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Can Dust Actually Damage My Computer?

Thousands of hours per year of fan-driven air movement combined with electrostatic charges make computers veritable dust magnets. Is all that dust simply a nuisance or is it actually harmful?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Holy Sheet poses a question about dust and computer hardware:

During the last few days, my screen froze a couple of times. After opening the chassis I discovered plenty of dust beneath my mother board. I wonder if that can cause short circuits.

Can neglecting to spring clean your PC damage it? Let’s investigate.

The Answers

SuperUser contribute Daniel R. Hicks offers some assurance and insight on the matter:

Dust is a problem from the standpoint of blocking fan vents, or, if deep enough, actually insulating parts, causing overheating, but unless it contains substantial amounts of corrosive or conductive material (in which case you shouldn’t be breathing it), it won’t damage the electrical components (beyond any overheating damage).

What could happen, in some circumstances, is condensation inside the box, mixing with dust and creating a conductive sludge. This would generally only occur if you bring the box in from an extremely cold environment (below 0C, roughly) into a humid indoor environment. The protection from this is to wrap the box tightly in plastic before bringing it indoors, and leave it wrapped for a couple of hours, while it has time to warm up.

Fellow contributor EdH offers some field experience to corroborate the previous assessment:

No way. Unless it over heats. Trust me, I have cleaned server motherboards deployed in Afghanistan for months with inches of dust caked on, still running fine. And as long as you keep them cool, they will survive.

Now, optical drives. That’s a different story.

While you’re at very little risk of a dust blanket shorting out your hardware, heat is the eternal enemy of computers and a good cleaning will help keep things cool (and extend the life of your computer in the process).

For more information on how to clean your computer and peripherals safely and effectively, check out the following resources:

 


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 10/18/12

Comments (35)

  1. r

    yes, dust can damage your computer –mind blowing stuff, really.

  2. BigT

    Yup. I’ve had a vid card pretty much die because of over heating due to the does collection around the memory chips.

  3. DS

    Yup, do this for a living…..I have seen the performance difference from simply removing all the dust off the CPU fan….

  4. Paul

    I’ve been around a lot of computers and Dust isn’t a problem until it blocks fans and/or airflow. Heat is what kills stuff, not the dust.

  5. Phillipe

    In Afghanistan computer blows you.

  6. Seabat

    I set my calendar to chirp at me every four months to thoroughly clean my computer. It takes only about 20-30 minutes to protect my investment.

  7. imanoldgoat

    It’s not the dust, it’s the dust mites building cities and stealing the electricity to power their homes. We can’t harm them because they’re an endangered species.

  8. Hernan

    You forgot to mention that if you have pets, their hair can actually get caught by fans and create a corrosive sticky “blanket” and actually damage some parts (seen that a couple of times). Totally agree that if it’s only dust, the only problem will be heat dissipation.

    LOL at Phillipe’s comment…

    Regards

  9. Tom van Weerd

    Not just the blocking fans can cause damage, also dust in slots can stop computers working. Clean your slots as well as your fans from time to time using a simple vacuumcleaner to stay out of trouble.

  10. spike

    Can dust cause short circuits? No. The wrong question was asked.

  11. Terry

    It can cause crashes that can corrupt data on the hard drive. I have had to fix a few over the years for others. Can Dust Actually Damage My Computer? So, Yes, to a certain degree.

  12. BB

    My PC was giving memory errors, and I phoned the makers who supplied it. They told me to take the memory out, and to vacuum the memory slots. Blimey, I thought, so much for technical customer support! It was a bit dusty inside the case, so to humour them before returning the PC for mending, I did as they said – and haven’t had any problems since! So yes, it seems that dust can cause some sort of shorting for memory.

  13. Puzzled

    The above comments are all very enlightening however how does one clean a laptop from dust etc.?

  14. biG

    Just hose it down with hot water and dish soap.

  15. Max Bancroft

    Not having an earth strap connected to your wrist or ankle will cause incipient faults to develop in microchips. A technician simply touching something that is earthed before handling a mother board only discharges his static electricity momentarily. The static charge builds up again the moment he moves his limbs and voltages up to 18,000 volts discharge into the mother board the moment he touches them. These momentary over voltages irreparably damage micro chips and the problems they create may not become evident for many months or years later. British Telecom take wearing an earth strap so seriously they have announced to their staff they are quite prepared to sack anyone found not wearing one.
    The draught of air created by the computer fan in passing over components leaves dust particles clinging to them. The draught would also strip away electrons from the particles leaving them with a a static charge. Removing the dust by some mechanical means such as a soft bristled brush may only exacerbate the static discharge problem and risk damaging soldered connections. Gently blowing dust off the components with a low velocity jet of air is a safer option.

  16. Dusty Digits

    I don’t know about anyone else but I tend to keep my computer’s innards fairly clean. I do it mostly because of a conspiracy many PC case makers have been doing for a while now – they now include a window on the side which forces me to see all that nasty dust. :-P

  17. your humble narrator

    It can and it makes things hot. Good idea to clean house now and again.

  18. Tom Bowersox

    I have worked on computers for over twenty years and I can guarantee you that dust can be a problem. Dust not only gets into computer components but it also gets into fans and slows them down or completely stops them. The power supply fan is a major candidate for dust. On many computers that are going to be in a dusty environment, I install a much larger fan on the side panel with a washable filter. The larger fan keeps a positive pressure in the case so dust can not enter. The filter is cleaned as a blanket of dust appears. This procedure has added two to three years life to the computer and minimizes downtime.

  19. clamo

    YEP to much dust CAN cause your computer to fail. it CAN cause it to over heat.

    @ Max Bancroft: you don’t need a earth strap “aka anti static strap” to work on computers, Ive been working on computers for over 10 years and have NEVER used one. and no one can discharge 18k volts, you are thinking of body heat. the human brain runs on about 12volts. 18k volts can almost kill you.and yes I am aware of the volt guns that cops use now and they are NOT very Hi volted like a lot have been told, if they were any police force would get sued for killing people. the amount is just enough to stop you in your tracts and not kill you. btw dust does not contain a static charge as its just dead skin. to be conductive it must still contain sweet, with also contain salt, witch is conductive and dust does not.

  20. Dic

    I have an attachment nozzle (Taiwanese) for our house vaccie that could frighten you to death in the dark if you’d never seen one before. It has about three dozen (tried counting them, but got a different total each of three times) nozzles, each about 8 mm dia, x 90 mm long, each equipped with a pig-a-back set of soft bristles that protrude a little ahead of the business end of the nozzles. Three of the nozzles have, in addition, tufts of longer, stiffer bristles, for dealing with heavier duty needs. I wish I could show you a picture. It’s brilliant. If you see one for sale, grab it.

  21. Little John

    On laptops, you need to remove the back cover to blow out all the dust bunnies. In 30 years of working on computers, the biggest problem is dust and heat build up cause by dust. The worse place to park your computer tower is on the floor, the fans and electronic charges collect all the dust, pet’s hair and carpet fiber. Just other day I open a computer, looked at cooling fan for CPU, there was no way the fan was cooling the CPU. The fan was caked full of dust, pet/human hairs and lint that fan could not turn.
    She was complaining about lockups and slow machine. If just fine dust then most cases not problem but when you mix pet hair, human hair, carpet fibers, lint, and dust in the fans (CPU & power supply) the computer will lockup or freeze. Keep laptops on solid surface, never place on your lap, pillow, or any thing soft. This blocks the cooling vents and suck up lint from the bedding.

  22. Puzzled

    Thank you Little John . . . your reply in reference to laptops was very helpful indeed and I appreciate that.

    I actually have my laptop sitting on top of a cooler pad (simply a large fan that runs from a USB port.) The two items combined sit on top of a solid ‘lap tray.’

    However, I do have a pet (cat) and I consider his fine loose fur could float and be drawn into the laptop so it is good to know that by removing the back cover I can gently blow away any such residue.

  23. Dic

    Didn’t even know our laptops had back covers. Thanks, Little John.

    But like Puzzled, we have them sitting on cooling pads. These came, as it happened, with three fans to each. They themselves don’t create a lot of heat.

  24. David Marles

    I once had a Commodore Pet which had seen service in a Steel Mill. None of the components on the motherboard were visible under a thick coating of mill scale. The Pet still ran perfectly well …..

  25. Jer

    What’s the safest way to open a power supply (after unplugging it) and avoid getting zapped from accidentally shorting a capacitor or something? Is it possible to safely discharge all of the electricity that still remains stored within the unit even after it’s unplugged from the socket?

  26. mike c

    imagine a microvax or pdp11/20 still wroking for some strange reazon … the dust could be alive and understand internet and one of the most famous unix or VMS O.S..

  27. GraveDigger27

    This isn’t even a question – I’ve seen too many systems destroyed because power supplies, motherboards or fans were overloaded with “dust”. My brother’s computer is in a room next to a kitchen. Although I’ve warned him to “occasionally” take his system outside and blow the case out with compressed air, I’ve seen several of his computers damaged due to lack of cooling. Even worse, his systems have been in a computer cabinet with a door. I’ve had to replace 3 power supplies, 2 processor fans and he’s had several systems die because he doesn’t do the simple task of cleaning out his boxes. Last year he bought a brand new computer system and put it in the same spot. I’ve warned him time and time again but I’m gonna wait till it finally fails to convince him he needs to take more responsibility for his stuff.

  28. saket

    About 12 years ago, while i was 9 years old, me and my father discovered that actually the proportion of dust in you CPU affects your computer speed and performance. [We were so greedy about our old windows 98 system to be speedy rocket…..lolzzzzz]

  29. Noor

    What about All In One computers, what’s the best way to keep them clean?
    I have a Sony Vaio All In One and I am a bit concerned about the issue of possible dust. And since I would never attempt to open it, nor would I know how, I am just wondering about keeping it a pristine as possible. It’s over a year old.
    Thanks

  30. wlm

    @clamo ESD *can* hit tens of thousands of volts and can very certainly damage computer hardware. A wrist strap will save your chips. Please learn more about electrostatic discharge before you run around telling people that humans can’t “discharge 18k vlots,” because they can, and do.

  31. Erik

    I’ve been a PC technician for over 10 years. Here’s my experience:

    I’ve witnessed blown power supplies occuring from excessive dust accumulation which inhibits fan operation. Lack of fan cooling = overheating = burnt-out electronics.
    Excessive dust in heatsinks (CPU, video, etc.) will insulate heat as well. That’s not good, but I haven’t had any serious issues with that.

    HOWEVER, NOTE… When using canned air, compressed air, or otherwise to remove dust, keep in mind that STATIC is produced. The extreme force of the air pressure creates static discharge. Also, excessive air pressure applied to fans can cause the blades to turn way too fast, blowing out the bearings. Not to mention, it can damage capacitors, etc. Watch out for liquid discharge from canned air as well. I have personally killed a few motherboards in the past because of it.

    Bottom line: Do clear the dust as much as possible. But if using pressurized air, apply light puffs of it where needed, avoiding excessive force and static discharge. Do not use canned air if all possible, avoiding potential fluid leakage onto delicate components.

    Hope this helps.

  32. Sirmentio

    Dust Can Most likely make your computer Overheat, therefore locking it up.

  33. Viggenboy

    I can’t count the number of customer’s I’ve had whose laptops “keep shutting down for no reason” and the “no reason”turns out to be fans/heat-sinks so choc full thick of dust that NOTHING could pass through it.

  34. Wrightgeek

    I have cleaned many PC’s and a trend i noticed is once cleaned from dust, a simple vacuuming… they can just stop working. makes no sense at all !!!

  35. john3347

    Somebody earlier stated that dust cannot cause short circuits. This is only partially true. Dust can attract moisture under the right conditions and the wet dust can cause short circuits that may destroy components, but more likely would only bleed current causing a temporary malfunction that will return to normal if the dust is removed. Speaking more in a practical than highly technical terms, yes, dust can affect computer operation in several ways including overheating, but also other ways including short circuits. Bear in mind that the foreign material that your computer collects over time may contain several other elements than only dust. Environmental conditions introduce many types of particulate matter that tends to collect on your computer parts.

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