There's something dirty in my computer

Have you vacuumed your computer lately?

Yes, I said vacuumed.

Better question: have you cracked open your computer case lately and taken a look at what’s inside?

And, no, I don’t mean the hard drive, CD/DVD drive or whatever memory you have in there. I mean the dust bunnies and general unthinkable crud that has likely accumulated inside since it was last cleaned – or, more likely, since it was assembled.

Recently, my roommate, who shall remain nameless and unidentified for her own protection from mortal embarrassment, kept having her computer shut down on her. It appeared to be overheating, simply shutting down periodically without warning.

That’s a symptom I’m well familiar with due to my own preference for notebook computers, which tend to get very hot and have very little room inside for the air space, fans and heatsinks that generally keep desktop computers cool enough to operate.

I say “generally” because once those fans and heatsinks fail to work, your computer tends to get pretty hot inside. The fan no longer draws cool air through vents on one side and expels the resulting hot air out the other. The heatsink — a heat-absorbing device that takes heat away from sensitive, but heat-generating, components — can crack and become inefficient at moving heat from those components to the air.

Those failures of cooling technology aside, imagine what happens when dust, lint, hair, cookie crumbs, cobwebs and small fuzzy pets start to fill what was designed to be open space for air flow or blocks the vents that allow the cool air to come in and the hot air to go out… Yeah, not pretty.

That was what the guys at the computer repair shop found when they opened that overheating computer a couple weeks ago. They weren’t entirely surprised, and I have to say I shouldn’t have been either.

I’ve heard the horror stories before from the computer repair techs. They open a “mysteriously” malfunctioning computer only to discover there’s a half-eaten sandwich inside. They clean out enough lint during routine maintenance calls to knit a sweater and crochet a half-dozen afghans, if they were so inclined.

Add in the particulates from smoking, if you do that — or, topically, from the Indian River power plant, if you keep your windows open on the wrong day — and you can get something reminiscent of the classic horror monster The Blob, only fuzzier.

It’s about equally as threatening to your computer, too. Not only are you subject to the no-warning shutdowns that my roommate was experiencing, but too much heat will cook your computer components, potentially damaging or destroying everything from your CPU to the memory and hard drive. Yes, there’s a reason there are fans in there…

I must admit that I’m no less susceptible to this problem, thanks to the poor access provided by most notebook computer manufacturers to the innards of their products. Give me the ability to open up a hatch, pop out a fan and Hoover my way out of dust bunny central, and we’d be in good shape. I could probably salvage my last computer if it had that kind of design.

But desktop computer users, you don’t get much sympathy from me. A few screws taken out, in most cases, and you can open up your computer, take some canned air to the crevices, wipe off the exterior of your drive bays and keep your computer humming in good health.

So why don’t we do this? For some of us, probably the same reason I need to dust my TV right now. We’re too busy using it, and doing everything else in our daily lives, to stop and take care of basic maintenance chores.

There are a huge number of folks that don’t even realize this is an issue, though. And this is your wakeup call on that.

However, don’t use the vacuum. I was kidding there. Tech experts note that a vacuum generates static electricity, which is an even bigger no-no for computer components. In a pinch, the battery-powered mini-vacuums designed to clean electronics can be used to help with the job if you’re careful. And don’t use water or any kind of liquid, either. Unplug everything first, too. Think clean, dry, lint-free and non-static.

Beyond the dust bunny invasion, there are a few more computer cleaning tips you need to keep in mind:

• Wipe off your keyboard regularly, especially if you eat or do much of anything else while, or right before, you use it. Those character indicators aren’t exactly embedded in the keys themselves. Let the cleaning go too long and you can wear the printing right off. That makes it a little hard to type unless you’re a great touch-typist.

• Do vacuum out your keyboard regularly. There’s a lot of the same stuff underneath those keys that’s gathering inside your desktop tower. That’s what those tiny vaccums were designed for, along with the canned air.

• Between those two elements of gunk collecting, keyboards are a germ magnet. When you’re cleaning, think about some anti-bacterial wipes to make sure whatever’s left behind isn’t really alive.

I’m serious, here. The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America found in a study published in 2005 that healthcare workers were able to spread so-called “super bugs” — antibiotic-resistant staph infections — to patients simply by touching a keyboard and then attending to a patient, whether they wore gloves or not. Some studies indicate that there are more germs on computer keyboards than toilet seats. And germs can live on surfaces like your keyboard for as long as 24 hours. Getting recurrent colds? It might be time to wipe that keyboard down.

On that subject, a recent NPR story revisited the recommendation from some technophiles on the Internet that you put your keyboard in the dishwasher periodically. While it seems to work for some, most manufacturers frown severely at the notion that your keyboard will come out of even a “crystal” cycle in working order. Yes, there are success stories aplenty, but are you willing to take the risk with your current keyboard? (Let me know if you are… I want to document this…)

I just find myself glad it’s not an option with a notebook computer…

However, some smart guy in Florida came up with the Seal Shield keyboard, which is designed to be plunked right into the dishwasher. It comes in standard, medical and flexible configurations, and with optional washable mouse, antibacterial mousepad and antibacterial wipes. (Darin, your birthday was this week, right?) Prices start at $50 for the keyboard. (Nevermind, Darin. Happy returns on the day!)

And while I’m at it, one tip for those of you with flat-panel monitors — avoid using liquid to clean these guys. There’s a not-so-pretty picture circulating these days that shows what happens when water gets behind the surface of an LCD TV. It doesn’t seem to go away. Ever. You’re talking about a trip to the authorized repair center for your window on the Internet if that happens.

LCD and plasma screens are not the same as your old glass-fronted CRT monitor and television. They truly do require special care. Check with your manufacturer for the appropriate cleaning solution, which can vary.

Hopefully, I’ve spurred a lot of people to get to work on cleaning their computers this week. Of course, that also means that they’ll be a few jobs short at the computer repair shop in a month or three. Sorry, guys… I’ll bring that old laptop over next week.