Right And Wrong Ways To De-Dust A PC

Our coverage on getting dust out of a laptop ( http://langa.com/newsletters/2004/2004-06-28.htm#1 ) generated some interesting mail, including this unusual note on the general topic of getting dust out of *any* PC— not just laptops:

…Vacuuming dust from air intakes shouldn’t pose any problems but perhaps you should warn against vacuuming out the inside of a computer. Vacuums can create a good deal of static electricity that could kill a system. The insides should always be blown clean not sucked clean.

Having dogs and cats around has forcibly made me proficient at cleaning computer systems. I try to do each of mine at least every month or two. I’ve also solved many computer problems for friends just by blowing the crud out of them. One had enough fuzz in it to make a whole ‘nuther dog. Here are some things I’ve picked up over the years.

There are several ways to clean the insides of a computer. Many would first reach for one of those cans of compressed air. IMHO they are garbage. They’re expensive, you can’t get them into areas you need to and they’re not nearly powerful enough. But, they are better than nothing.

Better yet is a vacuum in "blow" mode like you can do with many shopvacs and some uprights. A crevice tool will let you direct the air quite well and puts out a good stream of air but not enough to do harm. Just keep it a few inches away from touching anything. [A plastic nozzle or crevice tool also will help reduce the chances of electrical damage.]

My personal favorite is an air compressor with an adjustable pencil type blower nozzle that lets me adjust the pressure. 10 to 20 psi is enough to eradicate dust bunnies and dirt from the tightest corners. I’ve also used a blower end made by jamming an old Chevy pushrod into a male air hose connector. The small hole in the pushrod limits the pressure and gives pinpoint control. The important point is to control the pressure.

When blowing out a system, pay special attention to the areas between the fins of heatsinks. Fan blades should be held from spinning [from the compressed air you're blowing through them] with your finger, a pen or something similar lest you over-rev them and they self destruct. The tough dirt on the leading edge of CPU, case and graphics card fans can be loosened with a toothbrush or small paintbrush and then blown clean. With power supplies and fans all you can do is shove a wooden pencil in the fan blades and blow away from all directions. I usually crank the pressure up a bit when blowing out power supplies.

Do I need to add that this should best be done outside? [The blown-out dust can make a mess.]

While you’re in there, socketed chips (getting rare these days) should be [gently] pressed back into their sockets… Check all cable connections by pressing on them firmly.

And if you really want to be thorough you can reseat cards or pull and clean the contacts with a pencil eraser before reinstalling them. Be sure to brush off all the little eraser bits and put the cards back in the original slots or Windows will go nuts finding new devices on your next boot up.

Well, what started out as a comment about vacuums turned into a little more. —Steve Gonnella

Thanks, Steve!

I’ve also heard that "vacuum cleaners cause static" warning for years, but have yet to see a full explanation of why or how. I can see how rubbing a vacuum cleaner’s nozzle over a carpet in dry weather might generate a static charge, same as when you shuffle your feet on a rug; but this mechanism doesn’t come into play when cleaning a PC. I suppose that the dust and fiber particles colliding and rubbing together in the intake air stream could create a static charge, especially in very dry conditions or with very large quantities of debris, but this seems a low-probability event inside a PC. Still, the probability isn’t zero, so I guess I’d have to agree that blowing— dispersing the dust and fiber rather than concentrating it— is the safer (albeit messier) option. Using plastic nozzles and tools also can help reduce the risk of any electrical problems.

I also agree with Steve that compressed air in cans is ridiculously expensive, but it can be good for reaching inside very small crevices or in places where you want maximum control. I keep a can or two handy for just that, and the cans last a very long time because I hardly ever use them.

But to tell you the truth, my #1 tool for blowing out PC cases is a pair of high-mileage, one-owner, original-equipment human lungs: A huff and a puff or two, and it’s done, especially if you do it more or less routinely, before things get really fuzzy inside your PC. 8-) In any case, lung-power is far simpler than hauling out the vacuum or doing anything as elaborate as rigging an air compressor.

Finally, like Steve, I have also successfully used pencil erasers to clean plug-in card contacts, usually as part of an annual system cleaning. It works fine, but you have to be careful not to rub too hard or you may abrade not just the dirt, but the gold or copper of the contacts as well. If your PC card contacts are *very* dirty or somehow need frequent cleaning, then it’s probably a safer bet to use a cleaning solution specifically designed for electrical contacts. Your local computer supply or audio/video specialty store may have such cleaners in stock, or you can try these highly specialized products:

http://www.stabilant.com/
http://www.google.com/search?q=kontak+cleaner



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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.