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How Dust, Smoke (Cigarette), Affects Laptop and Desktop Computers

What May be Happening Inside the Laptop or Desktop...

I have been working with computers for some time now, however it never ceases to nauseate me every-time I open a case that is caked with cigarette soot and blankets of dust/tar. Hence, this is the leading cause why these computers have failed and end up being why the client called me in the first place. Computers don't have lungs, can't regenerate themselves, and quite frankly do just the opposite.

When a person(s) smokes in front of a computer, the intake fans and the heat internally naturally draw in the smoke. Cigarettes have a natural humid stickiness to it. So, when it goes inside the computer, the heat and the smoke act like a combination for glue. Cigarette smoke is far worse than common dry house dust or animal hair in terms of bringing an early death to a computer.

In time, the soot, smoke, and any other by-products will attached themselves to the internal fans, heat sinks, capacitors, and anything else that has even a little bit of heat. Smoke also changes the color of components with a very yellow/brown tint, and stinks. In the remaining of this hub, you will find an example of a heat sink that caused a motherboard/CPU to fail due to overheating. The computer was only 3 years old.

Now, to be fair, not all dust blocked computers are caused by smoke and it's impurities. This is later discussed at the end of this article, be sure to read to the end.

After reading this hub, please don't forget to check out the poll at the end.

Ready for Something Disgusting?

In the picture below, you will see that after 3 years, the smoke has caked itself to the underside of the CPU fan and on the heatsink, among other parts as well. However since, this computer failed primarily do to overheating, we will only be focusing on the heatsink and fan.

I cann't help but wonder, if this is what happens to computers on the inside, then what is happening to a persons lungs?  Yikes! 

Smoke Damaged CPU & Heatsink Inside Computer

Cigarette Smoke Damage Inside Computer

Cigarette Smoke Damage Inside Computer

Taking a Closer Look, YUCK!

I thought by taking the heatsink and fan out of the case we could evaluate it a little more with a closer shot. As you can see the brown stuff on top and under the fan is pretty much what I call soft solid, or a blanket. In case you did not know, a heat sinks purpose is to allow the heat from the CPU to rise up through it, and then the fan is to blow the hot air away, hence to keep the CPU cool enough to operate.

In this case, since the heatsink is loaded with cigarette soot, do you think it is able to do its job well? It would be like us breathing through plastic. If you answered, not well, then you are right! The end result will (and was) be an overheating failure of the CPU/Motherboard. Say good-bye to the computer, and get ready to shell out some cash for a new one.

Take A Closer Look

Close Up View of Cigarette Damage

Close Up View of Cigarette Damage

Scroll to Continue

Taking the Fan Off......

As seen in the picture below, I have removed the fan.  It shows you clearly the blanket of soot I was talking about above.  Which by the way, in case you are wondering, cleaning this kind of mess up inside of computer is daunting and smelly.  However later, in the hub I will give you some ideas as to what to use and how to clean out a computer tower safely. 

Without the Fan from Above

Smoke Caked Heatsink

Smoke Caked Heatsink

Side View of Cigarette Damaged Heatsink

Looks like a blanket....only very nasty!

Looks like a blanket....only very nasty!

When Cleaning a Computer Out

If you are going to clean computer out, I recommend using compress air, cotton swabs, and rubbing alcohol 70% or 90% (90% is better.) You will want to be sure your computer has been off for at least 30 minutes before using any of the above. Don't forget to ground yourself to discharge any static electricity, you don't want to kill your computer by electric shock.

For any smoker, I recommend cleaning your computer out every 6 months. If your not comfortable doing the cleaning yourself, then have a technician do this for you.

Next, I would go outdoors, or in your garage where you don't care if this crude gets on stuff and blow out all the loose particles. Next you will be cleaning in and out of components for a long time with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. Be careful not to bend or break any small components. Don't leave any wet residue behind. After cleaning the system, let it set for an hour to ensure the rubbing alcohol has evaporated.


Dust Is a Killer for Any Computer

The photo above is from a laptop, this heat-sink isn't a victim of cigarette soot, however is a victim of link and other small particles. While not all laptops have to be fully disassembled to get to the vents, most do. This particular laptop was a service call that as based on the computer would turn itself off withing seconds of being on. This happens due to excessive heat buildup at the CPU, the laptop will shut itself off as a fail safe to prevent physical damage or fire to the laptop. Once the blanket of link is removed, new thermal compound is applied to the heat sink for the CPU, the laptop now runs quite and cool as it should. Some of the signs of overheating is typical to be hot keyboard, hot on the bottom of the laptop, loud fan noise, shutting off randomly, or system freezes in conjunction with the rest.

So, being dust is in general a problem with electronics, computers, etc, yearly maintenance or more frequent should be inclusive of cleaning the vents if you desire to extend the life of your equipment. On another note, there are environments, such as a certain client of mine where a computer has to be in the middle of a shop, very dusty environment. In this scenario, a dust case enclosure will be needed, typically only the mouse and keyboard is exposed to the dusty and/or hostile environments, which even then a rubber keyboard can be utilized.

As a note of caution, even if a commercial cabinet is used, there are still necessary maintenance that must be performed such as cleaning/replacing filters and cleaning fans as needed depending on the environment. Some of the locations this is most used is fabrication shops, wood shops, and auto dealerships.


© 2009 Ryan Hutzel

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