Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

January 1st, 2008:

The Power of Dust

In the past week or so, I've gotten unpredictable overheating warnings from my Intel motherboard monitoring utility. The CPU zone was getting up to 165 degrees while I was typing continuously into Dreamweaver. That Dreamweaver should be the culprit was not a total surprise; when I type continuously into the Dreamweaver editor, Task Manager shows CPU usage pegged at 50% until I stop. I don't know how they handle their data internally, but I intuit that every time I press a key while the editor has the focus, Dreamweaver does some kind of tree traversal of the entire document. (This comes from watching Task Manager's graphs while editing a short and fairly simple HTML document and then a large a complex one.) The mystery was why my CPU zone temperatures were gradually increasing from about 130 under load to 165.

Crack the case (which I admit I haven't done in almost a year) and there's no mystery: My CPU heatsink was caked with dust, and across much of the heatsink the dust had completely closed over the voids between the heatsink fins. My digital camera's lens jammed just after Christmas or I would have taken a picture, but it was impressive, and what was even more impressive was the cloud that rose from the opened case out in the garage when I switched the shopvac hose to “blowing” and directed a stream of cold air into the works. Whoa—back up and don't inhale!

I ordinarily do periodic degunking of my system, but we were gone so much during 2007 that I just stopped. The lesson here is that “degunking” is not just a software metaphor. Dust matters, sometimes as much as disk fragmentation and register clutter. The easiest and safest way to remove dust from a PC case is to blow it out. Don't vacuum—the snout of a vacuum hose accumulates significant static charge over a few seconds and can damage the electronics if the snout touches the mobo (or other hardware) in the wrong spots. Take the box out onto the driveway or the deck and blow air into it without touching the case. Pay particular attention to the CPU area, especially if you have a CPU fan pulling air through a heatsink. Blow air into the power supply through any vents it has, and make sure any vents in the case are clear.

Dust is a little like fiberglass fuzz in that it traps air and acts as insulating material once it gets thick enough. If you don't get the dust off your CPU, it will heat up, and if your CPU usage gets aggressive, it may heat up enough to damage the die. My CPU zone now drops to as low as 108 when the machine is idle, and hasn't gone up past 135 even during furious Dreamweaver input sessions. 30 degrees saved at the cost of two minutes with a shopvac hose—that's the power of dust.

My Antec case custom box is fairly quiet, but Antec has an even quieter case now, with larger, slower fans and a little more room inside. I've been having trouble with the audio connectors on the front case panel, and it occurs to me that if I'm going to do a case transplant, I might as well buy a new dual-core mobo—or perhaps a quad—and play around with multiprocessing. Changing out the case is pretty much the same as building a new machine, so perhaps it's time to do the research and get a hatful of new cores in the bargain. I'll let you know what I decide.