DIY Computer Hardware Maintenance for Everyone

Maintaining Your Computer is Smart and Safe

When somebody contacts us with a serious computer hardware problem, the first thought that pops into my mind is, “Wow, I wish s/he would have called us for computer maintenance before this catastrophic event happened, when we had a chance to stop it!”


If you’ve ever had a hard drive or motherboard fail, you have likely felt the pain of losing all of your data and programs, having to pay a lot to get your computer back in working order, or having to replace expensive hardware -- maybe all three! The good news is that you can prevent most of these painful incidents by performing some simple maintenance steps, and keep your computer running its best at the same time.


Just like the tires on your car reach the end of their lives, the parts in your computer won’t last forever. There are also hazards your computer can run into, like nails through your tires. Finally, there are things that need to be maintained, exactly like you need to change the oil in your car periodically. You would never ignore that maintenance requirement for your car -- why do it with your computer?


One caveat here: you can be a responsible car owner and take care of your car’s maintenance needs without actually doing it yourself. We perform this kind of maintenance on computers every day, generally for $40, and I’m sure there are other repair shops and in-home technicians near you that charge reasonable rates for this service. There is no more shame in paying someone else to do this work than there is in having your oil change performed by your local mechanic. Just make sure to get it done, one way or another!


In case you want to do it yourself, or you’d like to know what you’re paying for, let’s talk about the basics of computer maintenance. We're going to start with the primary hazard for all computer components: heat.

Learn More

HowToGeek has excellent articles on computers and computer repair.  Read more about the effects of heat on your computer in their article "How to Tell If Your Computer Is Overheating and What to Do About It"

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Heat is your enemy!

 

Excessive heat can dramatically shorten the life of all of the following, in both laptops and desktops:

  • Power supplies
  • Hard drives
  • Memory
  • Cables
  • Fans
  • Expansion cards (like video cards and sound cards)
  • Motherboard components

Heat damage to some of those things might cause intermittent problems, but chances are too much heat will make your computer stop running -- sometimes for good. A few simple steps can reduce the heat and make your computer run better for a longer time.

Steps to clean a desktop computer

 

  1. Turn the computer off, place your hand on the power supply to discharge static, and unplug the power cord. Do not move your feet from this point until you finish, so you don’t build up any more static that could damage the computer.
  2. Remove the side and manually clean all large lint, pet hair, and debris out of the body of the computer, being careful to touch the motherboard and other components as little as possible. Any dirt that’s directly on the parts inside the computer we will take care of with air in the next step. 
  3. Wearing a paper dust mask, use some canned air in very short bursts to blow the dirt and smaller debris out of the inside of the machine. Pay particular attention to the heat sink (similar to the large aluminum one shown in the center of the picture in the right sidebar), the various fans, and the power supply. Don’t allow any part of the can of air to touch any part of the computer, to avoid static discharge. Let the can rest if it gets very cold or stops discharging air. You can also consider buying a portable air compressor to do this more quickly. I bought this one from Amazon to replace my bigger, heavier, and dirtier industrial-style compressor, and I’ve been extremely pleased with its lightness and power.
  4. Perform a quick hardware check as you’re blowing canned air into the computer: Hit each fan with a quick blast of air and make sure it spins fast and freely. If it doesn’t keep spinning for at least 5 seconds after the air hits it, the fan’s bearings are starting to go out, and it needs to be replaced sooner rather than later. If it hardly spins, stops spinning immediately when the air is removed, or makes groaning, whining, squealing, or scraping noises, do not turn your computer back on until you replace the fan
  5. If everything checks out, reattach the side and give the computer a quick wipe down with a soft, clean rag (I cut up old t-shirts for this). You can use a mixture of one part window cleaner and three parts water sprayed onto the rag to clean stubborn dirt. Never spray liquid directly at your computer. You’re done!

Steps to clean a laptop computer

  1. Make sure the laptop is shut down completely, not sleeping or hibernating. There is not as much danger of static discharge, as you won’t be touching the internal components of the laptop, but it’s still a good idea to touch something metallic to discharge any static that has built up in your body and make it a habit to not move your feet so as not to build up any more.
  2. Examine the heat vents on the bottom and sides of the laptop for any lint, hair, or debris blocking them. Remove any large blockages with a pair of tweezers.
  3. Wearing a paper dust mask, blow canned air in short bursts into each air vent until no more dust or debris comes out of the other vents. Don’t allow any part of the can of air to touch any part of the computer, to avoid static discharge. You can also consider buying the portable air compressor I mentioned above, as you have even more reason to blow your computer out often and completely: laptops have hardly any space in them for airflow to keep them cool, and, ironically, laptop components are far more delicate and easily damaged by heat than a desktop’s. If you live in a dusty environment, blowing dust out of your laptop once a week would not be too often, in my opinion, and once a month would be advised for any environment. Never using your laptop on a soft surface that inhibits ventilation (like your lap!) will also go a long way toward keeping it running well for a longer time.
  4. Some laptops do not have fans, but most do, and their bearings fail just like those in desktop fans. If you can’t see the fans turning fast and freely, you need to listen very carefully for suspicious noises as you blow air into the laptop. Failing bearings in laptop fans will make the same groaning, whining, squealing, or scraping sounds as their desktop brethren, although they are usually much more difficult to replace. If you hear any funny noises when you blow the dust out, I would suggest taking your laptop to a repair shop or calling an in-home technician to check it out.
  5. After you’re done with the back and side vents, blow out the various ports around the edge of the laptop, then turn the laptop over and open the top.  You may see dust and debris on the screen from the keyboard. Use the air to blow that dirt out, and continue to blow air around the keyboard until it seems clean.
  6. Wipe the laptop down with a soft, clean rag (I cut up old t-shirts for this). You can use a mixture of one part window cleaner and three parts water sprayed onto the rag to clean stubborn dirt, as I mentioned above. Be very careful wiping around the keys on the keyboard, as they come off easily, and pay special attention to the screen, which you should clean very gently with a dampened rag and dry with another clean, lint-free rag. Never spray liquid directly at your laptop. You’re done!

Very dirty laptop keyboard

Very dirty laptop keyboard

A few more things to check out

Congratulations! You’ve just finished the hardest part of computer maintenance, and I’ll bet it wasn’t as hard as you thought. The next step is checking other components.

First of all, component failure usually gives you plenty of hints in the days or weeks (or maybe even months) leading up to the actual death of a hard drive or other part. If your computer goes from completely trouble free operation in July, to having one blue screen or spontaneous restart or file that can’t be opened in August, to two or three of those telltale signs in September, you probably have a hardware component that’s getting ready to fail. New noises from your computer can also be clues to active hardware issues, as we discuss in one of our FAQ. Click on the link in the right sidebar if you want to know more about that.

Unfortunately, the warning signs might not be so clear. Blue screens and other malfunctions certainly can indicate hardware problems, but they might also signal software problems, like corrupted operating system files, malware/viruses, or registry corruption. Good computer hardware maintenance, therefore, always includes making a good backup and running a disk test. The Check Disk utility that is available in every version of Windows is perfectly adequate. NeoSmart Technologies has an excellent article about finding and running a disk check in all Windows versions here. Be warned that it doesn't always work -- it's more reliable with newer operating systems, like Windows 10 -- and you might need professional help to find and run an appropriate utility if Check Disk fails you.

Finally, for checking the rest of the hardware in your computer, try Microsoft’s Reliability Monitor. It’s a utility in your Control Panels folder, inside the Security and Maintenance control panel, that gives you a history of the overall stability of your computer on a scale from 1 (unstable) to 10 (very stable). You can read more about this utility at HowToGeek’s website. If you’re seeing your stability trend downward, it might be time to start thinking about replacing some hardware or your whole computer -- or at least making an appointment with your favorite technician to get some professional help! 


As usual, please use our contact form below to email me with any questions you have about this or any other computer-related topic. If I don’t know the answer, I guarantee I can help you find it!


Lisa Hendricks

Lead Technician

Mighty IT Computer Repair & Training

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We have at least one FAQ that might help you catch computer problems before they become catastrophes: "Why is my computer making a noise, and what can I do about it?" Click the button below to read more about it.

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