PC Maintenance and Cleaning

This article explains preventive computer maintenance relating to the accumulated dust and grime in your computer. Preventive maintenance and cleaning helps avoid overheating, random crashes, lock-up, and component failure, and can save you money in the long run. Dirty keyboards and mice used by more than one person can easily spread germs between users.

Computer components attract dust, dirt, lint, carpet fibers, pet hair, and smoke particles. At least two fans are bringing air into the computer to keep the internal components cool. Unfortunately, the air also contains grime, which settles on the components, and can cause a variety of problems. Even the thinnest coating of dust will raise the temperature of your components. The grime buildup causes overheating, which eventually results in permanent hardware failure.

If you smoke, or consume food and drink near your computer, these particles will provide nourishment for germs, as they find their new home between the keyboard keys and on your mouse pad. Honestly, when was the last time you sanitized your keyboard, mouse, and mouse pad to remove germs?

How often should you "clean" your computer? It depends on your environment. As a rule, complete cleaning should be done at least once a year. After you observe the accumulated grime, you will probably decide to increase the frequency of your computer cleanings. If the computer is used in a hot, dusty or moist environment, cleaning must be performed more frequently.

There is plenty of conflicting information on web pages describing how to clean your computer. For example, some sites state that monitor screens can be cleaned with Windex and paper towels. Other sites state that ammonia based chemicals will destroy the anti-glare and anti-static coatings on the monitor screens, and paper towels can scratch the screen and leave residue behind. In all cases of conflicting information, I checked additional manufacturer sites to verify the information that made the most sense.

Getting Started

To perform a complete cleaning, which includes cleaning the power supply; you need to remove all the exterior electrical cords and cables from your computer case. Most computers, and system boards, do not ever fully power off as long as they are plugged in. Most computers use color coded cables, and most cables can only fit one way. To make it easier to reconnect the cables when the cleaning is done, make a diagram and label where each cable connects to the computer. You can also use a digital camera to recreate the cable connections, both outside and inside the case. Let the computer cool to room temperature (at least 15 minutes) before cleaning the inside of the case. It is also a good idea to wear an anti-static wrist strip to reduce transferring static electricity from your body to the computer.

Your computer should be placed on a clean lint-free surface. (Not laid on the carpet.) Since your body may have static electricity, do not touch anything on the inside of the computer until you either put on an antistatic wristband, or place your hand on the metal frame of the computer case.

Can of compressed air

When spraying compressed air, hold the can as upright as possible to avoid expelling moisture. Some cans contain other chemicals that can help dissolve grime. If not held upright, they can release a flammable liquid which can also cause frostbite and burn your skin. Short, quick blasts should be sprayed in the direction of the area to be cleaned.

Battery powered computer vacuum cleaner

It is safe to use a plastic nozzle of the vacuum cleaner to suck up dirt, dust, food, and hair from keyboards and the outside of the case. Never use an electric vacuum cleaner on the inside of the computer case. Electric vacuum cleaners create static electricity that can damage the internal components.

Battery powered handheld vacuum cleaners should not touch internal components. Getting too close can accidentally loosen cable connections, or remove jumpers from computer cards and the motherboard.

Lint-free or microfiber cloth

Cloths used to clean eyeglasses and camera lenses can also be used to clean the delicate surfaces of LCD screens and CRT monitors. Do not use paper towels or an old rag to clean delicate surfaces of a computer. Paper products contain cellulose which can scratch delicate surfaces. In addition, avoid products that contain lotions which will leave streaks on your computer equipment.

Artists small soft bristle brushes

Artist brushes with 1/2" to 1-1/2" bristles can be used to clean hard to reach places. The brushes can be used to gently dislodge dust from video card fans and between the keys of the keyboard. A pastry brush can also be used.

Cleaning solutions

Never apply cleaning solutions, including water, directly to computer components. Solutions are always sprayed on the cloth, and then the cloth is used to wipe the component. When rubbing alcohol is used with cotton swabs, the swabs should be moist, not dripping with solution. Avoid ammonia-based cleaners. Isopropyl alcohol can be purchased at most drug stores.

Case Cleaning

Almost any type of household cleaner can be used to clean the outside of the computer case. The cleaner should not dissolve or scratch the finish.

The inside of the computer case can be cleaned by using a can of compressed air. Blow the dust out of the case rather than relocating it inside the case. Pay extra attention to the front and rear air vents. If possible, do not use compressed air indoors. The dust and grime that is jarred loose is not fit to breathe. If you use compressed air indoors, use the vacuum cleaner to catch the grime as it flies out of the computer.

Often a plastic shroud is placed over the CPU, to concentrate the airflow past the CPU's heat exchanger. This shroud can be easily removed with a small screwdriver, or with snap-tabs. If the rest of the computer is dirty, and the air was concentrated under the shroud, you will more than likely see a larger amount of dirt and grime. That grime needs to be cleaned from the fan that is mounted on the heat sink. Usually the fan is held in place by screws or clips. Remove the fan, but do not remove the heat sink from the CPU. Use a cotton swab to hold the fan in place when it is sprayed with compressed air.

A slightly moist cloth can be used inside the computer case to wipe off dust and grime. Artist's brushes can be used to loosen dust that has settled on fans and other computer components. If you smoke by your computer, the sticky residue on the computer parts must be either physically wiped clean with antistatic wipes, or replaced entirely.

Never open the power supply case. Even an unplugged power supply can produce an electrical shock. When the power supply is working, it draws heated air (and grime) from your computer case. Some of this grime and dirt will settle on the vents and the blades of the power supply unit fans. The compressed air should be sprayed directly into the power supply vents from inside the case, so the grime exits out of the back of the case. Have a vacuum cleaner handy to collect this grime as it comes out.

If the power supply is dirty, then the air entering the power supply from inside the case was also dirty. That air comes from the vents, usually located on the front of the PC. The mostly decorative plastic bezel should be removed by bending a couple of plastic prongs. More than likely, you will be surprised by the gunk that has accumulated between the bezel and the case. The bezel and the front of the case need to be wiped with the moist cloth.

The other fans, ports, and jacks on the case should also be sprayed. Do not use compressed gas to clean the floppy diskette, CD, DVD, or Zip drives. Don't use your breath to blow the dust off the components. Your breath contains moisture, and the components are not built to be rust-proof.

Compressed gas will not be able to remove all the grime and dirt from inside the case. It may be necessary to replace fans or physically wipe some computer components. Never use anything wet or damp inside the computer case. Do not let any component or circuit board inside the computer case get wet or damp. Do not attempt to clean the motherboard with a cloth as you may damage the electrical components.

Use compressed gas or a vacuum cleaner to remove dust before removing expansion cards. This helps prevent dirt and debris from falling into the slots and causing poor connections with the motherboard.

Fans located on your heat sink and graphics cards can be cleaned with a soft artists brush. Never use a brush to clean the blades of a power supply unit fan or on a circuit board. Using a brush on a circuit board can generate enough static electricity to damage the board.

Something else to consider is raising your computer case off the floor. Since your computer case is on the floor, dust stirred up by normal movement will be easily sucked in to the computer case. By raising the case two feet off the floor, you can create additional storage space beneath the case, and the amount of dust available to get inside your case will be reduced. The extra height also makes the USB ports and CD-ROM drives more accessible. Leave at least two inches of space behind and above your case for air to circulate properly.

If your computer is used in a very dusty environment, you might consider using the filtering material used by room air conditioners. It is available at hardware stores, can be cut to fit, and will catch a lot of dirt and debris before it enters your computer. The intake vents are usually located at the front of the case behind the bezel.

Laptop Cleaning

Overheating is the biggest enemy of laptops. In general, laptops have intake vents to draw cool air into the system, past a heat exchanger, and then pass the heated air through exhaust vents. Lower priced notebooks depend on convection and conduction to remove the heat. Higher priced notebooks include a fan to help remove the excess heat. The battery should be removed before cleaning a laptop.

Dead fans, dirt, and the environment are the three main causes of overheating. Dirt, dust and dead fans reduce the air flow through the laptop. Examine the air intake and exhaust vents, and fan(s). It's likely you'll find some of these opening blocked with fine gray dust. Behind the exhaust vents you may see heat sinks that are also covered with dirt. An artists paint brush or cotton swabs can loosen or remove much of the visible dirt. The small fan in the laptop can be damaged by having it spin too fast from a blast of compressed air. Use a cotton swab to hold the fan in place, before using compressed air to remove any remaining dirt from the vent cavities.

Avoid using your laptop in direct sunlight for extended periods of time. Don't place your laptops near heat sources like radiators, hot air vents, etc. Don't leave it in a closed car on a sunny day. Don't use your laptop on a soft surface like a couch, bed, or carpeted floor because the laptop vents will be blocked.

Laptop cases should be cleaned with a microfiber cloth. Never disassemble a laptop. Usually, spraying compressed air through any open vents and on fans is sufficient. Do not spray compressed gas into a floppy drive or CD/DVD cavity.

LCD Cleaning

Fingerprints and smudges on an LCD screen should be removed with a soft dry cotton cloth. Apply as little pressure as possible when cleaning the LCD screen. If this does not work, the cleaning fluid used to clean LCDs is usually a 50-50 mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water. Cleaning fluids sold for cleaning CRT monitors can damage the more delicate plastic LCDs (liquid-crystal displays).

Never use a cleaning fluid with ammonia on an LCD. The ammonia can erode the plastic of the LCD screen, causing the surface to become yellow and brittle.

Monitor (CRT) Cleaning

Electrical fields radiated from monitors attract dust. A monitor cleaning brush can be used to remove dust from the display. If more cleaning is needed, clean with a dry microfiber cloth. If still more cleaning is needed, use a microfiber cloth dampened with water, followed by the dry cotton cloth.

If a solvent is needed to clean the monitor, water should always be your first choice. A CRT's display may have antiglare and/or antistatic coatings. Using cleaners that contain an acid, alcohol, or alkaline detergent, thinner, benzene, abrasive powders, or antistatic agents can permanently damage your display. Monitors and LCDs should never be cleaned with products containing ammonia. General cleaning fluids are not safe for cleaning monitors.

Vacuum the vents on the monitor to remove the dust. Do not used compressed gas to blow the dust into the monitor. Do not pile papers and books on top of the monitor. Vents were added to the monitors to promote air circulation and prevent overheating. Never open a monitor to view the inside. Monitors can discharge electricity, even when they are unplugged.

CD-ROM/DVD and Floppy Drive Cleaning

Dirty CD-ROM/DVD and floppy drives can cause errors while reading and writing. A CD lens cleaner and floppy disk cleaner should be used. Blasts of compressed air can harm the delicate parts inside. Avoid the commercial cleaning disks that use cleaning liquids. Do not attempt to clean drive heads with a swab. You may accidentally misalign the read-write heads, making the drive inoperable.

Keyboard Cleaning

Disconnect the keyboard from the computer. While holding the keyboard upside down, shake it to dislodge any loose debris. Debris can include food crumbs, dust, and particles of human skin. Use compressed air to dislodge additional particles. The keyboard keys can be wiped with common antibacterial and disinfecting wipes, or by using cotton swabs dampened with rubbing alcohol.

Mouse Cleaning

Has your mouse cursor ever started to move on the screen, but you weren't touching the mouse? Erratic mouse behavior can be caused by a dirty mouse ball. As the mouse ball moves, it picks up lint, hair, dust, and other things and deposits some of this grime inside the mouse ball cavity.

Disconnect the mouse from the computer, turn the mouse over, and rotate the plastic ring (usually counterclockwise). You should then be able to release the mouse ball and view the mouse cavity. Grime in the mouse cavity can be dislodged by compressed air. You may need an eraser or pair of tweezers to pull any lint stuck to the rollers. Rubbing alcohol on cotton swabs can be used to clean the mouse ball and mouse cavity. Make sure these parts are dry before you put the mouse back together. Your mouse pad can also be cleaned with a piece of tape.

Most mice have an indentation where the top of bottom halves are put together. Examine this groove for particles. The groove can be cleaned with an index card or a folded piece of paper.

An optical mouse can be cleaned by wiping it with a damp lint-free cloth. There is no reason to open an optical mouse.

PC Maintenance Summary

A computer user needs to be serious about maintaining their computer. Preventative maintenance allows computers to run cooler, quieter, and look better. Clean equipment can also prevent you and others from passing germs and becoming ill.

Terry Jepson
www.wiscocomputing.com