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Dust, of the non-magical kind

I am an information technology professional. While my specialty is far from being hands-on PC support, I know how to take a PC apart and then put it together. I have replaced faulty components or upgraded some such with my own hands on numerous occasions. But I do not have the urge to muck around with computer equipment. If the machine works fine and satisfies my slightly-above-average requirements for performance, I don’t ever think about opening the case and poking around.

My main home PC is about 4 years old, but is by no means obsolete. It handles various media-editing software that I use quite effortlessly and I have virtually no interest in PC games, for which a more powerful machine would be needed. If I ever think of getting an upgrade, it’s primarily because I want to replace some other computers in the house, and I’ll likely do it via buying a latest and greatest for myself and passing on my current PC down the chain, so to speak.

A while ago, the PC started getting noisy.

It would boot up quite normally and chug along without a hitch, but at some point along the way, it would acquire the whining pitch that would reach a crescendo at the start-up of an arbitrary application. The whine would ebb and flow during the different periods of activity, but once started, it would not go away until the PC was turned off.

Something was definitely getting over-worked. I surmised that it was a cooling fan picking up higher speeds as the CPU did the extra bit of memory swapping and what-not. Because of the initial quietness upon boot-up and the subsequent ebb and flow of the noise, it did not seem broken, but rather put into overdrive by CPU activity. To prevent that from happening, I thought, I should figure out which piece of software may be causing the unwarranted CPU usage hike. I ran various types of diagnostics, cleaned the registry, de-fragmented hard drives, uninstalled several dozen of applications that I never use, all in search of a possible performance culprit. There was never a true indication that the problem was with the performance, but I still spent several nights trying to figure it out.

To no avail. The annoying whine would not go away, no matter what kinds of configuration changes I made.

Finally, I had a bright idea: I should open the PC cover and confirm the source of the noise.

When I did that, I saw something that I’ve never seen before: The inside of the computer was full of dust. Not a thin layer of dust that any bit of machinery that has not been cleaned for years might acquire, but quite literally a thick coat of the stuff.

I might have mentioned in the past somewhere that, in England, dust seemingly gathers on surfaces in considerably greater amounts in shorter periods of time than I remember it doing so in the States. We maybe needed to give our shelves and desks a proper dusting once a week in America, but here, it seems like only 24 hours after a major cleaning exercise you need to do it all over again.

Apparently, inside of a computer case was not immune to the ill effects of dust-gathering.

I was certainly right about the source of the noise – it was the CPU cooling fan. Only the reason for it being overworked was the thick sheet of pressed dust on the grille between the propeller and the circuitry. Scarcely any air could get through; instead, most of it went in the opposite direction out of the case through a side vent. The CPU was not being cooled enough – and it kept giving the fan signals to work harder. The fan spun faster than it normally should – the noise was the only tangible outcome. Oy!

Twenty years around computers – and I never suspected that the good old vacuum cleaner might be an essential peripheral.

At least, all is quiet again.

1 Comment

  1. jason

    You think England is dusty, try Utah! Or pretty much any of the southwestern desert states, I’d guess. A few years ago, I asked my IT guru/friend-who-grants-me-favors to see if he could figure out a problem with my PC. I was downright embarrassed when he cracked open the case and revealed a woolly layer of filth over everything… like you, I’d never had any clue that could be an issue…

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