Can Dust Actually Damage My Computer?

Thousands of hours per year of fan-driven air movement combined with electrostatic charges make computers veritable dust magnets. Is all that dust simply a nuisance or is it actually harmful?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-drive grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Holy Sheet poses a question about dust and computer hardware:

During the last few days, my screen froze a couple of times. After opening the chassis I discovered plenty of dust beneath my mother board. I wonder if that can cause short circuits.

Can neglecting to spring clean your PC damage it? Let’s investigate.

The Answers

SuperUser contribute Daniel R. Hicks offers some assurance and insight on the matter:

Dust is a problem from the standpoint of blocking fan vents, or, if deep enough, actually insulating parts, causing overheating, but unless it contains substantial amounts of corrosive or conductive material (in which case you shouldn’t be breathing it), it won’t damage the electrical components (beyond any overheating damage).

What could happen, in some circumstances, is condensation inside the box, mixing with dust and creating a conductive sludge. This would generally only occur if you bring the box in from an extremely cold environment (below 0C, roughly) into a humid indoor environment. The protection from this is to wrap the box tightly in plastic before bringing it indoors, and leave it wrapped for a couple of hours, while it has time to warm up.

Fellow contributor EdH offers some field experience to corroborate the previous assessment:

No way. Unless it over heats. Trust me, I have cleaned server motherboards deployed in Afghanistan for months with inches of dust caked on, still running fine. And as long as you keep them cool, they will survive.

Now, optical drives. That’s a different story.

While you’re at very little risk of a dust blanket shorting out your hardware, heat is the eternal enemy of computers and a good cleaning will help keep things cool (and extend the life of your computer in the process).

For more information on how to clean your computer and peripherals safely and effectively, check out the following resources:


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