Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

A lot of time and thought goes into cleaning your hard disk, applications and so on. But what about the box itself and other attached peripherals?

I maintain the "inside" of my computer with CHKDSK, Disk Defragmenter, registry cleaners, antivirus, and antispyware programs. What advice do you have for cleaning the "outside" of the computer, such as the keyboard and for cleaning dust that builds up on other computer components?

We do spend a lot of time and energy discussing software maintenance. Everything from backups to viruses to keeping your system and applications up to date, healthy, and running smooth.

But we don't spend a lot of time talking about "the outside", as you put it. And we should, because it's just as important.

Before we start cleaning, turn off and unplug your computer.

Keyboards

In case you haven't run across the articles, there have been several studies that show that your keyboard is the filthiest part of your computer. Things fall in between the keys and they don't fall out. You don't have to spill your soft drink into it - it's enough that dust, food particles, and even hair will accumulate underneath and in between the keys of your keyboard. And if you have pets, plan on fur. Lots of fur. Trust me on this; it often seems like I have a Corgi's worth of fur in my keyboard alone.

My approach to cleaning the keyboard is relatively simple. Using a can of compressed air, readily available at office supply and other stores, hold the keyboard upside down and blow air in between the rows of keys. Use short bursts of air, both to dislodge gunk, but also because compressed air can become extremely cold if sprayed continuously.

Oh, and you'll probably want to do this outside, or over something that's easily wiped off. You'll be shocked at the amount of crud that'll fall out of your keyboard.

This same approach works for laptop keyboards as well, though you'll have to be careful as you hold your laptop upside down while blowing. Perhaps ask a friend to hold the machine for you.

Mice

Mice do need a little maintenance now and then.

Perhaps most important is using a good mouse pad and keeping it relatively clean. Dirt and other objects can confuse a mouse's optical sensor, and can also accumulate on the mouse itself, obscuring that sensor.

Naturally, make sure that the underside of the mouse it self is relatively clean. I find that scraping the gunk off of the mouse's pads or feet makes it move more smoothly.

"... you should vacuum both the front and back panels of your computer, as all the little openings are places where dust can enter and accumulate."

The Computer Itself

There are two approaches to cleaning your computer, depending on whether you feel comfortable opening it up.

At a minimum, using a soft brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner, vacuum the dust from around your computer's fan(s). In fact, you should vacuum both the front and back panels of your computer, as all the little openings are places where dust can enter and accumulate.

If you have devices such as external hard disks and the like, this is now a good time to vacuum them as well. Look for vent holes in particular, and give them a quick cleaning.

If you're comfortable opening up your computer, it'll be obvious where the dust is accumulating once you look inside. Using that same soft brush attachment on your vacuum, carefully suck out all the dust and fur that you can. It doesn't have to be perfect, but those major areas of dirt will probably come away very easily.

The Environment

The ideal location for your computer is a relatively dust free and cool room. Heat is your computer's worst enemy, and dust and dirt prevent that heat from being dissipated.

Now, out here in the real world, there's really no such thing as a dust (or fur) free room. But knowing that those are the issues, if you can keep the area around your computer clean it'll help prevent much of the gunk from getting into your computer in the first place.

How Often?

Here I have no answer for you. It really depends on your computer and the environment you use it in. I tend to go for months without a cleaning, and then go on a tear whether the components need it or not. I could say once a month if you have a particularly dusty or dirty location, but "particularly dusty or dirty" might well mean something different to you than it does me.

As a rule of thumb, if you see an accumulation of dust on the inside of your computer's fan, it's probably time.

And if you turn your keyboard over and shake it and last week's lunch falls out, then it's definitely time.

Article C3081 - July 10, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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10 Comments
Aaron
July 10, 2007 9:02 PM

"Using that same soft brush attachment on your vacuum, carefully suck out all the dust and fur that you can."

I strongly digress.

A vacuum can create copious amounts of static electricity which is easily transfered through the hose and can result in a static discharge far greater than dragging your feet on the carpet. You run the risk of damaging delicate components on the motherboard and peripherals such as audio and video cards.

THE ONLY TIME you should use a vacuum on a computer is on any removable dust filters AFTER they have been removed from the computer making sure to discharge any static charge before touching the case to reinstall the filters. Only use compressed air and a soft bristled brush for the tougher globs of dust that can accumulate on heat sinks, etc.

I seriously hope you post an addendum to your article before somebody reads your article and ends up doing irreparable damage to their computer.

Simon
July 11, 2007 11:30 AM

Aaron: static shouldn't be a problem if the computer's plugged in, since the case and all components are earthed. Even if it's not plugged in, any static charge will quickly distribute itself throughout the case.

Static is usually only a problem when assembling (or disassembling) computers, since the components spend at least some of the time not connected to anything, and not earthed. If you give a CPU that you're holding in your hand a static charge, you can do much, much more damage than if that CPU is plugged into a motherboard, which is earthed (both by the earth pin in the ATX power connected, and by the metal studs which connect the motherboard to the case, which are connected to the motherboard's earth -- and the case is screwed on to the outside of the PSU, which is, of course, earthed).

dan ullman
July 11, 2007 12:18 PM

I personally just put the machine on its side and use a shop vac to blow air over the components.

Ash
July 13, 2007 7:23 PM

What about the monitor? I have the big bulky one and the newer sleek model.

Lutz
July 19, 2007 3:16 AM

I fully agree to the explantions by Simon, provided the PC system is switched off, is plugged in and REALLY has a connection to earth/ground. In some cases it might not be.

So, to work on the safe side take a flat kitchen brush, loosen the dust and vaccuum it away.

But what are we doing with the steaky reminders on keyboards, mice, monitor screens, housings (PC, printer etc.)? Our world does not only consist of dust and fur. I prefer a damp cloth with a little dish-washing soap to remove the greasy/fatty reminders, wipe off the soapy rest with a damp cloth and dry it up afterwards. Everything looks as new!

herb dessner
July 29, 2007 2:25 PM

how to clean a laptop screen? any recommendations thanks herb

Duane Lambe
October 15, 2007 6:59 AM

To clean the mouse feet, try this: grab a piece of printer paper, and move the mouse around on it in circles (or your favorite motion) for a few repetitions. Paper becomes gunky, mouse becomes clean.

James
February 8, 2008 10:33 AM

Would you need to just plug in the computer, turn off the power supply, and clean... Or would you need to also run it through a surge protector with the surge protector turned off?

Computer Maintenance
July 22, 2010 2:54 PM

@ how to clean a laptop screen? any recommendations thanks herb. Hi i wrote a similar article that also involves the cleaning of the screen you can view it here: Computer maintenance
Very well organized and informative article. Its quite funny too, lol.

Ken
August 21, 2010 10:25 PM

Vacuuming the keyboard with the brush attachment worked so good I thought vacuuming without the brush would be even better! NO! The vacuum sucked off several keys with the little underneath things that make them work. Luckily I had just installed a new vacuum cleaner bag, so I found the parts. But getting the keys back on the keyboard took hours of frustrating work with tweezers and toothpicks.

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