When The Dust Hits The Fan

Dust is one of a computer’s worst enemies. Not only does it cause static electricity buildups that can short out electronic components, but when dust bunnies start blocking ventilation ducts and clogging up fans, dust effectively undermines the entire cooling system which leads to an even worse problem: heat buildup. Heat is another mortal foe of computers, causing slowdowns, lockups and possibly worse damage if things start physically melting down.

The internal guts of all computers and laptops must periodically be cleaned of damaging and dangerous dust buildups at least once a year and more frequently when operating in high dust environments. I recently had a client whose PC would no longer boot up; no display and not even a single POST beep. The PC was several years old, had never been cleaned out and was located in a shared business space with a high-traffic laundromat. Laundromats are probably the worst environment for any computer because of the extreme dust and static buildup. This client’s PC tower was chock full of about a gallon’s worth of dust. Every internal fan and vent was completely clogged up. I could have knitted an ugly Christmas sweater with the amount of dust that had to be cleaned out of that PC. Sure enough, with the cooling system rendered useless, the heat buildup inside the tower had caused the PCIe cards and even the memory modules to become gradually unseated from their slot connectors. The client was lucky that the damage wasn’t worse. After a thorough cleaning and reseating of all internal connectors, the PC booted up fine.

Dust isn’t just a problem for PC towers. Dust can be just as damaging for laptops because laptops also need proper ventilation for cooling. Another recent client had an early 2011 MacBook Pro suffering from slowdowns and lockups. AHT Apple Hardware Diagnostics reported an error with the main exhaust fan (4MOT/4/40000002:Exhaust-0) so I opened up the assembly to get a better look. The pictures below reveal the culprit: dust clogging the fan and exhaust vent.

IMG_2968_600 IMG_2969_600

Cleaning out dust from a computer or laptop must be done carefully. Vacuum cleaners are not a wise choice because the static buildup created by the vacuum air flow can cause further damage. Cans of compressed air without any added chemicals are unfortunately the only way to go. It helps to blow out the dust in an outdoor environment, and since the cold compressed air creates some moisture and condensation, the electronics need to completely dry out before powering on. Any debris that stubbornly remains can be cleaned with a Q-tip and isopropyl alcohol, but again, let it sit for enough time to completely dry out before powering on.

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