Owning a desktop computer is all fun and games until you realize that your PC is long overdue for some serious spring cleaning. Much like your car, your home, or even your body, your desktop computer requires regular maintenance to stay in good, functional condition. No matter how many dust filters you install or how many internal fans you configure, there’s simply no escaping the fact that all computer towers need a deep clean every now and then.
Smart devices have dominated the digital age, growing more autonomous with every passing year. However, even with these ultra-intelligent technologies, few are capable of performing regular maintenance and upkeep checks. That’s where you come in.
Over time, heat and dust buildup can take a toll on your tower’s health, reducing the efficiency of your PC’s cooling system. For gamers and power-users who demand high-performance, a dirty computer can be a huge pain point when it comes to productivity and playtime. Using this guide, we’ll walk you through how to clean your computer tower safely and skillfully.
How often should I clean my computer?
The frequency with which you should consider cleaning your computer completely depends on the environment you keep it in. Towers stationed on the floor are more susceptible to dust, pet hair, and carpet particles whereas a tower set on top of a desk are less prone to unwelcome junk.
It’s also important to consider your household habits and how they may affect your computer’s health. Do you smoke near your computer? Do you eat near your computer? Do your pets share the same space as your computer? Ashes, crumbs, and pet danders are all sources of gunk buildup that can latch onto your computer’s internal hardware systems. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend that you clean your computer tower once a year. Should any of the aforementioned environmental criteria ring true to you, you may want to consider cleaning once every six months or so.
Before you dive into the nitty-gritty of your computer tower’s internal workings, here are a few key safety precautions.
Despite its intimidating layout and configuration, the inside of your computer tower is actually completely safe; that is, with one exception. The power supply unit, or the PSU, inhabits a shiny silver box inside of your computer, typically located at the rear of the tower. The PSU is responsible for converting the power from an outlet into usable power for your PC tower and its many working parts. In essence, the PSU is hidden away in this silver box because of its dangerously high voltage capacity.
You should never attempt to open up the PSU or bring it into contact with anything metallic as doing so could leave you with a nasty, and potentially deadly, electric shock. And always unplug your computer from electrical power before doing any cleaning or maintenance.
Believe it or not, next to electrocuting yourself, the next most insidious danger you should be wary of is electrocuting the computer itself by discharging static electricity through your body or clothing.
One of the easiest ways to combat the danger of accidental static shock is by gearing up with a static strap before opening up your computer case. While static electricity tends to be a more significant problem in drier climates, it’s best to avoid wearing synthetic clothing altogether as you venture into your computer.
If your computer tower is long overdue for a cleaning, it is highly likely that there is a decent amount of dirt and dust trapped inside of your system. For those with allergies or irritations to dust, having all of the debris blow around from your PC could trigger a reaction. Relocate to a well-ventilated space and suit up with a dust mask before taking to your can of compressed air.
What tools do I need to clean my computer?
Before you crack open your computer case, you’ll need to assemble a reliable lineup of cleaning tools. Gather the following essentials:
- 99% isopropyl alcohol
- Cotton swabs
- A microfiber rag
- Compressed air
- Thermal paste
- All-purpose household cleaning solution
Can I clean my computer tower with a vacuum?
While it is possible to clean your computer tower with a vacuum, we do not recommend this method, especially if it’s your first time cleaning your PC. Taking a vacuum hose to your tower’s internal hardware could potentially create static buildup and could even fry operation-essential electrical components. Opting for a can of compressed air will give you a far more precise clean and save you the heartache of any accidental damage.
If you do decide to go the vacuum route, do so with caution. Be sure to hover the hose over your PC parts rather than making direct contact. The vacuum should be able to suck up most of the debris living inside of your tower, but compressed air will ultimately give you the deepest clean.
How do I open my computer tower?
The first step to opening up your computer is shutting it down and unplugging it from its outlet or electrical surge protector. Before working with any electronic device, you should always power the device off and remove it from any power source. Keeping it on or connected could pose a serious danger to you.
There are three dominant types of computer tower models; screw, screwless, and thumbscrew.
- Screw - Tower case is held together by traditional screws
- Screwless - Tower case is held together by metal or plastic clamps that are released by using specific release mechanisms
- Thumbscrew - Tower case is held together by screws that can be tightened or loosed with fingers rather than tools
Though there is no universal way to open up a computer tower, the vast majority of computer towers feature similar screw case configurations. All it should take to gain internal entry is unscrewing two to four screws and sliding the rear or side panel off. However, you may need to refer to your manufacturer’s manual if these simple instructions do not apply to your machine.
How to clean the computer tower: Which components should I clean?
You’ve got your tools, safety gear, and computer case cracked open, now it’s time to get cleaning. There are a number of different hardware components living inside of your tower that will likely need a bit of cleaning up. For those unsure of where to begin or how to clean specific PC parts, this list provides you with the order of importance.
1. CPU fan and heatsink
The CPU fan and heatsink are the most important pieces to the puzzle that is your PC’s cooling system. You’ll likely be immediately able to see just how much dust collects on the fan blades and heatsink vanes.
Use a cotton swab dampened with a cleaning solution to remove the dirt off each blade and off the heatsink vanes if you’re able to access them. Use a pencil or pen to hold the fan blades in place, then blow out debris collected on the fan and the heatsink with your compressed air. Most debris will fall out of the CPU fan and heatsink, so be sure to have your dust mask ready.
2. Case vents and PSU vents
The case and PSU vents are responsible for allowing airflow into your PC, so they're probably among the dirtier internal spaces. Take your can of compressed air and blast it over each vent panel at the front, rear, and side of the computer tower case. Be sure to be especially thorough near the PSU vents since the PSU is most susceptible to overheating. The better the airflow you’re able to provide, the better performance you’ll see long-term.
3. Video card fan and heatsink
The video card fan and heatsink may be difficult to locate as they are typically located on the lower side of the GPU. Using a cotton swab, gently remove any dust from the heatsink. Holding the video card fan’s blades in place with a pencil or pen, use your compressed air to shake loose any dirt attached to each blade.
4. PSU fans
Holding the PSU fan’s blades in place with a pencil or pen, use the compressed air to blow out any collected dust or dirt. The PSU fans are another high-debris-collection area, so wear a dust mask to protect yourself from the billowing debris as you loosen the buildup.
5. The ports
Your computer ports are often the most used and least loved when it comes to regular cleanings. Ports that you use more frequently are more likely to harbor dirt and debris since they see more input action than unused ports. Use your compressed air to get into the tiny nooks and crannies of your PC’s USB, HDMI, VGA, and other small ports.
6. The case
Once you’ve finished up all of the internal cleanings, screw the back of your PC case on, then finish the job with a quick external wipe-down. Use a paper towel dampened with your all-purpose cleaning solution to wipe each side of your computer tower. Be sure never to spray any solution directly on your PC since the liquid could seep inside and damage critical electrical parts.
Wrapping it up
Do some final fine-detail work with a dampened cotton swab on any external ridges or depression on the outside of your case, and voila; a sparkling clean computer tower, ready to plug in, and power on.
About the Author
Tulie Finley-Moise is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tulie is a digital content creation specialist based in San Diego, California with a passion for the latest tech and digital media news.