Don't Make My Mistake: How a Minute of Spring Cleaning Made My Computer Run Like New Again

Don't Make My Mistake: How a Minute of Spring Cleaning Made My Computer Run Like New Again

As photographers and videographers, we tend to push our computers much harder than the average user. However, overlooking something as innocuous as household dust brought my computer to a halt.

Let me preface this by saying I already feel really silly for having overlooked this for so long, so please don't rub it in too much more (though I deserve it). My Mac Mini is a late 2012 model with a 2.6 GHz quad core i7, 16 GGB DDR3 RAM, and a 1 TB Fusion drive. It's an older machine, but it was decked out for its time. After almost six years, it's getting older, but not excessively so, and in the first five years or so, it really had no problem keeping up with any of the photo or music work I threw at it. So, imagine my dismay when in the last six months, my Mac slowed down. I chalked it up to the fact that it's a half-decade old and software was probably beginning to outpace it. But then things got really slow, to the point where my browser would hang after I opened eight tabs or so. Lightroom would work for about 30 minutes as long as I didn't open any other apps, then I would have to restart my computer to get it working at a usable level again. Even though I've been careful in which apps I update, not being able to afford something not functioning the way I need it to at the moment, things were slowing to a crawl. On top of that, the fan was almost constantly audible, but again, I figured this was the plight of owning an aging computer. All my attempts to find a culprit seemed to yield little to no improvement. Dismayed, I began pricing out new computers: I had hoped to wait for the next iteration of the Mac Pro, but my work had ground to a halt. 

Then, one recent weekend, my Mac Mini started randomly going to sleep while I was editing client shots, only to wake up after a few minutes, then repeat the process again 10 minutes later. That's when it finally clicked. If the computer was shutting itself off while the fan was blowing at full hurricane strength, it was probably overheating. I put my hand on the case, and sure enough, it was uncomfortably hot. I had only been in Photoshop for a few minutes, so I grabbed the computer out of frustration and looked it over as if I would suddenly see the key, except I did suddenly see the key: a bit of dust on the USB cables in the back. It suddenly occurred to me that in almost six years of owning this computer, I had never thought to clean out the dust that was constantly accumulating on the internals. Dust is the enemy of any computer, as it kills the thermal efficiency of the machine and inhibits the exhaust fan's ability to move air through the system, which in turn decreases system performance as the components get hotter sooner and have to be slowed down or even shut down to prevent them from overheating. 

The Mac Mini has a convenient cover on the bottom that pops right off, so pop it off I did, and I was promptly coated in a fine gray powder that removing the cover shook loose. I immediately hacked up a lung, but as soon as the initial cloud dissipated, I peered inside, only to be greeted by what can only be described as clumps upon clumps of gray fuzz. If your couch has dust bunnies underneath it, my Mac had mutant dust rabbits inside. The components weren't coated in dust; they were completely hidden under mountains of it. The air intake was totally clogged, and a particularly nasty pile of bigger dust particles had collected against the antenna plate where they had been sucked in and become stuck when they were too big to pass through the grating.

The airflow of a Mac Mini. Dust had completely covered the intake near 150 and a mountain of a dust bunny reached all the way to the top of the case at 154.

Put simply: it's a good thing Apple programmed the computer to shut down at a certain temperature, because I would have completely fried it. I didn't even blow it out at first; I just shook the computer over my sink and held my breath as clouds and clods of dust came tumbling out. A can of compressed air and five minutes later, I could actually see a computer inside the case again! I hooked my cables back up and my Mac has been running as smooth as liquid nitrogen ice cream (if you've never tried that, go find a store). The fan is totally silent once again, even as I sit here with 25 tabs open, Photoshop and Lightroom running, and a concert video playing on YouTube in the background. The case is cool to the touch. I don't even think I'll need to upgrade for a few more years.

The point of all this, of course, is to not neglect taking care of your computer. We push our computers quite hard compared to the average user, and that means they're sucking in all the more dust while at the same time, they need to stay clean ever more so than the normal computer. It can be easy to forget: we're not computer professionals, but we still put high demands on our machines. Set a reminder every 6-12 months to clean yours out. To do so, do the following:

  1. Shut down your computer and unplug it from the wall, then unplug all the cables.
  2. Move it to a suitable area (I wasn't kidding about the clouds of dust cleaning mine threw into the air). You may also want to wear goggles and/or a mask. Try to avoid a situation that generates static, like wearing socks and shuffling across a carpet while on your way to the computer.
  3. Open the case.
  4. Using compressed air (never use a vacuum) and always keeping the can upright, spray the internals from top to bottom from a bit of a distance (compressed air is cold when it leaves the can). Never touch the internals (static discharge). If you want to be extra safe, purchase a static strap; they're super cheap
  5. Once you've finished dusting, put the case back on and hook your computer up again.

It's a bit of maintenance that's easy to overlook, but it made a huge difference in my experience. Take the time to occasionally clean out your computer's internals. You'll be glad you did.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Very important: never let a fan turn/speed up by compressed air or a vacuum cleaner! The fan will generate enough voltage to damage the electronics. If you want to clean a fan, disconnect it or hold the blade while you blow it clean.

Even if the computer is unplugged?


I've read that it's ok if the fans spin a bit while you're cleaning (considering how fast they spin in practice, I can't imagine one would generate anything meaningful while cleaning, though I could be wrong). Thanks for the tip, Bob! Luckily, I was able to blow straight down on it so it wouldn't rotate too much and everything came flying out within a few seconds.

I'm in electronics for over 20 years and have personally blown a processor this way (it was something even before the first Pentiums), it seems funny to let a fan speed up with air, but just put a multimeter on it and let it spin, you can generate over 12V. Just to be sure, block it with a screwdriver or finger, or just give it a go and take the risk ;-)

Certainly can't hurt to be safe. :)

I'm a hardware engineer.
The chances of what you are saying happening is very small.
Why ?
Because fans and most electronics have relatively high tolerances.
For example the old 50mm Delta Electronics brushless fans could run fine up to 20.8V without breaking ( continuously for months ).

Actually using canned air can spin the fan way faster than it was designed for and damage the bearings.

Also, switch to SSD will make your life instantly better, 1tb SSD can be found today for less than $400, Pick the Samsung ones if you can.

That's the plan in my next upgrade, though the Fusion drive has worked very well for me over the years.

Great! SSDs(good ones) are also safer and longer lasting storage than hdd, due to lack of moving parts.

Yes. However, a lifetime test using 840Pro amount others indicated the life of a drive is practically infinite.

Bob Brady, you can recover data from a SSD as well ;)
I may look like a photographer, but my studies and main occupation is computer hardware engineering.

They really are great computers; it's a shame Apple quit offering quad-core processors in them. I didn't need a Mac Pro's capabilities at the time and I'd rather have my own monitor, so they were the perfect fit for my needs.

I do this on a yearly basis to blow out the dust from my computer.

True! I own a Vaio of 6 years ago. It has a third generation of i5 intel. The last two years i couldn't run premiere. In rendering after 5 min it shuted down all the time. I opend it and cleand it from the dust, it helped but not that much! Then I had an idea and I mean I cleaned the thermal paste that was really old (i never replaced it) and i bought in amazon a new thermal paste for gaming pc. Guys you really have no idea! It's like new! The fan it's completely silent now and it turn a bit when i play videogames like call of duty (i couldn't play before becuse i had a temperature of 95 degrees celsius). I think my Vaio could run fast others three years!

For Macs there's a neat little tool called smcFanControl. It can not only display fan speed - if your machine has multiple fans you need to select one - and CPU temperature in the menu bar but also change the default settings to a higher RPM scenario for those cases when you are going to throw some serious work at your CPU/GPU and need better cooling.

I've been using it on my Macs for a quite a while now as a quick means of monitoring the correlation between temperature and fan speed and identifying a potentially overheating CPU or failed fan.

smcFanControl is donationware; so you can try without any costs first. Writing this I just remembered that I could donate a few bucks again after years of use as the program doesn't bug its user with obnoxious "Donate Now!" popups like other ones.

I clean my pc every 3 months. It is a small wonder what is collected in these three months. If you have cats or dogs, things will get worse even faster.

When I used a Windows machine I used to periodically remove the cover and clean out the dust but I've been using iMacs for years and have no idea how to clean it. Is there a way to clean the fan on a 2017 iMac?

Thank you for this...I have the same machine...and the same symptoms! This never even occurred to me to look at. I will as soon as I get home now!

Let me know if it works for you!

Alex: timely post. I clean my PC desktop about once a year. I use a small vacuum to get the majority of the dust, then I use cotton swabs and alcohol to clean the fan blades. Never had a problem and the machine is going on 7 years.

Off topic re: my 2010 mac mini server.... will it accept two 8gb sticks? (I've heard that this model can only accept 8gb total.) I have two 4gb sticks but it's getting slow after I installed Sierra 10.12.6. I've also lost use of my Wacom PenTablet Intuos ptk440. Thanks for any help. Wacom has been useless on this issue.

Cleaned out my 2012 Mac Pro yesterday
with compressed air, but it wasn't terribly dusty. I didnt notice any increase in performance :(

Please can you explain why not to use a vacuum cleaner? That's what I have been using for years. What damage could I be causing?
"Using compressed air (never use a vacuum)"

I just built a new P.C from two old ones donated to me. 10 years of dust all over the internals like a 5mm blanket. I did use a vacuum cleaner on the very low setting. I made sure I did not touch any electronics with the vacuum cleaner. For the novice I recommend the steps in this article though. I have a custom air filter on the front of the case.

My other P.C has two fans in a full size tower case I cut two large holes in the side installed two 4 12cm fans with an auto air-filter on the outside no dust inside after 16 years.

I clean both around 6 months.

Heat, dust, static electricity and water are the enemy of electronics.

Overheating Symptoms and Troubleshooting For Intel® Boxed Processors

Symptoms of overheating

System boots up but shuts down automatically after a short period of time.
Reported CPU operating frequency is less than expected.
Evidence of CPU throttling.
General slowness of system.
CPU/system fan noise is excessive.

REF: -