Wanna fix it? Just blow on it.

To think I wasted far too many hours trying to figure out which component on Anne’s PC was dieing when all I needed to fix her PC was a can of compressed air. You may recall my mentioning the semi-death of Anne’s PC a couple of weeks back. It would power on for a short while and then shut off without warning and then refuse to power back on. It seemed like a heat issue at the time, but I couldn’t seem to do anything that would improve the situation. The inside of the case was dusty, but it didn’t seem to be that dusty. Still, after sharing my PC with her for the past few weeks and resolving myself to having to purchase components for a new PC for her over time I was in the local Microcenter this afternoon and I picked up a can of compressed air on a whim just to see if perhaps the dust had reached some sort of critical mass.

Boy had it ever. It wasn’t immediately obvious to the naked eye, but when I pointed that stream of air at the CPU’s heat sink and fan I managed to dislodge one hell of a dust bunny that had somehow managed to wedge itself in there in such a way that it wasn’t directly visible. The fan had seemed to be spinning just fine, but this wad of dirt was just enough to allow the CPU to get too warm for comfort and shut itself down. The proof is in the pudding they say and her PC has been humming along for the past hour and a half without so much as a hiccup, which is a dramatic improvement over the average of 10 minutes it was managing previously. It’s working so well that I should be able to have it back together and on her desk for her sometime tomorrow evening. The compressed air started to go wimpy way too quickly though so the next time we head up to visit my parents I may end up taking Anne’s PC along with us so I can unleash Dad’s air compressor on it.

It’s always the solution that seems the least obvious. I really should start at that end of the problem solving chain and work backwards.

16 thoughts on “Wanna fix it? Just blow on it.

  1. You and me both it seems…although lately I’ve been having strange issues with my desktop PC that I can’t quite narrow down. I nailed two issues (it’s my wife’s PC – it had 2 trojans a worm and two “inactive” viruses of the timebomb sort, and oddly enough the ASPI layer was broken…that was a quick fix), but there is still something causing the system to lock up once in awhile, and I think the culprit is AntiVir conflicting with Spysweeper and WinAMP.

  2. Last time, I actually used my overpriced vacuum cleaner to clear the dust out of my PC.  Worked fairly well.

  3. When in college, we took in PCs for cheap repair. We got one with similar symptoms from a bakery. Well, dust, obviously, so I grabbed a can of air and opened the cover.

    Not dust, but bread. Years of flour dust and humidity had been sucked in through the fan and baked inside. It looked like bannock (pan fried bread).

  4. Some years ago I worked in a computer shop whose owner bought vanloads of off-lease HP Vectra (pre-crappy) from a large insurance company where he had a connection.  We’d refurb ‘em, load Windows on ‘em and sell ‘em.  I had a high-power vac set to blow, through a crevice attachment which I had modified to ground static charge.  Part of the refurb process was to step out the back door of the shop and blow out the dust.  We did this on customers’ computers too as part of any repair.

    The owner had a habit of parking his convertible in the delivery space next to the door.  We told him any number of times not to do that, but he persisted.  One of our regular customers managed a number of grain elevators in the area.  The amount of dust in those computers was astounding.

    (Heh. You see where this is going, don’t you?)

    I took a stack of them and blew all the dust out on the owner’s shiny red car.  It looked like it had been driving down a 100-mile gravel road.  It was weeks before mister short-attention-span forgot and parked next to the back door again.

  5. I hate it when dust crops up inside my PC. The effects of removing the CPU heatsink and cleaning it with water can be quite dramatic. CPU temperature dropped by 10 degrees Celsius. Cleaning the GPU heatsink also helped when the graphics in 3D games started to get really funky, with oddly coloured textures appearing everywhere.

    I do wish that PC cases would have air filters at the air intakes. I think I’ll install such things on my next PC.

  6. I was having the same problem actually…a heat issue.  I didn’t see any dust through the fan and the fan was spinning fine.  I took the fan off and immediately saw the problem.  Dust was caked between the fins. After trying to blow it out w/ compressed air I spent about an hour with a toothpick cleaning the heatsink.  It’s worked fine ever since..although it’s probably time to take a look at it again.

    Benior – You have to be careful using standard vacuum cleaners.  They tend to generate static…which is, of course, bad for your electronics.

  7. At my last job we got a PC in from an off site location, a machine shop, and since it was late Friday we decided not to bother with it.  The next few work days of the following week we got swamped and couldn’t get to the system right away.  And since we had a spare that we swapped, it wasn’t a big deal.

    Finally, on the next Thursday or Friday, we started smelling something fierce.  We had no idea what it was.  We cleaned out the refrigerator, microwave, trash cans, and everything.  Finally the smell was getting so terrible one of the techs decided he would use his nose to find where the smell was coming from (What a brave one).

    Sure enough he tracked it down to the area where the system we just pulled was sitting.  So he opened the case and we all got a huge whiff of the most foul smelling shit imaginable.  And the funny thing is there wasn’t a dead animal or even animal feces (we were taking bets).  It was moldy dust that had accumulated for a good 5 or 7 years.  The dust was actually dark green and orange and nearly everything was caked in about a half inch of dust.  There was just enough off it to make the system do weird things, but not enough to keep the system from being somewhat operational.

    We have no idea how the system still operated for so long, it was astounding.  You could barely see the motherboard.  The only conclusion I came up with was it was due to the Pentium design of the slotted processor.  And since the system was a standing tower, the dust couldn’t ever really settle on the CPU, Fan, or heatsink.

  8. I’ve had troubles like this many times before, and our trusty air compressor has brought back many flaky systems – but beware!
    You may want to hold the fan blades to keep them from spinning while you blow out the dust.  I’ve ruined a couple of fans making that cool “whirrrrr” noise when using the compressed air to spin the fan.  The bearings aren’t designed for those kinds of RPMs, and after that they make all kinds of noises while running.
    So just a little bit of advice when using compressed air – hold the fan!

  9. It’s also not unlikely too that some “dust” can be much deadlier to your PC than you might think. I’ve had systems under my care – over the years – that have accumulated really fine dust (grit) caked on around leads of ICs on the motherboards that were acting flaky – and worked ever so much better with a thorough air compressor treatment (haven’t used cans for years – waste of money). The surface area of the heatsink can be compromised (i.e. the air can’t draw away heat from the surface negating its presence) by even a thin layer of dust, let alone what can “fit” between – just out of sight. But we are all so “likely” to forgo the regular “PC clean,” not exactly lazy as it just doesn’t seem to need it most of the time – until the peculiar behavior starts. Some of the PCs in use at one Dry Cleaner I worked at for over 5 years had regular “dust carpets” inside them when I first visited them for service (no one prepared to clean regularly before I arrived) and many of those the dust didn’t significantly hamper operation – but of course the one’s least affected were older cooler running systems that didn’t require active cooling like a fan (386 & 486), and dust bunnies don’t always go along with the fine dust I mentioned earlier. If you build PCs yourself there are enclosures that are manufactured to have “filters” but they typically are “billed” as server cases and cost alot more, I have one that SuperMicro commissioned/built which is a huge tower with a removable “cheap” plastic filter for the front panel, over-engineered but sometimes that’s “just right.”

  10. See how much better a clean PC works? Anyone want to try for a clean mind? I digress . . .  wink

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