One of the most common questions we get asked at the shop is, “How often should I get my computer cleaned?” Another is, “Why should I clean my computer?” Physical cleaning is as important a maintenance activity to a computer as getting an oil change is to a car. Cleaning can also be taken to mean “getting rid of all the viruses” but this article focuses only on physical cleaning.
In order to continue to function properly a computer needs to be cleaned on the inside. Most personal computers are air-cooled so after a time they will have sucked in a fair quantity of dust, fibre, dander and hair. Consumer grade computers do not have air filters and do not have cooling schemes that can resist dust for a long period of time. Even if you have the cleanest home, your computer will still find a way to get dirty on the inside.
Excessive dust buildup can slow airflow and cause the machine to overheat. Abrasive dust particles can slow down and seize fans, also leading to overheating. When overheated, a computer will run slow, lock up randomly and in extreme cases, burn out its components. The preventative solution is to get it inspected and cleaned periodically.
The long answer has more to do with usage and environment. Since the computer is only sucking in dust when it is running, a computer that’s only on for a few hours in a week isn’t going to take in all that much dust in a year. Such a machine only needs to be cleaned every three years or so. On the other hand, a machine that runs most of the time should be at least looked at every six months or so. If the computer lives in a dusty environment like a workshop, kitchen or factory these times should be halved.
If people smoke regularly around the computer, treat it as if it is in a factory. Cigarette smoke is particularly nasty. It produces a thick, yellowish, sticky dust that is hard to remove and very damaging to fans. The residue from cigarette smoke can become conductive if it is thick enough, leading to shorts on the mainboard and ultimately to the malfunction of the computer. Really, you should just not smoke around your computer.
It should be noted that pets don’t particularly worsen a computer’s dust intake. Maybe if someone had 15 cats it might be a problem, but the presence of a few pets in a home doesn’t seem to affect the amount of dust a computer sucks in. It does however, change the nature of the dust. Pet dust tends to be more hairy.
Another thing we have noticed is computers installed in rooms with no carpets take in a lot more dust. Our current theory is carpets and fabric tend to trap much of the airborne dust which is then vacuumed or washed away periodically. If your computer lives on a hardwood floor, you might want to consider cleaning it more frequently.
Will I Have To Buy Parts?
Sometimes. If the computer hasn’t been cleaned for a while, some of the fans will likely need replacing because the abrasive components of the dust can increase wear on the tiny fan bearings. As a machine ages the fans will wear down normally and require replacement. Sometimes an entire heatsink will need replacement because it does not take a standard fan.
How Much Does It Cost?
If your local computer store is charging more than forty bucks in labour for a simple physical cleaning they are ripping you off. A notable exception to this might be the replacement of a northbridge heatsink, which often requires the removal of the entire mainboard.
At FCP, the cost of an inspection and cleaning usually costs $30, plus any replacement fans ($10 or so) or heatsinks ($10-40). Physical cleaning is often done along with other maintenance activities.