Cleaning Your Computer Part 1: The Desktop or Tower Unit

Cleaning Your Computer Part 1:
The Desktop or Tower

It doesn’t matter if your computer is in your home or your office, you’ll have a more reliable and longer lasting machine if you clean it regularly. A clean machine is quieter, as the fans aren’t working as hard. A clean machine runs cooler, increasing both reliability and also the life of the components inside.
When I say clean, I’m not talking the wipe over it gets when dusting, I’m talking a real clean – the outside case and the internal hardware. It’s not that hard, and it’s not something to be scared about. Do it carefully, with the correct tools and cleaning materials, and you should have no problems.

Although this is a fairly simple procedure, Daftdog cannot be held responsible for any damage you may cause yourself, your computer, or your environment. With that in mind, let’s press on.

For a really good clean, the tools you will need are:

  • Two Phillips (NOT pozi-drive) head screwdrivers, size #2 and #1 (you can get these or similar from any half-reasonable tool store, and they won’t cost the earth.)
  • A can of compressed air (you can also get this from most photographic stores.)
  • A CD or DVD cleaning disc (you can also get this from your local audio or music store.)
  • Cleaning solution (I use a half a cup of white vinegar to two cups (cold) boiled water.)
  • A microfibre cleaning cloth.
  • Anti-static cleaning brushes, or a stiff bristled clean household paintbrush (I like a 1″ wide bristle size.)
  • A vacuum cleaner with hose and smallish nozzle.

It is worthwhile buying good quality tools. The first time you clean your computer it will probably cost (with the tools) the same as taking it to a PC store. The second time you will have the tools, and it will cost you a half-cup of white vinegar. That’s cheap…

Once you have your toolkit together, it’s time to start. Pick a nice day to do this, you won’t want to do this when it’s raining (you’ll see why later.)

The first thing to do, while the computer is on, is to clean the CD/DVD drive. This advice applies to tray-loading drives; if you have a slot-loading drive refer to your user manual for recommended cleaning procedures.
Wet the microfibre cloth with the cleaning solution. Wring out the cloth, so that it is barely damp. Open the CD/DVD tray, and carefully wipe the disc side of the tray removing as much dust as possible. I’ll sometimes use the stiff brush to dislodge dust between the tray front and the tray if necessary. Let the tray dry (it should only take a few seconds.) Read the instructions that came with the CD/DVD cleaner, and run it through the drive. I usually do this two or three times, especially if you’ve not cleaned your computer in a while. Remove the CD/DVD cleaner, and shut down the computer. Then turn it off at the wall.

Remove the cables and wires from the back of the computer, making a note of what went where. It’s a good idea to take digital photographs to help your memory at this point. Move the computer to the center of a large uncluttered desk or table. Using the stiff bristled brush, brush down the back of the unit. Don’t at this point worry about the dust on the back getting into the unit.
Wet the cloth again, wring it out, and this time clean the outside of the unit. Be firm, but gentle. When cleaning plastics be careful to wipe lightly and often rather than heavily scrub at it.
Now the unit is clean on the outside, it’s time to move to the inside. Take a deep breath, and turn the unit so you can see the screws that hold the case parts together. Detailed advice is difficult at this point, because there are a huge number of case styles. It should however be fairly obvious which screws you need to remove the case. Use the right-sized screwdriver. Usually most of the screws will need the #2, with only a few (if any) needing the #1. If you don’t feel that you can do this, don’t worry – your local independent computer store should be able to clean inside for you. If they can, ask politely if you can watch how they do it.

If you’ve had your computer for a while, and haven’t cleaned it, you may be lucky(!) and see something like this:

inside computer case with spider-web

If you’re lucky, the inhabitants will have moved out!

If you’re not so lucky, this is the sort of horror story you may see (more so if you smoke near your computer!):

inside of PC case, very dusty

Hopefully it’s only dusty – but if you smoke it could be a sticky dusty mess!

If the computer sits on a carpet, you may have a population of dust-bunnies that need shifting too:

dust-bunnies inside PC case

The common dust-bunny in it’s natural habitat…

These photographs look bad, but it won’t take too much to get your PC back to normal. Using the vacuum cleaner and the stiff brush, remove as much of the surface dust / dust-bunnies / spider’s webs / mouse droppings (seriously!)  as you can. Before vacuuming near the fans first hold the fan so it can’t rotate and use the brush to dislodge the dust and fluff. Then use the vacuum to suck away the dislodged muck while still holding the fan. If your computer is seriously filthy you may have to remove the front plastic case to remove even more crud.

dust and fluff inside PC front

If your computer is as bad as this, shame on you!

This is where it gets messy (messier?) Take the computer and the can of compressed air into the yard or garden and use the compressed air to blow all the dust from the fins of the heatsinks, from the circuit board components and from all the bits the brush and vacuum missed. Again. make sure the fans are held before blowing air at them. This is the time you’ll realise that:

  1. I wasn’t kidding about wanting to do this outdoors, and
  2. It’s amazing how much a vacuum misses!

If you’re a smoker, and you’ve been unlucky, you won’t be able to shift much due to the sticky gunge coating the inside of your machine. At this point, there’s probably little you can do except reassemble the PC and take it to your computer shop (and think about what your insides might look like?)

If you have managed to shift the detritus of the years, then it’s time to go back inside, and do the brush/vacuum again. By now your machine should look like this:

a clean motherboard

If you can manage this, you’ve done really well!

Reassemble your computer, making sure all the connectors, memory modules, circuit boards and fans are properly secured. Fix the case on, and give it a wipe down again – that dislodged dust gets everywhere!
Using your notes and photographs attach all the cables to the back of the computer, making sure they’re tight and locked down (where applicable.) Cross your fingers, and turn the computer on. You should be rewarded by a working computer – if not, turn it off at the wall and check the internal/external connections again. In my experience, the majority of ‘not working since I unplugged it’ problems are down to connections and cables. Clean the CD/DVD drive using the CD/DVD cleaner again.

Pour yourself a cool drink (or a hot one, it’s your choice) and pat yourself on your back. If you’ve done all this yourself, you’ve not only saved a pile of cash you’ve extended the life of your PC. Win-win!

Part 2 of this series, “Cleaning your Laptop, Notebook or Netbook” can be found here.