How do I properly clean my computer?

Finger oils on a laptop's trackpad can make it harder to get around. Dust can render your internal fans inoperable, and then the real trouble starts...

Let's face it: dirt and dust can harm your computer.  Finger oils on a laptop's trackpad can make it harder to get around. Blankets of dust can render your internal fans inoperable, causing hard drives to fail from heat buildup. Computers need love, so what can you do?

Gather supplies:

  • Canned air." Any brand will do (the kind with the plastic straw)
  • Microfiber wipes (make sure they are clean). 
  • Isopropyl alcohol, 5% or less, is safest. Glasses cleaner works too.
  • For stickers and finger oils, you may need a more robust cleaner, but spray the cloth, not the computer.  Let it dry a little before use and apply it to the smallest surface necessary. Do not use these on the screen!
  • Windex and a plastic scraper can remove stickers on plastic areas after you let the cleaner soak through. 

Do's:

  • Turn off your computer! Unplug the power cord, and remove any batteries from the device and accessories.
  • Before touching or installing something that can be harmed by electrostatic discharge (like the motherboard), place your hand on an unpainted metal piece of the computer's case. Doing this will "ground" you and prevent static shock damage.
  • If possible, once a year, take the desktop computer outside when the weather is 50º or higher.  Spray out any dust buildup with the canned air and then check to make sure nothing came loose, especially any fan cables.  
  • Pay particular attention to the case fans and CPU fan on the motherboard.  Dust tends to encrust those fans, which will cause unexplained shutdowns or slowness from overheating. 
  • For laptops, bring the computer outside and spray through any vents on the sides or bottom.  While it is better to open the case and spray dust outward after removing the fan, you would need a Philips 0 or Torx 4,5, or 6 screwdrivers.  Blowing dust into the case is better than nothing, and it can alleviate heat buildup. You only need to dust about once a year. 
  • Use a disinfectant wipe to wipe the outside case, then use a damp, soft, lint-free cloth, and dry the area with another soft, lint-free cloth. I prefer microfiber cloths used for eyeglasses in small spaces.  Do this whenever the top feels greasy. 
  • For keyboards, you should probably clean about once a month, since small particles can get trapped under the keys.   First, spray the edges of the keys with canned air.  Then wipe the keys with the cleaning cloth.  Make sure the cloth does not drip since extra moisture can ruin the keyboard's circuit board.
  • Check any keyboard and mouse batteries for corrosion every time you check the smoke detector or every six months. 
  • Check any power cables for cuts or kinks and replace damaged wires.  Damaged wires can spark and destroy a computer, or even start a fire.  
  • Additionally, on laptops, if you can open the case, see if the battery is expanding.  If you cannot, check whether the case is no longer flat on the bottom. Some batteries can be found under the trackpad; if the trackpad seems wonky, that could be a sign of battery failure.  
  • Batteries fail faster if left in hot environments, so don't leave electronics in cars during hot summer days or below 40 degrees. 
  • Rule of thumb: lithium batteries are rated to last about three years.  They lose their ability to charge over time, so replace any old batteries.  You can sometimes check the health using manufacturer's apps on the laptop.  
  • On a Mac, pressing the Alt key while clicking on the power icon will show the percentage of life left.
  • On Windows, you would have to run a command-line tool or download something like BatteryBar.  
  • Batteries last longer if you charge the laptop when the power is below 40%, and leave it overnight around 60-80%. Again, you should check them about once a year. 

Don'ts:

  • Do not use a household vacuum.  It will cause static discharge.   
  • Do not use wet cloths; squeeze out any excess liquid before cleaning.
  • Do not allow the liquid from the disinfectant wipe to sit or pool on the area being disinfected for an extended amount of time.
  • Do not use rough towels or cloths to dry the area.
  • Do not use excessive force when cleaning the area around the keyboard; this could damage the keys.
  • Do not leave devices in unsafe conditions.  Along with small animals and children, they should not be left in extreme heat, humidity, cold, or dusty areas for long. 

While we're at it, let's clean your virtual desktop:

  • When you boot up or log in, you reach the desktop.  If it is cluttered, you cannot find files. 
  • Do not worry about using Disk Defragmenter or Disk Cleanup.  Windows 10 performs those rituals about once per week late Wednesday after midnight on its own. Defragmenting a solid-state drive can reduce its lifespan, so leave Windows to optimize the drive. 
  • Do not bother with programs that claim to clean up, remove junk files, clean the registry.  Those just steal data, transmit advertisements, or slow down the computer. 
  • Do create folders to store the desktop stuff you use infrequently. This won't speed it up in a real sense but will make things easier to find. 
  • Do leave the computer on overnight Wednesday to let Microsoft updates and disk defragmenting occur.  Windows 10 will optimize solid-state drives rather than defragment them.
  • Do click on the yellow file folder at the bottom to open File Explorer.  Click on "This PC" on the left.  In the bottom middle, look at the C: drive and make sure it is not full (red indicates whether the drive is full).  If it is full, you need to Manage Storage in the Settings and start deleting things or consider cloning it to a larger drive with our help. 
  • Do remove any programs you no longer use.  For instance, if you downloaded Dropbox but never created an account, it still runs in the background and starts at every boot.  
  • To remove programs: 
  •  First, find what may be running without your knowledge: click on the upward triangle near the time and date on the taskbar and mouse over the tiny icons. You may be able to right-click and quit the running programs here.  You cannot remove them here. 
  • Also, right-click on a blank part of the taskbar and choose Task Manager to see the running processes.  Click on the Startup Tab to find any programs you might want to stop running, even if you're going to keep them. 
  • Click on the Windows icon on the lower left of the desktop
  • Right-click on programs you recognize (but don't use) and select "Uninstall."  
  • Concentrate on removing those unwanted running programs!
  • Google any programs that you want to remove but don't recognize.  Sometimes they are essential drivers or system software. 
  •  Also, type "Apps and Features" in the white search bar.  Look again for any programs to remove. 


Remember, make sure you're not putting your computer at even higher risk be cleaning it unsafely. Electrostatic discharge can destroy a computer, or cause unexplained errors.  Computers are potentially harmed if the static discharge exceeds 5-10 V. When you feel a static shock that's 1,500 V. Be careful!


Learn more

  1. https://www.wikihow.com/Ground-Yourself-to-Avoid-Destroying-a-Computer-with-Electrostatic-Discharge
  2. https://www.howtogeek.com/194479/how-to-clean-the-dust-out-of-your-laptop/
  3. https://www.pcmag.com/how-to/how-to-check-your-laptop-battery-health-in-windows-10
  4. https://www.lifewire.com/windows-uninstaller-to-remove-unused-programs-3506955


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