Guidry: Physical cleaning helps computers last longer

We often talk about how to maintain software, but what about hardware? Computers work better and last longer when you take good physical care of them.

Computers should be protected from extremes in temperature and humidity. Try to keep your computer away from windows and vents and avoid damp areas near bathrooms and laundry rooms.

This is especially true when storing old computers for later use. Storing an old computer in a garage or shed means subjecting it to the freeze-thaw cycle, not to mention moisture and bugs – the insect kind rather than the software kind. While the computer still might work, its lifespan may be shortened, and it may experience the sort of odd errors we associate with failing hardware.

Dust can choke a computer’s fans and air vents, causing circuits to run hotter and fail faster. Use a can of compressed air to clean your machine. Be sure to unplug your computer before you begin. You’ll also want to dust the ports where the cords plug into the computer, as well as any CD or USB slots. Position the computer so its fans and vents receive maximum air flow and are not obstructed.

Some computer cases are designed to be opened by the user, but many are not. If yours is, and you feel comfortable doing so, you may open the case and gently blow compressed air across the motherboard. Be warned that opening a non-user-serviceable computer can void the warranty, so when in doubt, skip it.

You can clean filthy keyboards and mice with a damp rag, or a bit of rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab. Clean tablets and smartphones by wiping them down with a damp, solvent-free cloth.

It’s also a good idea to buy hard cases and screen shields to help protect your laptop, tablet and smartphone. While this won’t protect from severe damage (like dropping your computer), it’ll help against minor dings and scratches.

What about the inevitable spilled drink? Liquids can be death for laptops in particular because they drip through the keyboard and into the computer’s circuits.

Spilled liquids are not so great for desktop keyboards, either, but those are more easily replaceable. If the liquid is water, you have a better chance of recovery. Carbonated beverages and sugary coffee tend to do more damage, because the sugar in them coats the circuits. This may require expert repair or even replacement, which is yet another reason to maintain current backups at all times.

In either case, dry the device as best you can with clean towels, tilt it to let any additional liquid drip out, then place it in a sealed bag with a desiccant such as a silica pack. Do not use until dry.

Printers can be cleaned with compressed air. Many also have an option in their utility software to clean the print heads and paper path. Don’t forget to dust other electronics such as routers and switches. Like computers, their air vents can get clogged with dust.

If you select quality electronics from the start, and take good physical care of them, they’ll keep running smoothly for a long time.

• Triona Guidry is a computer specialist and freelance writer. Her Tech Tips blog offers tech support advice for Windows and Mac.

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