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How and When to Dust your PC


To keep your PC running like a well-oiled machine, you must, well… not oil it… but dust it!

Cleaning your PC can seem like a time-consuming and daunting task considering the sheer number of nooks and crannies nestled inside your case. But after reading through this simple guide, you’ll know exactly how to keep your PC pristine inside and out without breaking a sweat! We’ll also give some tips for dust prevention further down.

The cleaning intervals are all ballpark estimations, and of course you should clean out your PC earlier if the interior of your case turns into a dust bunny sanctuary.

Let’s get started!


Equipment

 

As always when you’re delving inside of your PC, the safest move is to have some anti-static protection so you don’t fry all those 1’s and 0’s imprisoned on your hard drive. An easy solution is an anti-static wrist strap (a fabric bracelet with a metal clip at the end of a long wire that discharges any static you’ve built up). Clip it to something capable of grounding you, like the metal edge of a desk or even your PC case, and you’re ready to get to work!

The only others tools you’ll need are a can of compressed air and whatever screwdriver(s) allows you to partially disassemble your computer. If you don’t want to use the air, or find it doesn’t quite do as thorough a job as you want, a microfiber cloth can be employed for hands-on dust-off work.


Outside the Case

 

First impressions are important, and the first thing you see on a computer are the external components. Before we get into the nitty gritty, we’ll quickly cover the bits and pieces that need to be cleaned or dusted on the outside of your PC case first.

Screens and Filters

We’ll look first at one of the most effective and simplest anti-dust measures: dust screens. While not every case features a dust filter, they can be installed after the fact, and the vast majority of modern cases do (And should!) have them. These porous filters are about as straightforward as you’d expect; they sit directly in front of the intake fans to capture as much dust as possible before it reaches the guts of your PC. Finer screens theoretically capture more dust, but require more frequent cleaning before they clog themselves up and start causing problems (like increased component temperatures, and added wear to fan motors).

If your case features a dust filter at all on the intake fans, then it’s good enough to be worth using. If your computer doesn’t feature any dust filtration, you can buy universal screens off Amazon that magnetically attach to the various grills of your case, filtering dust before it gets inside.

Ideally, these screens need to be cleaned often, about every month (depending on how much time your computer spends turned on and how clean your environment is), but the tradeoff for that frequent maintenance is that they substantially reduce the amount of cleaning that you’ll have to do in the future.

To clean a dust filter, first carefully  remove the screen and use a microfiber cloth to gently remove any large clumps of dust. To remove smaller dust deposits, either blow the screen clean with compressed air, or run it under room-temperature water and softly wipe it dry with a towel. If you do this, make sure it’s completely dry before placing it back in your PC! Inspect the filter to make sure there are no holes or tears in the mesh that could let dust through, then reinstall it back in your case.

 

Intake and Exhaust fans

Without a dust screen on your intake fans, all your case fans will get crustier than the outer edge of a pizza rather quickly. In this case, it’s best to clean the fans as they build up dust.

So, in the absence of a filter or screen, it’s the more-difficult-to-clean fans themselves that you’ll need to clean every month or so. With filters that are regularly cleaned, you can usually let the fans go 3-6 months between cleanings unless you live in a particularly dusty place. But either way, you should immediately clean them if you notice they’ve built up a pronounced layer of dust that you can see just by looking at the blades. Dust on fan blades can reduce the amount of air they push, put more stress on the motor, and it’s just plain ugly!

You can generally clean fan blades while they’re still installed in your case, but if you want to do a more thorough job or it has been many months since they were cleaned, it makes the process easier if you remove them first. To remove the fans, simply unscrew the four corners of the fan frame and pop it out for easy cleaning. Make sure you hold the blades still while cleaning (especially when using compressed air), otherwise you may not get all of the dust off!

 

        • If you opt to leave the fans installed, remove the front panel and use a microfiber cloth to gently wipe them clean on both the front and back faces of the blades. If you use compressed air, hold a microfiber cloth behind the fan before blowing clean! Otherwise, the air will blow all that dust right back into your case, in places much harder to clean than a simple fan blade.
        • If you remove the fans from your case, it will make the task of cleaning them much quicker. Once the front panel and fans are removed, you can use either a microfiber cloth or compressed air to clean the fan blades over a garbage can or similar receptacle to catch the falling dust. When they’re all clean and fresh, they’re ready to be reinstalled.

A case with the front panel removed, showing the intake fans.

Power Supply Filter Screen

Power supplies feature their own fans to help cool the components inside that provide your PC with ample power. Often, cases will include an additional dust filter over the port on the bottom of the case that allows air to enter the PSU from below. Simply remove the screen every 3-6 months or so to blow clean with compressed air or wipe clean with a microfiber cloth, then reinsert it into your case. Easy!

 

An example of a power supply dust filter partially removed from a case. This one is nice and clean! (Photo by Hexus.)


Inside the Case

 

Alright, it’s finally time to take off the side panel of the case and clean the innards of the machine so it’s dust-free!

CPU Cooler

Your processor, no matter how young and spry, cannot keep your PC running Baldur’s Gate at 2000 frames per second without a potent cooling solution that is properly maintained. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to get the dust out of your cooler and keep your CPU cooler in tip-top shape. You might want to consider replacing your thermal paste every 4-5 years, but otherwise the cleaning procedure here is a simple one and can be done at the same frequency as cleaning your case fans.

Whether your PC sports a liquid cooling loop or a traditional air cooler, the cleaning process remains largely the same:

 

        • Liquid Radiator – Unscrew your radiator and fans from inside of your case. The CPU pump (The little block that sits right on top of the CPU) can remain attached to the processor if you don’t need to replace the thermal paste, and if the water piping/tubing is long enough for the radiator to be easily cleaned without removal of the pump. Once free from the case, blow the fins of the radiator out with a can of compressed air, preferably over a bag or garbage can unless you really enjoy the comforting softness of dust all over your desk and floor.

A typical AIO twin fan radiator. Notice the little gaps in the fins; those are what you want to clear of dust! (Photo by Modders Inc.)

 

        • Air Radiator – Unlike a liquid cooler, which displaces the radiator away from the CPU, an air cooler is directly attached to the motheboard. So your options are to either blow it out where it is, (aiming toward the nearest exhaust vent of your case as much as possible, and dealing with the dust that settles elsewhere in the case afterward—or else to removed the cooler entirely, although that means you’ll also need some thermal paste to reattach it after dusting. If you go down that second route, unscrew the cooler and remove the fan from the radiator. Most air coolers don’t even use screws to secure the fans; just unhook the metal wires from the fan’s screw holes and it should come right off. Then, use your can of compressed air to blast the dust out of each tiny crevice inside the aluminum fins. Once you’ve blown the dust out of the fins and it looks brand new again, you can reinstall everything and you’re good to go!

One side of a CPU air cooler with the fan removed. Notice the dust in the fins, which you’d ideally want to… remove, obviously. (Photo by Vortez.)

Graphics Card

Cleaning a graphics card is something that’s easy to forget, but important to remember. Most graphics cards have fans attached to the bottom of the card, making them easy to miss when doing a brief cleaning. Fortunately, that downward orientation of the fans also means they tend to accumulate dust much slower. As a result, most graphics cards only need to be thoroughly cleaned every second time you clean your system’s fans, meaning at least once a year.

Graphics cards also feature a wide array of fan shapes and sizes, including liquid coolers, so always be sure to clean your card in the way that suits it best.

For cards with typical air fans or a blower for cooling, first remove the graphics card from your PC. Hold the fans still with one hand and use a can of compressed air to blow out the fins behind the fan blades, and/or wipe them clean with a microfiber cloth. Once the fins and blades are clear of dust, place the card back in your rig.

For graphics cards with liquid cooling, you can follow the same principles from cleaning a liquid-based CPU Cooler radiator in the previous step, since their anatomy is almost identical for our purposes here.

 

A GPU that could use some cleaning. Notice the dust around the fan blades that you’d want to blow off, as well as the thin silver fins behind them. (Photo by Hardwaresfera.)

Everything Else

Dust can build up in just about every corner of your case. At least once a year, try to make some time to hit those hard-to-clean places in your PC. If it’s been a while since the last good cleaning, even just a blast of compressed air can loosen dust from a messy corner of your PC and increase airflow. Below are a list of a few of the places I often don’t remember to clean (Or just plain avoid!) on most routine cleaning operations in my very own PC.

        • Behind the cable panel
        • Areas where many cables meet, like fan controller cubbies or near the power supply
        • Throughout the drive bays and between drives
        • Inside your “PSU basement” below the shroud (if your case has one)
        • Any large components on the motherboard with small crevices
        • Between sticks of RAM
        • Behind the motherboard
        • Any other open-air gaps inside of your case

How Do I Prevent Dust from Collecting in my PC?

 

Unfortunately, the truth is that dust exists. And it exists everywhere. People with pets or in dry climates may get more of it than others, but there’s really no escape. The most effective way to reduce dust build-up is to have regularly cleaned filters, an environment that reduces dust as much as possible, and ideally positive air pressure inside the case.

This could mean keeping the computer off the floor, keeping pets out of your computer room, and/or investing in an air purifier or some other means of reducing ambient dust. There is no silver bullet to fighting dust, beyond a little elbow grease and a google calendar entry telling you to get up and clean that machine out every once in a while.

If you want it to run for as long as possible, this is your first step! Future-proofing begins not with $2000 GPUs, but with proper maintenance and care.

 

What is Positive Air Pressure?

 

Positive pressure is the idea that a higher volume of intake air than exhaust air prevents dust from settling in your PC by constantly forcing small amounts of air out of every crack in your case. The easiest way to configure your PC for positive air pressure is to simply have more intake fans than exhaust fans. The idea is that fans actively pulling in more air than they’re pushing out causes every opening of the case to act as an exhaust, preventing some dust from entering through unfiltered zones. Conversely, negative pressure (fans pushing out more air than they’re pulling in) causes every opening of the case to act as an unfiltered intake.

Or that’s the theory, at least. If you look into the concept online, you’ll find support for the idea and denigration of it; some swear by it, while others find it pointless. As for what I have to say about it: if you can easily set up your PC to have one more intake than exhaust fan, then it doesn’t hurt to set it up anyways. At worst, it has no negative affect on your build, assuming you follow good air flow principles. And at best, it may cause less dust to settle in your PC—exactly what we want!


Conclusion

 

Dusting, however tedious it may seem, needs to be done to keep your computer running happy and healthy. When you peek through your smoked glass side panel and notice “Hey, it’s not that dusty in there!”, it can be tempting to stretch your cleaning intervals to the limit, but pop that cover off and shine a flashlight inside and you’ll notice that there’s probably a lot more dust in there than you really believed.

It’s important to keep your computer dust-free to ensure a long life for your parts, which ultimately saves you money in the long run! And in the most dire of situations, it could even theoretically be possible for a very old and dusty PC to become a fire hazard. So cleaning protects your parts in multiple ways!

Have any questions or comments? Think I missed something? Let us know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading!


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