Computers are equipped with small fans designed to promote airflow through the computer case and aid in keeping components at an acceptable operating temperature. Larger computers may have 2, 3 or even more fans for this purpose. Fans near the front and rear of the computer facilitate the flow of air, and fans within the case especially in the vicinity of high temperature components “keep things cool”. If you have been using computers very long you know that these fans also suck dirt and dust into your computer, and that grunge accumulates over time and should be cleaned regularly. Hopefully you already have a procedure to accomplish this kind of routine cleaning, but in this article I want to discuss an additional aspect of this procedure.
Recently I had a ‘house fire’ (you probably think of me as the most accident prone person on the planet....or could it simply be 'Murphy's Law'). While I was fortunate that there was very little physical fire damage, the relatively small fire filled my entire house with acrid smoke and left soot residue on essentially every surface. Even though the fire’s duration was short-lived, the fact that the heat-n-air system kept running simply meant that the smoke and toxins kept circulating and re-circulating. At the same time the ‘little fans’ inside my computers also kept running, drawing in smoke and soot with each ‘spin’ of the fan blades.
Smoke and soot can damage the internal components of your computer in exactly the same way they can damage your lung tissue, draperies, walls, ceiling and every other surface they encounter. These substances tend to ‘stick’ very quickly to almost everything they come into contact with, and that includes not only the computer case and fan blades but the circuit board, heat sinks, and other internal components including contact/connections which they seem to work their way into. Worst yet, they turn any accumulated dust and dirt already in your computer into sponges of acrid chemicals making up the smoke and soot.
The secret to salvaging your computer is to ‘shut it down’ and ‘clean it up’ as soon as possible. If you continue to run the computer you may actually be ‘baking on’ these harmful substances making future clean-up almost impossible. In order to clean-up your computer, you can follow any number of references available from manufacturers, or the internet, but I wanted to share the steps we are undertaking as part of our overall post-fire clean-up:
1. Shut down and unplug your computer.
2. Disconnect the cables to your network and all peripherals such as your monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and printers.
3. Make certain that you have adequate space to not only open your computer, but remove components and allow them to ‘sit’ to dry after being cleaned. If necessary relocate the computer to an area with adequate space and ventilation.
4. Follow your manufacturer’s instructions to open the case cover of your computer. Some computers have locking/latching hardware and others have screws, be sure to safely set aside any screws that maybe used.
5. Prepare yourself to clean the inside of your computer, this involves putting on a dust mask and goggles or safety glasses; you do not want to breath in the soot which maybe present, nor do you want it in your eyes.
6. As an additional preparation, you should take anti-static safeguards. Ground yourself to the computer with professional grounding equipment such as a Belkin Anti-Static Wrist Band with Adjustable Grounding.
7. Use cans of compressed air to blow out the inside of the your computer, starting in the upper areas and slowly working your way down. In this manner you can sweep out all the dust that settles on lower components. Be sure to hold the compressed air can upright and keep it a moderate distance from the areas and components you are dusting. Be thorough in your cleaning, but use short bursts of air rather than a sustained stream. Pay extra attention to the front and rear air vents as well as any computer cooling fans. Compressed air is very cold, you do not want to allow frost to form on your components.
8. During this dusting process you might find a couple of other tools beneficial. First a small clean soft bristle paint brush may be helpful to gently dislodge any accumulated dust bunnies that are in need of cleaning as well as smoke soot. You should NOT use the brush to clean the printed circuit ‘mother board’, as back-n-forth actions of the brush can generate a static charge. A small vacuum cleaner may be helpful to suck-up the dust you are ‘blowing around’ and/or out of the case; however you should NOT attempt to actually vacuum any of the actual computer components.
9. Often a plastic shroud is placed over the CPU, to concentrate the airflow past the CPU's heat sink. This shroud can be easily removed using a small screwdriver, or by means of the snap-in tabs depending on the manufacturer. You will probably see a larger amount of dirt, grime and soot under ‘this hood’. In addition to compressed air you may find that you need to use either cotton swabs or an anti-static cloth such as those used to clean eyeglasses and camera lenses to clean these delicate surfaces. In some cases you may need to lightly apply a computer component safe cleaning solution to the cloth and then gently wipe components.
10. To clean computer ‘contacts’ and delicate components dip the end of a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol (or safe cleaning solution) and then rub the end of the swab against the inner neck of the alcohol bottle to remove excess alcohol. You are attempting to insure that the swab is only ‘damp’ not soaking with alcohol. In some cases you may need to use one saturated swab to simply dampen another swab that you will use for component cleaning. Rub the cotton swab against the contacts of the board to remove any residual dust. Rub gently to avoid damage to the contacts.
11. After all the components are clean and have had the opportunity to fully air dry, you should reassemble everything in the reverse order to which you disassembled it. One note, if you are not good at remembering how things go together then you should take pictures of each step as you go through the steps we have just explained. (I know what you are probably saying, "why is he just now telling me this, he should have at the very start"....but I wanted to see if you read the entire article before you started your clean-up.) After re-assembly you can reconnect your computer to your peripheral devices and network.
12. If you haven’t already, now is the time to clean the external surfaces of the case; again an antistatic cleaning cloth dampened with alcohol or Endust for Electronics will provides a safe way to insure that the outside of your computer is just as clean as the inside. After the case is clean, you are ready to plug-the computer back into the power and proceed to a normal start-up. You may find it beneficial to run 'computer diagnostics' provided by the computer manufacturer to insure that everything is running "A-OK".
Hopefully none of you will ever experience a 'house or office fire' that will impact your computer, but if you happen to be one of those people who 'smokes', you should know that the same smoke contaminating your lungs is also contaminating your computer's interior components. If you are not going to give up the unhealthy habit, at least do your computer a favor and 'clean-r-up'.