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How to keep dust out of your PC and enjoy a cool experience

Anyone with a desktop PC wants to ensure the components locked away inside are running at their best. A war continues to surge on between owners and dust, which can make its way into the intake vents and cause havoc when it comes to keeping everything cool. We take a look at why this is bad, why you should be concerned and what steps one can take to mitigate potential problems.

Why is dust bad?

Dust Filters

Dust is bad due to how it likes to coat objects and prevent air from flowing freely when being pushed through by fans. If you haven't cleaned your PC in a while, and do not have any filters installed on vents, opening up the case may reveal quite the sight. Thick clouds of dust, hair and other debris that have seemingly made their way into the case and clumped together. This is bad news.

Not only will this severely restrict airflow, which is usually a primary source of cooling for a PC, but (depending on the scale of the issue) you could also be facing some serious heat issues. On case and component fans alone, dust build-up can negatively affect the performance of the cooler, trapping particles within the bearings and slowing blade rotation. But that's not all, dust can even be conductive, which is never a good thing when located on circuity.

Luckily, dust itself is fairly easy to remove and if you remain on top of a bi-weekly clean out schedule, your PC will not only be greatly appreciative of displayed efforts, but components will continue powering as designed and everything should last longer. Before we get into how one can prevent dust from entering the PC in the first place, we'll need to clean out the case.

Grab the duster

Dust

First, we're going to need a few tools to help us clean out the PC. It's worth noting now that you shouldn't use a vacuum cleaner — they're clumsy tools meant for imprecise work (not to mention static charge generators). Here's what our tool belt will be holding for the job:

  • Compressed air (opens in new tab)
  • Screwdriver (opens in new tab) (only required if your PC case doesn't have external thumb caps)
  • Some cleaning wipes
  • Small brush

Dust Tools

Right, now we have our arsenal of cleaning equipment at hand, there are a few steps to carry out before we can clear dirt and dust from within the case.

  1. Shut down the PC.
  2. Unplug cables from all ports.
  3. Move the PC tower to a cleared workspace.If possible, find a location outside since we'll be blowing dust around, perhaps a sturdy table in the yard. Depending on the design and construction of your PC, the below steps may alter slightly, but this guide should be okay for majority of chassis types.
  4. Remove the screws on the rear of the side panel.
  5. Take off the side panel.
  6. Spray around the inside with compressed air. Remember to also spray fans.It's important to hold the can of compressed air upright and to spray at a distance on components. While it's technically safe to use on PC internals, it's possible to draw liquid from the can so pay extra attention.

Dust Tools

  1. Use the brush to wipe down components and other areas.
  2. Close up the PC and return it to your desk.

Preventative measures

Dust

Now that you're cleaned out, how do you stop this from happening again? While we can't stop all dust form getting in — you need airflow to keep everything cool, after all — there are a few tricks to the trade when it comes to reducing dust infiltration.

Use dust filters

Seriously, this is the easiest way you can keep almost all dust out of any PC case. Filters are affordable accessories that utilize a mesh (usually made up of polyester, but can be metal) to help capture dust particles as they attempt to pass into open vents. These are particularly handy for fan intakes, not only protecting the powered blades, but also everything else located within the case.

We even recommend you add filters to case fan vents you aren't using. It's easy to find a filter that's magnetic to save time fitting and detaching when you wish to clean out the accompanied fan. For example, Silverstone has a 120mm filter for the PC, priced at just $7.90.

See at Amazon (opens in new tab)

Get off the floor

Have your PC located on your floor, be it carpet or a hard surface? It's strongly recommended you relocate the desktop to another position, one that's raised off the floor. With a PC located on ground level, it's more susceptible to being exposed to dust and hair and other airborne particles that may be kicked up by movement. Either have the case on a desk, table or in a bracket attached to the underside.

Do your chores

Dust Tools

Follow through our little guide in cleaning the insides of a PC case above and carry out the steps on a bi-weekly basis or once a month, depending on how frequently you use the PC and how dusty the environment is. You'll need to clean out filters regularly anyway, so it makes it worth the time investment to open up the case and give it a quick blow.

A clean workspace

This may be yet another obvious listing, but if the surroundings aren't exactly dust-free then the PC is more likely to pick up dust and other dirt by in-taking whatever may be passing by. A clean office or bedroom will surely help keep your PC in a much better shape.

Check your flow

Achieving positive airflow inside the case will also aid in keeping pesky dust out the case. What do I mean by positive airflow? The term essentially means you have more fans pulling air into the case than you have extracting hot air from within, resulting in increased pressure. Negative airflow would be when you have more fans extracting air out from the case itself. Having multiple intake fans on your PC with filters attached, alongside a fan or two on the rear to remove hot air from inside the case will help prevent dust from entering any open ports. More air movement helps components dissipate heat as well, so it's a win for everyone.

There's a neat way you can check how air is being moved around your PC case — smoke. Light an incense stick and this will show you how air is moving through any open ports on your case, which should provide helpful hints as to how you need to balance out airflow to ensure as much air is running through filters as possible.

No food allowed

I know that burger from McDonald's is crying out for you to dig straight in, but do attempt to either use a tray or eat food elsewhere. Crumbs and the like get everywhere — in your case, ground into the chair, under your keyboard keys — and they do more than just get in the way. Bits of food are miniature petri dishes in waiting, so either eat clean or eat elsewhere.

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

25 Comments
  • Dust is bad m'kay
  • Nothing about negative and positive airflow? I use negative, more intake fans and less outtake, this will prevent dust coming in through ports etc and the intake with filters offcourse. Minimum dust buildup inside the case
  • Ah, good call! Added to the list. :-)
  • I clean my pc once every 6 months. Highly recommend.
  • Ya, every 2 weeks is overkill. If you have large slow moving fans with lots of low pressure airflow then you can easily last 6mo between cleanings.
    The other thing I tell clients is that if they have a bad dust situation it is likely a poor breathing environment too. Better to change the HVAC filter or buy a room filter/purifier.
    Also, avoid canned air. One little slip and you can easily kill your PC with that crap. Go out and get a little indoor outdoor vacuum with a blower function, or a small air compressor that can also be used to pump your car and bike tires.
  • How can canned air kill your PC? (serious question)
  • There's liquid inside the air cans. If you're not careful when you're using the can, it can also release jets of that liquid. And well...liquids and electronic components don't tend to get along.
  • It can overspin your fans too, burning the bearing out. Hold the fan so it doens't spin.
  • I always use a normal vacuum, but apparently vacuums of any kind (whether with a blower or not) are bad for generating static electricity. It's why compressed air is the preferred option...
  • Called my mom one time and was horrified when she said she had immersed her keyboard in water to clean it. I told her that was not recommended. She drained it and sat it in sunlight long enough for it to dry. I was shocked when she said it worked fine a few days later. As for the filters. I had an air purifier that had filters that require being cut to size. So I used the remains as pc fan filters. It was amazing how much it caught.
  • Keyboards can be surprisingly resiliant to that kind of thing. I have to wonder if they're somehow built differently, with the knowledge that dust, crumbs, and heaven-knows-what-else is going to get into the cracks between keys. Not that I would tempt fate by cleaning one this way....
  • Soapy water is actually the best way to clean a keyboard as long as you let it dry. This was the method taught to me in my A+ cert class way back in the day.
  • I would be surprised if it worked for very long... the electronics inside a keyboard are incredibly simple, but they can get corroded (with coke especially) and stop working. I've spilled coffee, coke, and wine on my keyboards numerous times, and sometimes bad enough to warrant stripping it to pieces and drying out the sheets of plastic with the circuitry/contacts inside. Even still, some keys can stop working until I eventually replace the keyboard.
  • Regarding having the PC on the floor: It's not recommended to have it directly on the floor BUT it is recommended that you keep it as close to it as possible. Because cool air is heavier, it flows naturally down. If your PC is closer to the floor, it will intake that cooler air which will make the cooling process a lot better than if you have it on top of a desk or alike, intaking hotter air.
  • Agreed. I don't like having my PC's on my desk (much noisier, distracting lights, clutters desk etc) but as I have carpet on the floor I've always had them raised off the ground. When I was poor I'd use a box, phonebooks, or whatever... but these days I just build small shelves with some nice cabinet legs from IKEA (capita are nice). Typically it's raised around 11-12 cm  off the floor, which seems to work nicely.
  • "Hold the can upright"... LOL. See the picture. kidding.
  • Wow, It's been years since I last wiped my PC clean. I'm living near industrial area, the dust gets attached to the space too much and often like within a week of cleaning and so I got lazy to clean it off every single time. But the PC is running smooth for almost 5 years.
  • Compressed air can overspin your fans and damage the bearings. Hold the fan so it doesn't spin.
  • "Remember to also spray fans" Hum, I'd say that is THE first thing to clean.
  • I use a small leaf blower I bought for 10 bucks on clearance from Lowe's. Just tape down the fans with masking tape. Just never use one that's been used or left outside. Good way to through grains of sand and other debris at your pc at high speed!
  • When I had my gaming rig,  which had a window etc,  I added filters on all intake fans,  they worked great.  I will vacuum and clean once a month to keep it tidy.   I also sealed all joints with foam tape to prevent dust from coming in around cracks in the case.  Then,  I was sick of the tornado sounding maching sitting in my room,  so I went quiet pc.  
  • What if you remove the side panel of the computer unit to let the hot air out or cool air in, is this better?
  • Will the computer continue to work if one removes the heat sink assembly?
  • While I love compressed air cans, I feel like they just move the dust to a different location. I was hoping to see a recommended mini vacuum that would actually isolate dust to a desired/expected location.
  • I clean my 2 desktop PCs every other week. I live in New Mexico, where dust is very common. It really helps to keep the PC working for years.