Cleaning Your Computer Part III : Desktop Internal Medicine

It’s what’s inside that counts. You can shower three times a day and sprinkle rose petals everywhere you walk but that won’t help keep you heart from exploding from a steady diet of deep fried Twinkies and Jolt Cola. Computers need the most attention inside. If a computer is left untouched the inside becomes a condensed mess of dust, dirt, animal and people funk (yeah, it’s that gross). Add smoking into the mix and you have this congealed yellow goop on everything. This includes any type of smoking,. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes and the wacky tabacy (yeah I am looking at you hippies!) all stick to the computers insides. Now after reading our previous post on computer cleaning – Part II – you are ready to continue here.

Dirty computer video card heat sink close up.

If air can't easily pass through the computer heat sinks then the components are exposed to heat and die an early death. This video card was completely furry when we started. It should look clean like the bottom.

Wind Blows. Computers generate a good amount of heat during normal operation. The heat is generally removed from the computer with fans of varying size and speed. This constant flow of air ensures that any environmental pollutants have their shot at getting into your computer. Once things start to get dirty the airflow is reduced and the extra heat is a prime cause of hardware failure for computers.

DIY Jitters. It’s natural for most people to not want to open up their computers. On the surface it seems like a complicated mess of wires, circuits and complex doohickies better left for the computer nerds at the local shop to take care of. In reality … it is! This post is going to be covering cleaning though not open heart surgery (aka CPU replacement). This is the equivalent of opening your car’s hood to clean out some leaves not replace the engine. You don’t have to be an experienced technician to clean the inside. You do however need a steady hand and a little patience as the first time can be intimidating.

You know what has to be done so get going – Clean Your Computer!

Take A Picture. One good tip that has helped a few customers ease into the process is taking a picture or a whole album of pictures. Grab your camera or cell phone and take a few shots of your set up before you even touch it. Take a picture of the front and back, be sure to get a good clear shot of how all of your cables are connected so you can come back to the picture should you have any questions about plugging devices back in when complete.

Kill the Static. It’s a rule that applies to every aspect of computing but even more so when you are going to be braving into the inside of the case. GROUND OUT. Touch something grounded so you discharge any static electricity on your person before you begin.

The Clean My Computer Run Down.

  1. Understand the landscape
  2. Prepare
  3. Open says me
  4. More Chunks!
  5. Air Power
  6. Advanced Cleaning (optional)


The tools you will need

Canned Air, Screw Driver, and Hands to clean your computer inside.

Canned Air - Screw Driver - Hands


Understand the Landscape I

Not all the same. Despite most looking like a rectangular box of one size or another there are some variations in computer design that will impact how well you are able to clean them without pulling your hair out. The two big variations are Form Factor and Manufacturer.

Inside a dirty ATX style computer with a failed poser supply.

This is pretty typical for an ATX style computer layout. This system is furry and in obvious need of help. The power supply has already failed from overheating.

Form Factor is the size of the computer and where the plugs and connectors are located on that computers main board (motherboard). There are A LOT of form factors. Thankfully there is a majority share held by just a few form factors so it limits the confusion a little.

Manufacturers can take form factors and make them exactly like everyone else or ‘tweak’ them to be more unique. Sometimes this unique shape and layout can improve things but it can also defy all logic and make things twice as difficult as they need to be. It really depends on the manufacturer and their goals with changing the design.

Just have to pick one. Since covering every form factor and manufacturer is certainly not practical this post will mainly cover the good ol’ ATX form factor. Most modern desktop computers are ATX form factor or a relatively close sibling. Any photos added in this post will be from a 2008 Dell Desktop (Studio XPS series if you really need to know). It’s a nice representation of a standard computer layout and doesn’t have any special Dell ‘tweaks’ that they occasionally go with.

The Typical ATX design.

–          Has the main access panel located on the left side if you are looking at the front of the computer (try not to look like a dear in headlights).

–          The power supply is in the top rear of the case

–          The Hard Drive / DVD Drive are in the front of the case.

–          The processor an memory are about in the middle

–          The add on cards including Video cards are bottom rear.

Not yours? Google it! If you were really pumped to clean your computer only to be crushingly disappointed to find out your computer wasn’t a regular ATX design fear not! It is the internet after all. Hit up Google and or your original manufacturer and see what you can find. Some systems will have quirky ways of opening the case and you can normally find these details online. Once you have the general layout of your computer understood you can follow the rest of this process pretty much the same, just with components in slightly different locations.

Prepare II

Turn off. You will want to completely shut down the computer. Don’t put it to sleep or hibernation. Do the official ‘Start > Shutdown’

Unplug. Did you take pictures like suggested? If not you may want to consider it. You will need to unplug EVERY cable from your computer. You don’t want to ‘wing’ it and see if you can leave some things attached. Leaving cables attached is a recipe for trouble.

Get off the floor. If you really have to you can work on the floor but ideally you should get the computer up and in a comfortable position to work in. Desk or table height is good. Be sure you have plenty of room to rotate the computer around to get to all the sides.

Open says me III

You need to remove the main side panel. As mentioned, on the ATX cases you will have the panel on the left side. The panel is sometimes held on with screws in the back of the case (normally two) or with a release mechanism/handle located on the panel itself. Pulling up on the release handle allows the panel to be removed.  Some panels simply pop out towards you but others may need to be slid slightly to the rear of the computer before they will come out. Again, if you have any trouble removing the case side you should check with Google or your manufacturer for specifics on removing the case side.

DON’T FORCE IT! It should go without saying but it will be anyway. Only in rare cases of damage or improper build will you need to really force open a case. If it’s not freely sliding or popping off then you need to recheck and see why. Leave the hacksaw in the garage where it belongs.

More Chunks! IV


A bat stuck in an internal computer fan.

Yes it's a real bat. Despite this computer being pretty dirty this could happen to anyone since computers tend to remain warm and are mostly dark. Click it to see the full size ... you know you want to.

Outside in. If your computer had a lot of fluffy chunks when you cleaned the outside it’s a safe bet that the inside is worse. Be prepared to find a variety of dust clumps, hair balls and whatever else made its way into the case over time. This can also include creepy crawlies as well. Spiders are common, some beetles maybe, and if you’re really lucky … a BAT! Some people think that’s a joke but it’s not. See exhibit … whatever the picture is called to the right. Thankfully big stuff is not common. Most computers simply don’t have holes big enough to fit critters past a certain size.

Use your hands a little. At this stage you will want to simply pick out any offending dirt you can with your hands. You can GENTLY move cables to the side and pick out things below them. Just don’t unplug anything. If you do find a bat … you should probably wear gloves.

Air Power V

Air basting dust everywhere while cleaning computer inside.

The air pressure will blast the dust everywhere. The lens on our camera was not dirty for this picture. We are using the vacuum mainly to catch air born dust bunnies.

You may want to go outside. Now is when the real fun starts. The most productive part of the internal cleaning is making use of air pressure to clean off the components. You will need your air source at hand and depending on the dirt build up you may need a lot. You may want to consider moving your computer to a garage or outside area if it’s particularly dirty. The air will cause some pretty substantial clouds of dust that will eventually have to land on something. Well … the dust you didn’t inhale will have to land on something. Which is probably a good reminder that if you have dust allergies you may want to have someone else do this part?

Careful with that! If you are using an air compressor be sure to cut the pressure down to 60psi or lower. If you are using canned air be sure to hold it properly at all times. And regardless of the air source be very careful with where you swing the nozzle. Be sure you’re not physically touching the computer at all.

A lot of cracks and crevasse’s. So you main goal at this point is to eliminate as much dust build up as possible from the components. Using short bursts of air, try to dislodge any buildup you can see. Once the visible dust is cleared off, move onto any holes or heat sink fins that may be hiding more dust. One primary location for dust build up is the power supply (box in upper rear of the case). You will normally see a lot of dust come out of the power supply. You should pretty much be spraying air until no more dust is coming off the system.

Advanced Computer Cleaning (optional) VI

Dirt and debris behind computer front panel.

You may be able to access more areas to clean by removing the front panel. Notice the plastic tabs on this model.

What about here? You may find that simply removing the side case is not enough. Some cases have a front face plate that can be removed to give you better access to the vents and fans in the front. Use caution removing these front faces as the tabs holding them on can be fragile. You can also remove the other side panel and the tops from most cases. This is rarely required but typically they are held in by a few screws.

All these cables are in the way! There are a lot of cables in most cases. You may have the urge to move and unplug some to get to the real hidden dirt. Unless you’re an experienced technician you should consider this a pictures mandatory situation. You should take as many pictures as you can of all the cables you are thinking about un plugging.


Done. Now Prevent

Now that you have a nice clean computer … try to keep it that way. In addition to regular cleanings there are some bigger factors that you can address.

Inside of a nice clean computer.

When done the inside should be filled with nice vivid colors and reflective metal.

Up and away. Getting the computer up off the floor will help reduce the exposure to dirt and dust. It is also a good way to stop people from kicking the computer when they are sitting at a desk. The natural air flow in a room drives dust down so the computer being on the floor makes it all that easier for dust to enter and stay in your computer.

Filters. There are filters available for computers. Ranging from fan filters to whole case filters. The problem with filters though is … you have to change them. People tend to use filters because it’s a good idea but when a filter gets dirty if it does not get changed it can restrict airflow more than a dirty computer can.

Quit Smoking. This may sound preachy but it’s true. Smoke causes tackiness on computer components that allows more dirt and dust then normally to stick to components. It’s like dipping chicken in batter to make crumbs stick for frying. No good. Plus … you know … you will live longer … so there is that benefit as well.

Comments are closed.