NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2007
Simple PC Maintenance – Part 1 – Electricity and Cooling
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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Most of us are privileged to have desktop and notebook computers that give us a few years of reliable service. Many of us have computers that reach the end of their useful life cycle not because of wear and deterioration, but because of technical obsolescence due to the rapid advances in hardware and software technology. Sitting on the floor adjacent to my computer table, still plugged in and fully functional is a decade old Windows 98 machine that I originally built as a Windows 95 machine. I occasionally (rarely?) turn it on, and it boots fine, but has been technologically eclipsed by my newer machines, rendering it functionally obsolete. One factor which I believe contributed to the longevity of my antique machine was the maintenance and care I lavished upon it. Similar maintenance and care is being provided to my newer machines with the hope that they will last as long.

Computer maintenance is required for both the hardware and software on our machines, and can easily be performed by the all-thumbs novice. Our computers are complex electromechanical machines that tend to run well with minimal care, but do require proper care and feeding to prolong their useful lives.

Our computers consume electricity much the same way as we consume food. Just like our food, our electricity may be clean or dirty, and clean electricity is vital to our computers’ health. Too many of us simply plug the power cord from our computer directly into the wall socket; while simple and functional, this is a far from ideal source of electricity for our machines. We may not be aware, but much of the electricity coming from our wall outlets may be “dirty”, in that it can vary in voltage, and carry power spikes and surges from both manmade and natural sources. At a minimum, the computer and its valuable peripherals should be plugged into a surge suppressor, and not a simple power strip or extension cord. These devices may filter out the surges or spikes in electricity that at a minimum can cause extensive wear to the power supplies in our computers, or in worst case scenarios can “fry” the components in our computers. The ability to resist surges and spikes is measured in “joules”, and the rule of thumb is the more joules the better. Surge suppressors should be listed by Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) and have a “1449” rating from the UL. Most surge suppressors also have plugs for phone and fax lines, and coax connectors for cable lines; power surges can enter the computer through these conduits, so they need to be also protected. Surge suppressors eventually wear out, and occasionally need to be periodically replaced. While arguable, some surge suppressors claim to protect from lightening damage, several even offering an insurance policy against such damage.

Have you ever noticed the power flicker or slight dimming of lights when the air conditioner or major appliances click on? The drop in voltage, however short, may damage the computer and its components. The solution for this potential malady is an uninterruptible power supply, more commonly referred to by its acronym “UPS”. Many of the better UPS’s offer automatic voltage regulation (AVR), a feature which assures a steady and proper “clean” voltage to the computer despite variations in the power line. UPS’s generally offer excellent protection against power spikes and surges, as well as protection and filtering of telephone and cable lines. Many better UPS’s also offer some type of guarantee or insurance protection against damage to the computer and its peripherals in the event of power surges or lightening. One warning about UPS’s is that they need to have the capacity to provide adequate power to the computer, and generally the larger the capacity the better. UPS’s also serve another vital function, and that is the ability to provide stable electrical power to the computer in the event of a power failure or brownout, allowing for the saving of open documents, and the execution of a proper shutdown sequence protecting both hardware and software. Most UPS’s come with software to monitor the power consumption and automate the shutdown process in the event of a power outage, and is connected to the computer via a USB cable. Some older UPS’s come with a serial cable (DB-9) to control the shutdown process, but most newer computers do not have a serial port, rendering the monitoring and shutdown functions useless. Beware of some wild claims made by some manufacturers as to how long their products will power a computer in the event of a power failure, as they are often exaggerated.

One of the major killers of computers is heat. Many of us are unaware that our computers’ power supplies, hard drives, CD and DVD burners, video cards, CPU chips, and other components put out a lot of heat, and this excessive heat must be removed from the computer. As they come from the factory, if properly engineered, most mass produced computers can minimally dissipate the heat generated. At a minimum, computers use the fan in the power supply to draw hot air through the computer, and exhaust it. On older, less powerful computers, this was often adequate, but on newer more powerful computers, which consume more power and generate a lot more heat, this single fan cooling system is often inadequate. Better engineered mass produced computers, and many locally built custom computers, incorporate multiple fans to improve cooling. While we can sometimes easily add aftermarket fans and other cooling methods to improve air circulation, that simple task is often beyond what many of us want to do by ourselves. What we all can easily accomplish is to see to it that the vents on our computers, often slats on the back, sides, or bottom of the case are clear and unobstructed. I have repaired several overheated computers that were placed in a closed drawer or cabinet of a computer desk, where exhaust air had no place to go, wrapping the computer in a blanket of heated air, which eventually damaged the components. In one case, with the expressed consent of the owner, I knocked out the rear composite board of the computer desk, opening the computer to the air, and the overheating problem disappeared. Do not place a modern computer in a closed cabinet or drawer of a computer desk; that is an invitation to disaster.

In addition to making sure that the vents in a computer are not externally blocked, we must also assure that the vents are clean and free of dust bunnies and other debris. You may notice all of the dust collected by your furnace filter, and this same dust can be collected inside the computer, blocking the free and proper exchange of cool air. All users should periodically inspect the computer case, possibly with a flashlight, and look for clogged vents, and clear them as appropriate. A very low powered, low suction vacuum can perform this task, and devices for this purpose are often available from computer and electronics stores.

For those who are adventurous, they may want to open the case of the computer for visual inspection. Prior to opening the case, shutdown the computer, and then unplug the power cord. Be sure to ground yourself to remove any static electricity from your body. Always practice maximum safety! Open the case (methods vary by manufacturer) and look for dust bunnies around the power supply, hard drive, video card, mother board, and CPU chip. The low powered vacuum or a can of clean compressed air can be utilized to dislodge and remove the dust bunnies. One area that should be visually inspected is the fan and heat sink around the CPU chip. There is often a small fan integrated with a heat sink fastened on the top of the chip, and the fan and heat sink frequently get clogged with dust and debris, resulting in overheating of the chip and possibly premature demise of the chip. Dust and debris can be removed from the fan and heat sink with the vacuum, canned air, or very carefully with a cotton swab. This would be a good time for the technically savvy user to consider installing additional cooling fans. Fans are generally inexpensive, and come in a variety of formats. The simplest to install can be inserted in an empty PCI slot in the back of the computer, and is powered through the motherboard, not requiring any additional plugs or other connections. More powerful fans may be installed in the extra fan opening common on most computer cases. Other forms of cooling may be installed as well. Supplemental fans can be inexpensively purchased from any computer parts store, and most large electronics stores, or online.

Clean and reliable electricity, and keeping our computers cool, can do much to extend the useful and productive life of our computers. In future columns I will discuss other simple PC maintenance procedures.

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