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PC "blue screens"? Locks up? randomly reboots? Just plain slow? Clean it! Here's how..

Updated on October 2, 2009

An extreme case!

The air in this PC is pulled in through a slot at the bottom of the front plastic panel. Over a couple of years, much dust has accumulated, the machine regularly overheats and freezes.
The air in this PC is pulled in through a slot at the bottom of the front plastic panel. Over a couple of years, much dust has accumulated, the machine regularly overheats and freezes.

Why clean?

PC's are frequently kept in places where they get dirty - under desks, on the floor, in dusty corners. If they're dirty on the outside they look terrible and if they're dirty on the inside it can impact performance and even cause damage!

Now this may sound strange but it's because the PC has fans which pull air into the case to cool things, they pull dust in with it. This dust can build up, especially on processor coolers, and cause overheating. In theory modern systems should protect themselves against damage caused by this but my experience has been that they often don't manage to do so.

You may think that if you keep your house spotless and dust every day this doesn't apply to you - but you'd be surprised!

So, the moral is: clean your PC at least once a year!

How to clean the outside

How to clean the outside In common with most electronic equipment, the usual advice applies. First of all, power it down. If there is a physical on-off switch on the back, turn it off. Then disconnect the power cable.

Some PC cases have a recess at the back where the expansion cards are. This can get full of dust and fluff. If so, use a vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool to remove most of the dust etc before proceeding. This also applies to PCs that have doors on the front of the case: if these are only opened once in a blue moon, you may find a furball inside! Again, remove with a vacuum cleaner.

Now use an anti-static spray or solution dsigned for electronics and follow the instructions. If it has to be applied with a cloth, take care not to over-wet the cloth. If your PC is too dusty to use that method, do it this way:

  • Use one drop of washing-up liquid on a kitchen paper towel. Damp the towel and ring it out till it doesn't drip. Don't use the paper towels made for hand drying as they will disintegrate easily if misused in this way.
  • Wipe the PC over, being careful not to squeeze water out of the towel so it can get into the gaps in the PC case - using a very light touch will do the job adequately.
  • Use a second paper towel (or towels, as needed) moistened only with plain water and wipe the case over with that to remove traces of the detergent.
  • Finally, use a dry towel to remove as much remaining moisture as possible - there should be very little visible in any case.

It may sound stupid to say this, but don't forget to re-connect the power cable and (if applicable) switch the rear power switch back on when you've finished! It's easy to forget one of these steps.

How to clean the inside

If you're not handy with a screwdriver, take the PC down to your local friendly PC shop and ask them to do it for you! Don't take it to one of the big chain stores unless there's someone there you know well enough to trust.

Most PC cases have a removable side. It may be held on with a two or three thumbscrews or cross-head screws at the back of the case. Some use a catch mechanism instead, sometimes well hidden - you'll have to check your own case to see exactly how to open it.

Once you've removed the screws/sprung the catch, the side of the case normally slides rearwards and then you can lift the back edge (sometimes the top edge) away and then the side can be removed completely. Some do not slide: in this case, the usual method is to tilt the top of the side panel outwards from the case and then lift it off completely. With some cases you have to pop the plastic front off at the left edge (looking from the front of the case) to release the side panel, as well as any other retention method that has been used.

Now you can see inside the case and gauge the magnitude of the job you have before you. If it now looks too daunting, replace the side and take it to the local PC shop - see above!)

Getting stuck in!

In any case, you want to remove the front panel, however it comes off, and clean behind it - this is the first time you'll need a vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool for this job but it won't be the last!

If the front doesn't just pop off with a bit of determined tugging on the left hand side, then once you've got the side off, look just inside the front right hand corner and you'll probably see three or four plastic tongues sticking through the metal front plate. These have catches on them: gently pull the front panel away from the case and push the tongues sideways, one at a time, until the front comes free at that side. It'll probably just unhook from the other side but if you're unlucky, you may have to remove the other side panel & disengage the catches on that side too.

Assuming you're confident to proceed, the first thing is to note the positions of all cables - where they are connected to etc. Make a diagram; if you have a digicam, take some pictures (print them out at a reasonable size before proceeding - so power the PC up again to print!). Carefully disconnect any cables which you can see are in the way of cleaning you will need to do. The most likely culprits here are the big, flat ribbon cables used for discs and CD/DVD drives on older systems. Grasp the connector and rock it from side to side whilst pulling - that usually works. Try not to remove these connectors by pulling on the cable but if you really have to, pull very gently on one side and then the other so the connector eases out of its socket little-by-little, one side then the other.

Use a vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool to remove as much dust and fluff as possible. Do not scrape the end of the tool over the motherboard or the surface of any expansion cards. You may damage the delicate components there and completely stop you're system from working. Next, loosen any remaining fluff you're crevice tool didn't manage to pick up with a stiffish brush - I find a large old hog's bristle paintbrush ideal for this as the long handle enables you to get to the awkward bits and the bristles are stiff enough to effectively loosen dirt but not damage things. Just don't press hard with the brush - it isn't necessary. Now remove all the loosened fluff etc with the vacuum. Repeat as necessary. Pay particular attention to the cooling air grilles on the power supply (the metal box, usually at the top of the PC, that the power cable plugs into.

A heatsink in need of cleaning

This is a typical sight you'll be presented with after you've removed the fan from the CPU heatsink (cooler)
This is a typical sight you'll be presented with after you've removed the fan from the CPU heatsink (cooler)

CPU Cooler & Fan

Now for another bit you may want to leave to a specialist. the fans on CPU coolers (heatsinks) can easily get badly clogged with dust. In order to deal with this, you will almost certainly need to remove the fan from the heatsink. If you're lucky, the fan body will be a plastic molding which incorporates some clips to hold it to the heatsink. It should be easy enough to figure out how to pop it off. More usually, there are four cross-head screws holding it on. If you can, clear the dust etc from between the heatsink vanes using a carpet needle, very fine screwdriver or anything similar. Be gentle! I usually have the nozzle of the vacuum's crevice tool hovering nearby to collect the stuff as I'm loosening it.

The Fan

Whilst you're doing this job, spin the fan blades with your finger & check they spin reasonably freely, without crunchy noises. Dust gets into the fan bearings over time and will wreck them. This is, unfortunately, normal. Very high quality cooling fans have sealed bearings that will last for years but price is not always an indicator of quality in this sector of the market. Replace the fan if it shows signs of sticking whilst rotating, is noisy or the blade assembly can "rock" with respect to the fan body. A little movement is OK but too much (which is difficult to define!) indicates badly worn bearings which will eventually seize. Sometimes, if the fan is just a bit noisy, a single drop of sewing machine oil in the bearings will rescue it for another year or so of service.

In the worst case, you may need to remove the heatsink completely from the CPU chip in order to clean it properly. Replacing it properly is a job that needs some experience and the correct heat transfer compound (between the heatsink and chip). If you're not happy about trying this (and getting it wrong can be catastrophic for your CPU), then it's once more a job for your local PC shop.

A System chip with a fan-assisted cooler

System chips

These are the chips on the motherboard which don't plug in but these days often have a heat sink and sometimes even a fan. These need to be cleaned in much the same way as the PU cooler. However, normally you will not have to remove the heatsink from the chip and in many cases you can't - they're glued to the chip!


A Graphics card fan that stopped working!

Graphics cards

Again, coolers on these need to be cleaned in the same way as the CPU cooler. They also have fans which fail, in my experience, more often than the CPU fans. It can be difficult to get replacements that fit in exactly the same way as the original and even if you can, they often seem to cost as much as a cheap replacement card which is "younger" and more powerful than your existing card. It can sometimes be possible to DIY fit a different fan to do the job - used laptop CPU fans available at computer fairs for a few $, £ or € will do.


All finished

After all your cleaning is done, replace all the cables you disconnected. Press firmly on the connectors at the other end of each cable to ensure they are still seated properly - it's easy to dislodge them slightly whilst working at the "other end" of the cable. Go round every other cable you can see and check that its connectors are seated properly - a firm press, without bending anything, will suffice.

Similarly, ensure all expansion cards - graphics cards, modems, WiFi cards, TV tuners, etc - are seated properly. Press down firmly on their top edge with one thumb at each end. Don't press hard enough to significantly flex the motherboard they are plugged into. Watch what you're doing and the moment you see the motherboard start to bend, release the pressure.

Don't bother replacing the side panel yet but connect everything up and check the machine will boot. If it does, power it back down, replace the side panel and enjoy! If it won't boot, repeat the procedures for ensuring all cables and and cards are properly seated. That usually deals with any problems caused during simple cleaning.

As an aside, you may (or may not :) want to know that the vast majority of the gray dust inside your PC is dead skin cells that you and your family have shed. The rest of it, you probably really don't want to know about...

So, when you've finished, don't simply wipe your hands on your dungarees or a piece of old rag! Go and wash them properly with soap. In fact, wearing thin rubber gloves during the whole procedure is not a bad idea.


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