Dusting Your Computer – Keeping it Cool

Written By: Steve Perlow

My mother always told me to dust, but I never did, mostly because I was lazy, but also because I couldn’t find any tangible benefit to dusting. I just didn’t see how I’d benefit from my room or my things being less dusty. Well now I’ve gotten a bit older, and I finally found a reason to dust – a cooler running computer. I’m going to give some background on my own system and circumstances first, then run tests before and after dusting, as well as explain how and what I used to dust. Be sure to take a look at this article – with pictures and graphs – plus a whole lot more, at aworldofhelp.com.

I’ve had the computer in question for a little over two years, a dual AMD Athlon MP workstation that while no longer the top of the line, is still plenty fast enough for what I do. The computer is running at standard speeds and specifications, and has always been very stable – but not 100%. When the system was about a year old I had been getting by with the occasional, roughly once weekly lock up. At that point, I finally spent the time to try and diagnose the problem.

To be perfectly clear, I’m talking about a lock up, where everything stops responding, the screen freezes and I have to reboot, not simply an application crash, which I can usually just blame on Microsoft. My initial thought was that the computer was overheating, specifically the CPUs. I was a little hesitant though because I was running AMD retail processors at standard specifications with AMD retail heatsinks and fans, and I figured that should have been a fine setup. But I’ve had CPUs overheat before when I was sure that was the problem and this just felt like it now. I did some research online and it looked like the AMD cooling solutions were somewhat underwhelming performers, so I broke down and bought new heatsinks and fans. These still weren’t top of the line, but they reduced my CPU temperatures immediately by about 20%.

In unscientific testing I’d say my computer was absolutely more stable after the reduction in temperature. I estimate the weekly lockup became a monthly or even every other monthly lockup. This clearly isn’t perfect for a system that really should be 99.99% stable, but it was a big improvement, and I let the problem go for a while. I will note that as many of you many assume, this computer is always on, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Anyway now it’s another year later and my computer is increasingly unstable again. I’m not going to go out and get better heatsinks and fans again, as I’m sure the improvement would be less than before. My next though was about how dusty the whole system is. I know I should have dusted it once in the last two years, but I never got around to it. I’d say I live in an average environment in terms of dustiness, not especially better or worse, and I just never thought it would make a very significant difference in my CPU temperature. As you’ll see, I was completely wrong – which incidentally might make my mother right.

Almost all users should really consider the results of both tests, possibly giving more weight to the one which most closely matches your typical computing. Even if you run predominantly business applications, you’ll almost certainly occasionally do something that falls under this content creation test, editing pictures or an occasional home movie, for example. So consider all the tests, don’t just focus on one graph.

Should you dust your computer? Yes, why not, it can’t hurt. But really, there are tangible benefits of cleaning your computer, even if it seems stable right now.

Computers and electronics in general don’t like heat. Dust blocks fans in your case, which generally cool you CPU, video card and motherboard components. Dust also blocks fans and their airflow into and out of your case. Cool air needs to be brought into a case, and then the host air dispelled. If the airways are blocked, system temperature can rise quickly. If your computer is stable but the CPU is running too hot, you cut down on its lifespan, potentially quickly.

More important to many people though, may be the result of that first heat related computer lock up. Even if it’s never been a problem before, if your computer crashes at the wrong time it can be catastrophic. Usually mine just locks up when I’m away from it, or overnight, and I just turn it back on and restart Firefox and haven’t lost anything important. But last week it locked up with unsaved graphs for my last article and Excel chose no to auto save. I spent the hour it took to redo them considering ways to eliminate these lock ups.

Of course, reducing heat is also always a priority for people who overclock their CPU. For those that don’t know, overclocking is running a CPU at a higher frequency than it was sold to run at. For example, you could take your Intel Pentium 4 that is running at a “clock” rate of 2 GHz, and try to run it at 2.1 GHz, 2.5 GHz, faster speeds, or anywhere in between. I have an old dual CPU system that was supposed to run at 366 MHz. Instead I ran the chips at 500 MHz each, which was a huge performance gain. Overclocking is actually a great way to get more “free” performance out of a system, as long as you can maintain stability. Usually the single biggest factor for success is reducing heat as much as possible.

Another thing to note is that while it is very important to keep CPU heat to a minimum, hard drives, video cards, and other components all need to be kept cool as well. In fact, I don’t really know for sure that my CPUs are the current problem. I think they are, but my next guess (if I’m correct that it’s a heat problem) would be my video card, since I’ve checked, and it runs really hot.

Consider this as well, if my CPU were to actually stop working because it was too hot, it would probably be a gradual process, and I could fix the situation by purchasing a replacement. If my hard drive crashes and ultimately loses data, that could be a much more problematic situation. I could replace the drive, but recovering the data could be far more difficult than just replacing a CPU.

I opened up the system and saw more dust than computer. All the fans were covered in dust, and their airflow was totally blocked. I put the case back on and took temperature readings of my computer both idle and when working. The tests are all run are on the following system:

CPU – Dual AMD Athlon MP 2000+ (1.67 GHz)
Motherboard – AMD K7-D
RAM – 1024 MB RAM (2 x 512 MB registered DDR 2100)
Video Card – Matrox Parhelia AGP 128 MB
HD – Segate 5400 rpm- st320410a
Windows XP SP2

I picked that unexciting hard drive because it was the only one I had that reports temperature.

For the idle readings the computer was freshly booted into Windows. To get the computer running at full load I ran two instances of Prime95, a math application that will max out a CPU (2 copies running, one each for 2 CPUs), and copied 2 GB of Music on the hard drive to another folder on the same drive. The entire process took about half an hour.

Without anything to compare them to, those numbers for the most part aren’t terribly interesting. My only reaction was that 63 degrees Celsius seems pretty hot, and the idle CPU temperatures aren’t too wonderful either. Remember, each CPU type has a different recommended temperature range. 63 degrees may be too hot for mine, but could be either acceptable, or perhaps way too hot for your own. Regardless, you hopefully will notice a relative reduction in temperature after dusting.

Dusting the computer

As I said, I’ve never dusted a computer before, but I came up with what ended up being a reasonable plan. I bought compressed air and a small brush from staples for $7 total and used a rag I have here. I made sure to unplug my computer, grounded myself to discharge static electricity by touching something metal other than my computer, opened up the case and was ready to go.

As long as you make sure your computer is unplugged, don’t get anything wet, and are gentle while you have it opened, you really shouldn’t damage anything. For the most part, the inside of your computer is delicate, but it isn’t brittle. The most notable exception is your CPU. If you were to disconnect it and pull it out of the motherboard you would expose pins on the bottom that are in fact extremely delicate.

You could do a really thorough job by taking everything apart and getting all the dust out, but I didn’t want to spend that much time doing it and I figured if I left everything connected their was less chance I’d mess something up. So I used the air, brush and rag and got the dust off the computer, taking the most time to clean the fans and the holes they blow out of.

I ran the same tests again, and the results were dramatic.

Idle, CPU 1 saw an 18% reduction in temperature, while CPU 2 is 10% cooler. That’s very important, as all those hours my computer is sitting doing very little it’s going to be considerably cooler.

At full load, CPU 1 is 21% cooler and CPU 2 is 12% cooler. These are again very impressive results, and very important as well. I have had lock ups when video encoding and doing other CPU intensive tasks, and now the chips should be running cooler while doing those.

It’s interesting that originally CPU 1 was hotter than CPU 2, and after the cleaning they switched. An important fact is that the temperature reporting on this type of dual AMD Athlon system is generally uneven. That said, CPU 1 was easier to dust around because the DVD drives were in the way of CPU 2, so I probably did a better job cleaning the former and there is still likely room for improvement in cooling the latter.

One other note, I kept track of the fan speeds before and after cleaning, and I saw about a 2% increase in the CPU fan speeds after I dusted. I wasn’t expecting this at all, and certainly can’t be certain that this will always result from dusting, but it could be very interesting for overclockers trying to eak out every last bit of fan performance.

The hard drive temperature saw a 9% improvement while idle after dusting, and again a 9% improvement at full load. It’s a nice temperature reduction for a mechanical component that will be grinding away for thousands of hours over the life of your computer.

The case temperature stayed the same throughout all the tests.


All in all I was surprised the results were so dramatic. I expected few degrees for the CPUs and maybe one for the hard drive, but to see a 20% reduction in temperature is just great. There is defiantly room for improvement as well. The CPU fans have covers that I could have taken off and gotten more dust out, and as I mentioned reaching one of the CPUs was harder than the other. Further, I’d say I got most of the dust inside my computer, well over 90%, but I still saw some that proved more challenging to clean that I was willing to bother with. Taking all the cards out and thoroughly cleaning the whole system would have no doubt led to even better results.

My system has maintained the cooler temperatures so far, a week after the cleaning, and I haven’t had a lock up since. I can’t be certain I’ve solved the lock up problem, but it does appear I have for now. At the very least, I can be sure CPU heat is not the problem, as now they are running at very acceptable temperatures. Your own results will vary, and may not be as dramatic if your computer wasn’t as dusty as mine. Regardless, you should see some reduction in component temperature after cleaning your system.

All in all I recommend you take a look around and inside your computer to see how it looks. If it’s dusty, $7 and an hour of your time seems like a good investment to increase the life of your computer and prevent system lock ups. I suspect many people suffer the occasional heat caused lock up, it just isn’t obvious what the problem is, and they don’t occur often enough to be a serious concern. But remember, even if you only have one heat caused lock up in the entire life of your computer, it could come at the worst time, or cause permanent damage.

About the Author

Steve Perlow is the founder of aworldofhelp.com, where you can find the aworldofhelp Top Picks in desktop and notebook systems. Visit aworldofhelp.com to get answers from real people to your questions about technology, travel and more.

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