Many newer systems will also have a separate CPU fan mounted right on the heat sink. Whatever the design, your task is to get access to the heat sink and any parts of the motherboard blocked by the CPU assembly.

In newer PCs with fans atop the heat sink, there are usually clips or screws holding the fan in place. Once these are removed, the fan simply lifts off. But don't remove or loosen the heat sink from the CPU: It needs a very firm fit to the CPU so heat can flow via conduction from the chip to the sink. There's usually a thin layer of thermal cement or compound between the heat sink and CPU to facilitate the heat transfer; that joint should not be damaged. Work so that you can get at the heat sink without actually having to remove it from the CPU.

Newer systems rarely require removal of the CPU/heat sink assembly, but our test system is actually toward the "worst case" side of the spectrum: the CPU is mounted on a vertical card that plugs into the motherboard; the heat sink is mounted on the side of the vertical CPU. The assembly totally blocks access to the area behind it, and the aluminum heat sink is made up of little tunnels, instead of plain fins; each tunnel is packed with dust, and would be very hard and messy to clean in place.



Newer systems rarely require removal of the CPU/heat sink assembly, but our ancient test system is actually toward the "worst case" side of the spectrum, and is easier to clean with the entire CPU carrier removed.

(click image for larger view)

Newer systems rarely require removal of the CPU/heat sink assembly, but our ancient test system is actually toward the

I opted to remove the CPU/heat sink assembly as a whole. (Note: Even here, I'm not removing the heat sink from the CPU--I'll leave them together, and remove them from the system as a unit.) This ancient design of CPU allows for removal either by flexing the vertical tabs of the white plastic CPU holder, and then pulling vertically on the CPU/heat sink assembly; or by removing everything--heat sink, CPU, and CPU holder--all at once. Because I want to avoid stress on the CPU/heat sink assembly, I removed everything.



Step By Step Cleaning
First, I unscrewed the four brass mounting bolts holding the CPU carrier to the motherboard.

I was then able to use the plastic CPU carrier to lift the entire assembly out of the PC. This helped ensure that all the mechanical stresses were on the plastic carrier, and not on the CPU or its bond to the heat sink.

You can remove the carrier, CPU, and heat sink all at once, as shown here; or leave the plastic carrier in place, and remove just the CPU and heat-sink assembly.
You can remove the carrier, CPU, and heat sink all at once, as shown here; or leave the plastic carrier in place, and remove just the CPU and heat-sink assembly.

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Removing the plastic CPU carrier, I now finally have easy access to the CPU/heat-sink assembly for cleaning.

Again, this is nearly a worst-case scenario: Most newer PCs offer much easier access to the heat sink and surrounding area without having to remove either the heat sink, CPU, or both. Your job will probably be simpler and less complicated than what I'm showing you here!



After setting aside the plastic CPU carrier, I then had easy cleaning access to the CPU/heat-sink assembly.

(click image for larger view)

After setting aside the plastic CPU carrier, I then had easy cleaning access to the CPU/heat-sink assembly.

You now can see that a significant portion of this heat sink was clogged by dust: there's no way it was doing its job. If we hadn't cleaned it, this PC was headed toward serious overheating and a shorter lifespan.

Once again, our trusty cleaning cloth helps to remove the worst of the dust from the heat sink.
Once again, our trusty cleaning cloth helps to remove the worst of the dust from the heat sink.

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This was the dust and dirt made inaccessible by our test system's old CPU design. Now, we can clean it properly.



This is the part of the system blocked by the CPU. With the CPU removed, the whole area now can be cleaned.

(click image for larger view)

This is the part of the system blocked by the CPU. With the CPU removed, the whole area now can be cleaned.

Work to loosen the dust and dirt you see so it can be blown out later. Ordinary cotton swabs do a good job in nooks, crannies, and other space-restricted areas.

Plain, dry cotton swabs are great for cleaning inside places too small for fingers.
Plain, dry cotton swabs are great for cleaning inside places too small for fingers.

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When you've gotten most of the dust and dirt loosened or removed, use "Dust-Off" or a similar "air-in-a-can" product. These inexpensive products can help your cleaning immensely by providing highly controllable, highly directional, very intense bursts of dry, filtered air. The cans usually come with a long plastic nozzle that's ideal for working inside crevices and hard-to-reach places. Many brands of "air in a can" are available; your local office-supply or electronics store probably stocks several.

As shown in Photo 30 (below), use a cotton swab to prevent fan blades from spinning freely as you blast them with compressed air: This prevents the fan from spinning like a pinwheel, and possibly over-revving enough to damage the bearings or motor.



A blast from an 'air in a can' product will just about complete the cleaning job.

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A blast from an 'air in a can' product will just about complete the cleaning job.



Step By Step Cleaning (continued)
Gently clean off any parts that didn't get thoroughly clean with the damp cloth. Swabs also can help clean the narrow spaces such as in heat exchangers; if necessary, you can pull off some of the cotton to make the swab tip narrower for really tight spots.

Continue cleaning the rest of the system, including the CPU/heat sink, and any parts you removed.
Continue cleaning the rest of the system, including the CPU/heat sink, and any parts you removed.

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A blast of compressed air finishes the job, and also can reach areas where your purely mechanical cleaning methods couldn't.



A final blast of compressed air makes the cleaned part like new.

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A final blast of compressed air makes the cleaned part like new.

Once you've worked around the inside of the case, work around the exterior: Use cotton swabs to clean the fans from the outside; and to hold the fan blades in place as you blast the fans clear with compressed air.

Work carefully and with a bright light when cleaning the power supply: Insert the spray tube deep into the power supply housing to clean the interior components as best you can; but use care not to knock anything loose as you maneuver the tube. And watch out! An amazing amount of debris may spew out as you clean.

Next, work around the exterior of the PC, cleaning as before.
Next, work around the exterior of the PC, cleaning as before.

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Blowing out a dirty PC will expel a surprising amount of debris, so you may wish to have a small vacuum handy to clean up any mess. It's generally best not to use a vacuum cleaner inside a very dirty PC, though: Vacuuming heavy dust accumulations can generate a static charge and may damage your PC's electronics. Blowing dust with compressed air is messier, but carries a lower risk of static discharge inside the case.



Yes, it's a little gross, but this kind of dirt and dust is far better in the trash than in your system!

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Yes, it's a little gross, but this kind of dirt and dust is far better in the trash than in your system!

When everything's cleaned, put it all back the way it was, including fans, heat sinks, etc.

After you're done cleaning, it's time to put things back.
After you're done cleaning, it's time to put things back.

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Compare this photo with Photo 12. Quite a difference, isn't it? This system will run much, much cooler now!



Cleaned up, this hardly looks like the system we started with.

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Cleaned up, this hardly looks like the system we started with.

Reinstall any and all connectors you previously removed, using care to get them back in their original orientation.

Re-plug any electrical connectors you removed...
Re-plug any electrical connectors you removed...

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Step By Step Cleaning (continued)
Replace the plug-in cards in the same slots from which they were removed, and tighten the hold-down screws.



... and reinstall any plug-in cards you removed.

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... and reinstall any plug-in cards you removed.

If your system used a shroud or duct, reinstall it to its original location.

Replace any shrouds or ducts you removed.
Replace any shrouds or ducts you removed.

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Make sure the front of the case is OK before you reinstall the bezel. Compare this photo with #17, and you can see this system is good to go.



Check the front before replacing the bezel.

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Check the front before replacing the bezel.

This bezel hooks on the right side, and snaps, via its prongs, on the left. Yours may differ somewhat, but the idea will be similar.

Snap, screw, or otherwise fasten the bezel in place.
Snap, screw, or otherwise fasten the bezel in place.

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Done!
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Done!
Done! The system looks clean, just as it did when we started. But now it really is clean, and will run cooler and more reliably than before.

What tools, tricks and techniques do you use to keep your PC clean? Join in the discussion!


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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