Busting Dust: The Overlooked Cause of Crashes

December 2nd, 2015 by admin

Close up of the ASDF home row on a black keyboard

Your business can take a productivity hit and incur unnecessary expenses because of a very common, often overlooked problem: dust buildup in computers.

Dust inside computers can decrease their efficiency and even their operational lifespans.

These microscopic particles are everywhere—and unless your cleaning crew has superpowers, they’re unavoidable.

Preemptively addressing dust buildup in your team’s computers can shorten the time your employees spend on individual tasks and keep them up and running for longer. Regular internal cleaning can help you avoid crashes and premature system failures. Invest a little time and effort on minimizing dust—you’ll be glad you did.

Symptoms of Dust Problems

There are several potential symptoms of dust problems:

System Crashes

Dust is actually the culprit of a substantial number of recurring computer crashes that can’t be explained by software failure. If your computer randomly powers down and seems to work fine when you turn it back on, dust may be to blame. Dust inside your computer can prevent its cooling system from maintaining a safe operating temperature. System crashes can also spring up from dust buildup between computer component electrical contacts.

Slow Performance

Sometimes computers will lower their operating speed to reduce heat and avoid an automatic shutdown. Instead of crashing, the computer will operate slower than usual—possibly much slower.

Won’t Power On

Substantial debris buildup in vital computer components (such as the system RAM) can prevent the computer from powering on. The motherboard will refuse to turn on if dust has unseated the memory, since it can no longer access this essential component.

Dust Damage, Short-Term and Long-Term

Occasional performance issues may not seem like a big deal. But dust can do significant damage in both the short- and long-term:

Higher Operating Temperatures

Dust blocks computer airflow, which causes the CPU to run around 30 degrees (F) hotter than normal. CPUs produce more heat as they work harder. A CPU that gets too hot will turn itself off—or, in a worst case scenario, permanently break.

In the short term, the higher operating temperature pushes the device further away from its safe operating temperature and closer to the overheating range. If you do something especially demanding, like encode a video file or analyze a massive database, the device may ultimately overheat and malfunction.

Reduced Device Lifespan

It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much dust buildup reduces a device’s operating lifespan—but with enough dust, it is possible to kill off a device with a 10-year operational span in just one week.

This is unlikely to happen, of course, unless you deliberately pack a computer tower with dust. And while it is a safe bet that dust will not defeat your computer on its own, it can contribute substantially to wear and tear. When dust is present, fans have to run faster and can wear out motors. The CPU and GPU will also wear down faster from gradual heat damage.

These problems wouldn’t be immediately noticeable. But when a computer that should have lasted for five years stops working in three, it becomes apparent. Fortunately, well-implemented cooling functions can minimize the problem.

Thermal Paste Breakdown

Thermal paste is a substance that connects the CPU to the heatsink so that heat can efficiently flow out of the CPU and into the air. However, thermal paste doesn’t last forever, and often breaks down faster when exposed to higher temperatures. When the thermal paste wears down, it can’t move heat away from the CPU, causing it to run hotter and slow down performance.


It’s not a common problem, but dust can corrode the electrical connectors between computer components. Once the connectors are corroded, the components can no longer communicate with each other and must be replaced.

Dealing with Dust

Dust-related problems can’t be solved by patching software or changing system settings. The only way to deal with dust is to remove it.

In all cases, a canister of compressed air is your best bet for clearing out debris. Laptops are much easier to keep dust-free than desktops because they are exposed to less airflow, minimizing dust exposure. Desktops, however, require much more care.

You can take care of a laptop’s dust buildup in most instances by blasting it away from any vents on the device using the compressed air. Make sure to turn the laptop off while cleaning it to avoid damaging any fans.

Cleaning dust out of a desktop computer is a little bit more complicated:

  • Turn off the computer and disconnect all peripheral cables.
  • Move the computer to an open area that’s free of carpet and other fabrics.
  • Remove the side access panel.
  • Blast out the surface dust from all internal components, fans, and vents.
  • If you’ve been experiencing unexplained crashes and are comfortable with disassembling computer hardware, remove all expansion cards, RAM, and hard drive connection cables, clean the connection points with compressed air, and reconnect all the components.
  • Use an electronic-friendly cloth and 91% (or higher) isopropyl alcohol to clear off debris buildup that the air can’t clean.

It’s recommended to repeat this process every three to six months. Also, avoid using air compressors instead of canned compressed air, because the machines may shoot out tiny metal scraps that could create unwanted connection bridges and break the system. Avoid using vacuums, and be mindful of static electricity.

You can also avoid dust-related problems with computers by limiting how much builds up in the first place. Pull your desktop towers out from those old, confined cupboards and put them on open desk surfaces. The computer should allow clear air flow to all system fans, with an ideal 6-inch clearance on all sides. Dusting the desk area around the computer can help keep debris from working its way into the system.

Posted in: Hardware and Software