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How to Protect a Computer from Dust

By ·Categories: Tech Explained·Published On: September 7th, 2021·6.1 min read·

Those of you working with a desktop computer, take a moment and look at the fans on the back of your PC. Go ahead, we’ll wait…

Probably not a pretty sight. If you are like most people, you are seeing a nice patina of dust. And if you are in manufacturing, you are likely seeing something a little more suspect that might include grease and other airborne particles. This might raise some questions for you, such as: 

  • Where does the dust in a computer come from? 
  • How does the dust get into a computer? 
  • What is the impact of dust on a computer? 
  • How can you get rid of the dust?
  • Can you protect a computer from dust? 

Where does dust come from?

Many studies have been done on dust and the results may get you to dust your home more frequently! In the average home, dust is a mix of skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, pollen, and microscopic specks of plastic. The composition of dust may be even more diverse and complex in a manufacturing facility or food processing plant. In addition to the average home-like dust, you might also have wood pulp, metal shavings, food seasoning, or even oil and grease floating in the air.

Case In Point: The maker of a BBQ Chip has a problem on the manufacturing floor. The spicy powder that gives their chips flavor is thick in the air, saturating everything with BBQ particulates. That air ends up being drawn in by the fans of the average PC and flavoring their fans & motherboards with spice.

How does the dust get into your computer? 

Whatever particulates are in your air, they are probably also in your PC thanks to traditional PC active cooling methods which include vents and fans.

These fans move air around inside the PC. This circulates the air to cool the components inside. Some fans suck air in and others blow it out. In the process they move the air, and whatever is in it, through your PC. (This is referred by the engineers as “active cooling.”) You might have one or two fans on the back of your PC, one on your processor, and even one on components like graphics cards. The bottom line is they all do exactly what you expect: they move air around to cool your PC down.

What is the impact of dust on a computer? 

All of that airborne particulate, (dust, dirt, soot, etc.) builds up on your fan. The fan, in turn, slows down and needs to run longer — and push harder — to get the same cooling effect. Meanwhile, your components are covered in a dust blanket (which can be another whole set of conductivity problems in its own right), keeping them insulated and causing your fan to work even harder. 

PCs have an optimal operating temperature that is maintained by whatever cools them. When cooling is done by a fan, there is a tipping point that occurs where a fan — even one running 24-7 — will not be efficient enough to cool the system and the temperature will rise. Best case scenario, your PC’s efficiency is diminished and you are dealing with a loud hum as your fan chugs away. Worst case, is that your system overheats, and your PC will throttle to slow down performance or shut down entirely.

Case In Point: On the floor of a tire manufacturer, the air is thick with rubber, plastic and sulfur. Mission critical PCs were losing the fans at an accelerated rate when the rubber dust would build up and create a thick black mess that visibly slowed their fans and was nearly impossible to remove.

How can you get rid of dust in a computer? 

Canned Air

The first step most people take is blasting the fan with a can of pressurized air. But this is the equivalent to washing your car and not vacuuming the inside. Will it look better? Sure. Will it solve the problem? No. At the end of the day you will likely be blowing more of the particulates into your computer or just moving them around.

Case In Point: A major wood manufacturer had so much pulp in the air, the branded towers were seizing. It became so problematic the company hired a member of staff whose only job was to vacuum PCs on the factory floor. This solution caused their total cost of ownership to skyrocket, while the PC functionality and usability remained impaired.

Vacuum

Another option is to literally open up your PC and vacuum the unit very carefully. While effective, this solution is plagued with it’s own problems. Off the bat, it’s grossly inefficient especially if you have more than a couple PCs to manage. In a manufacturing, machine shop, or food production environment, how many man hours do you want to devote to cleaning your PCs? And how often? Are you losing money while that machine is out of action? How many times can you clean a PC before a human error cracks a motherboard, knocks a RAM stick or otherwise damages the delicate innards of your computer?

Case In Point: At a steel foundry, particles of steel literally tore the fans apart as they were sucked in. Enclosures were brought in to protect the PC, complete with filters and built in AC, but they were cost prohibitive, bulkier and –worst of all– the next generation of PCs did not fit in them.

Add Features 

There are some other patches that could help, but don’t solve the root problem. High powered fans, fan filters, and temperature monitoring software can help alleviate some problems. But an unchanged filter can devastate a fan, a stronger fan moves more particulates around and temperature management software is only going to warn you of problems that are in progress. 

Enclosures are worth mentioning, because the instinct is to protect the PC. At their core, they are a big box that the PC sits in, usually with filters or even their own fans. But they are expensive, bulky and awkward. 

Case In Point: Trash processing is dirty work and a processing plant ran into problems with the sheer variety of materials which made its way into the air. Debris was causing havoc in their systems, gumming up fans and even occasionally melting them. However, utilizing fanless systems cut down time on these mission critical PCs, while increasing their life by 200%.

Protect a Computer from Dust

A more strategic option is to protect your computer from dust in the first place by using a fanless PC. A fanless computer is cooled by some other “passive” means without fans and sometimes without vents. Engineers design fanless PCs strategically to keep the insides cool while keeping the dust and airborne particulates out. A fanless PC is the most viable long term solution, especially in dusty or particulate-rich work environments like those in industrial manufacturing. Going fanless means your PC will have a longer lifespan with increased reliability.

Ready to learn more? Check out our whitepaper where we outline the 5 ways fanless computers can help a business. Download it today!

This blog was originally posted on August 22, 2013.  It was updated for content on September 7, 2021

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