Cleaning Your Computer Safely

Q   I live on a dirt road, so I get a lot of dust in
the house. I took the cover off my
computer one time and found it was very dirty inside. Also, if
I go very long without using my floppy drive, it
tends to kill the first disk I put into it (I guess because
the drive is dirty). I would like to clean up my
computer, but I’m worried about damaging it. What can I do
to clean my computer safely? -E.V.

A  Your problem is pretty common. Most of us live in a less than sterile environment.
Unfortunately, our computers lack the ability to
self-clean, and they don’t tolerate much contamination.
The three household enemies of your computer are
dust, heat, and static electricity. If you want your
computer to live a long and healthy life, you need to help
it battle these enemies. Dealing with heat isn’t
too much of a problem because your computer will
be happy enough in any environment you find
comfortable. Just don’t put your computer in a place
where there is no airflow around it.

Dust is an insidious problem to deal with
because your computer quietly inhales ambient dust into
the case the whole time it is running. Dust not only
damages moving parts like floppy disk surfaces, but
it forms an insulating layer on your electronics,
which causes them to heat up. To remove the dust,
get yourself a small can of compressed air designed
for cleaning computers. Just about any store that
sells computer equipment should have it in their
accessories section. Open up your case and carefully
spray the dust off the circuit boards, cooling fans, etc.
Also, open the access doors of your floppy, tape, and
CD-ROM drives to give them a shot. You’ll want to
perform this activity somewhere other than your
normal work environment so the dust won’t find its way
right back into your machine.

You can do a few things to reduce dust
contamination in the first place. Number one is to get
your computer off the floor. Gravity being what it is,
the floor is where most of the dust, pet hair, and
other things I’d rather not think about, congregate.
To make matters worse, many computers have their
air intake grille located near the bottom of the
machine, so they can easily snatch passing dust bunnies.
To prevent the floppy drive problem you mentioned,
I leave a blank "dud" floppy I don’t care about in
the drive, so it can collect the dust. When you want
to use the drive, read the dud floppy first to clean
off any lurking gunk. Then put in the good one and
go about your work.

You should avoid using a vacuum cleaner on the inside of your machine for two reasons. First,
you can easily damage your computer’s components
with the attachment or accidently extract more than
just the offending dust! Second, vacuums tend to
generate static electricity, which can fry the sensitive
electronics inside the computer.

Some components, like your tape drive, may require additional cleaning to remove gunk from
the read/write head. Most of the time, it is safe to use
a cotton swab moistened with rubbing alcohol to
clean these parts. Check the manual for the
manufacturer’s recommendations.

Give your computer a little TLC once in a
while, and it will thank you by giving you longer and
more reliable service.