Cleaning Up Dusty Computers

I have a bunch of old computers which I would like to repurpose for experiments and other tasks. These old PCs were given to me by family members and some were salvage from the office. These were more than 10 years old and they were no longer capable of running the latest Windows 10. However they were still capable of running light weight operating system like Linux.

However before I could reuse them, I needed to clean them out as the dust accumulated inside was like a mini grey moss jungle, well one of it anyway. The rest had dust in hard to reach corners and on the board itself. Since they were old, I decided to do some drastic cleaning measures. I think most technician would've frown at my methods, but I found it to be truly effective! However a very thorough cleaning was no easy task and it took me the better part of an entire day to clean up one PC. With so many old computers at my disposable, it spanned several weekends just to clean them up! Fortunately with the pandemic lockdown and working from home, I have some spare time after hours to tinker with my various hobby projects!

Cleaning Dell old PC computer

For the cleaning process, I prepared the usual requirements:

  • Several different sizes of screwdrivers - flat heads, Phillip, hexagons, etc.
  • A damp cloth - just damp enough, you don't want to risk a short circuit!
  • Vacuum cleaner - the household vacuum cleaner would be strong enough. Handhelds did not have enough vacuum power pressure to do the job.
  • Torchlight - to see clearly especially where the wires should go and for taking photos.
  • Container - for holding the screws and small parts

Cleaning up a PC is not for the faint hearted. And if you have no experience to even swap hard drives, it is better to leave to someone more experience. There is also the risk of static discharge from yourself rendering your circuits unusable. However I did find the components rather robust to withstand my rather unconventional cleaning method.

Fortunate for me, I live in a country that is rather humid and did not have any static build up in my home enviroment. Usually for places that are dry, it is easy to have static build up and touching any metal, would result in a static discharge with the usual ouch when the mini spark flies out on contact! This may also happen in an air conditioned enviroment such as office with floor carpet. Walking on the carpet, your shoes would rub against it and it would create a static build up in your body as well. So for extra precaution, a static discharge band would help to reduce the static build up in your body. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have this equipment, and I don't see it sold in the computer shops. Probably our humid country meant many of us PC tinkerers here don't usually use this item and thus not much demand for it here.

Here are some steps for cleaning.

  1. Unhook the PC from the power supply, and cable connection
  2. Open the side panel, and slide it out
  3. Take a photo of the layout, just so you know where the parts should go back in
  4. If the dust is heavy, use the vacuum cleaner for initial cleaning. Careful not to damage any components
  5. Remove SATA cables, PATA cables, power cables from the hard drive, DVD drive, floppy drive, etc. Take out the drives from the PC and give the drives a good wipe through with the damp cloth. You may have to remove the front panel to have access to the drives. For the generic chassis, these are easy. For brands like Dell you may have to download the service manual to find out how to open it.
  6. Wipe the cables
  7. With the drives removed, wipe out casing
  8. Here's the risky job, wiping out the dust from the circuits and components:
    • Wipe out the dust from the motherboard. Use the screwdriver and wrap the damp cloth around it to reach the narrow areas
    • Take out the DDR-RAM and have those clean up as well. Easier and safer to take it out to clean than to try clean it in place.
    • Take out any PCI and PCIex cards and have those clean up too
    • Clean up the various heat sinks
    • You may have to pull out the ATX cable for easier access. Take note there is a latch holding it in place. So carefully release it to pull the cables out.
  9. The fan would be the most dirtiest of all the parts and it would be easier to clean it by removing it from the chassis. If possible, also remove the CPU fan for cleaning.
  10. If you managed to take out the CPU fan, use the vacuum cleaner to vacuum out the dust from the heat sink.
  11. Add a dollop of lubricant oil for all the fans would help the lifespan of the fan and keep the noise level down a notch! In this case I use the famous WB-40 and it worked like a charm!
  12. For branded computers, like the Dell Dimension 3100, I had to consult the service manual in order to dismantle it for cleaning.
  13. And finally, the power supply unit. The fan needs cleaning and the dust do get in. So opening up would be easier for cleaning. Find the screws that is holding it to the chassis and take it out. You will have to unplug the cable from the motherboard and from the hard drives, DVD drives and various drives.
Cleaning the computer CPU fan and heat sink

You may want to take photos at any point to recall the position of the components and cable position. Especially for the front panel wires. And of course the photos to be used for your blog and Instagram posts! You may also want a service manual handy for reference. Even for such old motherboards, I could find them online and download a copy for reference. Taking apart was easy, but to put them back, you will need reference. Especially if this is a new experience! Thus photos and service manual would come in handy.

For me, taking apart and putting the first PC back together was rather daunting. So I started with the oldest PC, in case I botch it, well, it was just an old PC. Having old computers for practice was good and I get to learn the various connections going in and out of the motherboard to the various devices. And having gain confidence for the first computer, spreading out over several weekends, I proceeded with cleaning out the rest, including my workhorse PC.

Perhaps age is catching up and my work position was not at all ergonomic. At the end of the day, I have a very sore backache from all the cleaning! However, I was truly satisfied having clean out the a decade old dust accumulation and reviving the old computers for experimenting and other less intensive task.

Cleaning the computer power supply unit

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