image from New Life Service Co.

I got an emergency call from a friend yesterday. His computer was totally eaten up by viruses and couldn’t function anymore. He’s a writer and doesn’t do backups, so he was naturally very afraid that he would lose the book drafts that he’s been working on.

I brought him and his ailing computer over to my place to give it some TLC and get it back in fighting condition. This system, Raine, is special to me as it was the second computer I built. That was way back in 2002, and when I cracked the case, horror itself greeted me. I could see that I had a long night ahead of me.

Triage

I really wish that I had taken pictures as the inside of Raine was disgusting. The picture on the post is actually a combination of before and after images from New Life Service Co who specializes in cleaning homes and salvageable items after fire, water, or storm damage. The image gets the point across about what I was facing though.

There are some natural enemies to electronics: cigarette/incense smoke, coffee, and soda. These things typically don’t instantly kill a computer, but they act as a cancer that slowly grows and over time can break a crucial system of the computer, causing the entire machine to fail. In essence, these things work together to kill the respiratory system of a computer, the fans that cool off the machine, this can cause massive heat buildup which eventually causes a component, such as a processor or graphics card, to overheat. At first, this overheating will cause the system to turn itself off, reboot, or freeze. It does this as either the component glitches out or the system proactively tries to protect itself from the heat buildup.

Basically, the sludge that is carried in smoke and the sludge that is created from dried coffee and soda creates the problem. The entirety of the inside, and good portions of the outside, were coated in a layer of this congealed slime it had combined over the years with dust to create a viscous tar. This tar was clogged between heatsink fins, had coated all the fan blades, had filled all the cracks where air flows through, and had even coated many of the fans’ shafts and magnets (causing the side intake fan to completely fail).

Raine had been in an environment with large amounts of cigarette smoke. My friend also indicated that coffee and soda could also have been involved. So, inside the case was a tragedy.

Now I know that the viruses and failed Windows install were the primary issues here, but it is like going to to the hospital because of a broken bone and they quickly discover a massive tumor. The broken bone is definitely a problem, but that tumor is a much bigger concern. So, before I was going to do anything to revive Windows, I needed to get that machine clean.

Getting Clean by Getting Dirty

Whenever I clean electronics, I usually do the same thing:

  • Turn off, unplug, and remove any batteries from the electronics first. If it is a computer, turn the physical switch at the back of the power supply off (the ‘O’ down is off; the ‘|’ down is on) and remove the CMOS battery.
  • Blow, vacuum, or wipe off as much loose dirt and dust as possible first.
  • Break down the device into non-electrical components (casing, covers, screws, etc), electrical components (circuit boards, chips, cables, etc), and combination parts that can’t easily separated and then put back together (non-electrical parts that could be easily cleaned yet are mated via some kind of dark magic of manufacturing to one or more electrical components).
  • Spray off the non-electrical components with water and clean with soap or other detergent as necessary. Where I do this depends on the size. Very large items get the yard and hose, medium sized items get the shower, and small items get the sink.I find the shower with the hand-held shower head to be the most useful for most situations. The hot water helps break up gummy substances, the mess goes down the drain, I don’t have to get muddy in the yard, and the drain strainer keeps small parts from disappearing down the drain.I know some people will also use their dishwasher to clean such parts. I’ve never tried it myself as I fear that the temperatures that some dishwaters can get up to is hot enough to melt certain plastics. So, I play it safe and don’t use the dishwasher method. If you do try it, share your experiences.
  • I will then shake as much water off of each component as I can, dry it off with a combination of towels and paper towels, and then let them fully dry out for an hour or more before connecting anything back to it.
  • The upholstery attachment for vacuum cleaners makes a very good hand-held device to wipe the loose crud off of electrical components. The bristles have enough stiffness to push dirt off but are soft enough to not damage any of the components. I lightly brush all of the electrical components off with this and set them aside for the next step.
  • I will then get out a bottle of rubbing alcohol and pour some of the fluid into a small dish. Next I get some cotton swabs.I dip one end of the swab into the alcohol and let it soak up a small amount (don’t get the swab dripping wet, just damp). I then pick up one of the electrical components and gently clean any dirty areas. A gentle twisting action of the swab can help clean tough spots. I only do small areas at a time and then flip the swab over and dry off the dampened area with the dry end of the swab. Set each component aside for a few minutes to let any remaining alcohol evaporate before you try to reconnect it to anything.

This process is useful for all kinds of electronics and not just computers.

Typically, you can disassemble an entire computer with nothing more than a medium-sized Phillip’s head screwdriver. I recommend placing all the removed screws into a container. The first few times you disassemble an electronic device, you will want to use multiple containers, one each for each type of screw, and label them so you know exactly what screw goes to what part. A trick that I use whenever I know that I’ll have difficulty remembering what part or screw goes where is to quickly snap a picture with my camera.

Finishing the Job

After about six hours of hard work, I had cleaned off the entire case, the hard drive, portions of the motherboard, the heatsink, all the fans, the DVD burner, and all the cables. I had spare parts around, so I actually gave Raine a slightly upgraded processor, doubled the memory, added an additional drive (this came in handy when reinstalling Windows), upgraded the video card, and replaced the power supply with a nice, relatively new Thermaltake PSU. Unfortunately I didn’t have a spare 80mm case fan lying around (I know, I have spare CPUs, memory chips, graphics cards, etc but not a spare case fan? Shame). However, I usually scavenge good parts from broken components, so I did have an 80mm PSU fan from a failed PSU. The connector wasn’t the correct one, but I was able to snip up an old molex connector and splice it onto the fan. It isn’t the prettiest thing, but that fan really blew a lot of air at a reasonable amount of noise, so it worked out well.

I powered up the system, and everything worked. Actually, I did many, many reboots. I pulled up the motherboard manual on the Biostar website and made sure that all the jumper settings and cable installations were optimal. I had to completely reconfigure the BIOS since I had removed the CMOS battery. Anyways, I now had a newly refurbished Raine ready to get a shiny new OS.

I booted up the computer using a Linux Mint disk that I had handy. The idea was to boot into a Live OS environment, copy over the crucial files to another system to protect them from loss and then proceed with installing Windows again. Fortunately, this went extremely smoothly. Within about fifteen minutes, we had cherry picked specific folders to save to a safe location and had copied them there.

I had configured the new drive to be the primary drive as I wanted my friend to be able to pull off all the data he needed from the old drive before formatting it. I shut down Linux Mint and unplugged the power cable to the old drive. This wasn’t really necessary, but I wanted to make sure that the Windows installation wouldn’t in any way mess up the old data that we wanted to protect as much as possible. I then installed Windows onto the new drive, got Windows up and running, and installed all the necessary drivers.

I then powered down the system again, plugged the drive back in, and booted Windows once more. Now Raine is running smoothly, virus-free, and should have a longer lease on life.

So, even though I work at 8am, I was up past 2am working on the machine. I guess you can say that I’m a sucker for a computer in distress.

Tips

  1. Every couple of months you should clean out your machine. Turn it off, unplug it, let it sit for a few minutes, take off the side panels, and then use a can of air duster (one that is meant for electronics) to spray out all the dust and other nasties. This will go a long way to keeping your machine running well for years to come.
  2. Always make backups of important documents. You can get flash drives that can easily hold all of our documents for $10-20 these days. Every week, copy new and modified documents to this drive and put it in a safe place.
  3. If your OS crashes, you can use one of the Live Distros of Linux to boot up your machine and copy important data to your flash drive. Ubuntu and Linux Mint are really good choices for this task. Finding information on a Windows drive when you are used to a user or My Documents folder can be confusing, so I will probably do a post on how to do this at some time.
  4. The best way to keep your system virus free isn’t an anti-virus scanner. A scanner cannot offer you 100% protection, nothing does honestly, and can’t always fix problems when they do happy. The best way to protect your system and keep it running smoothly is to follow these simple guidelines:
    • Don’t ever install or run any programs that came to you in an email. Even if it appears to be from a friend. If a friend sends you a program to install/run, ask them to send you a link to where you can download yourself. Also, if it appears to be an image or document attachment, but your client warns you about executing it, don’t say “Yes” or “Okay.” Say no. That is a program pretending to be an image or document.
    • Don’t install every free program you find on the internet. Not all of these programs are bad. Just having too many programs installed can cause problems and slow down your computer. Your computer is only capable of doing so much, and loading 100 freeware apps that sit in your system tray is going to kill any system.Some of these programs were available for download simply because they wanted to be able to secretely install other programs without you knowing, so pick which programs you install carefully. Do a qiuck Google search for the name of the program and “spyware” or “virus” and see what other people are saying about it.
    • Go through and uninstall old programs that you no longer need.
  5. If you are just a casual computer user or don’t have a specific need to run Windows, try running Ubuntu, Linux Mint, or one of the many other Linux distros some day. These desktop operating systems come with a ton of free software to do everything from making images to creating documents to browsing the web. It’s definitely not for everyone, but the odds of getting a virus or other nasty bit of software installed on your computer is extremely low with a Linux-based desktop as compared to a Windows-based one. Best of all, these operating systems are free and many can be run without installing them so you can easily try them.

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