back to article Dirty PCs: How much filth can you take?

It's been a tad over a year since our shock insight into the darkest and most fearsome interiors of computing hardware, and by our reckoning that's just about enough time to recover from the trauma. Accordingly, we're inviting contributions for "Ventblockers II", so let's see if you lot can match this further collection of …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So who ...

    is going to be first with the oh-so-obvious joke on the final machine?

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: So who ...

      LuMan is - "That last pc..." It only took two minutes, which is a new record, we believe.

      1. LuMan

        Re: Re: So who ...

        Well, it's been a quiet day.

    2. Mips
      Jobs Horns

      Do you mean..

      .. Is that Spiderman's computer?

  2. LuMan

    That last pc...

    ....was used for web-surfing...

    1. Patrick R
      Dead Vulture

      Antic, not PC.

      I bet that last 486 has retired long ago and doesn't qualify more for this topic than an old chinese vase in your attic.

  3. Matt_payne666

    most of the machines....

    are dells!

    does this show that the fans on a dell are more powerful than average? or the cases just dont flow crud so well??

    as for the last machine.... SIMMS!!!!!! eh gads man!

  4. Thomas 4
    Thumb Up

    First picture

    From firewall to fire hazard - just add a builder!

  5. Steve Brooks

    oh GOD, the smell!!!

    This is all very interesting, and I've seen many at least equal, but it doesn't really convey the awfulness of opening a computer that has sat inches away from a heavy smoker for many years, the nauseating, nostril clogging stench. It also doesn't convey the disgust at the texture, its not just dust, its sticky, cloying, revolting. After having one of those in the workshop the stench lingers for days. What you need is smellovision and feelovision.

    1. Ed Vim

      On the flipside

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I've worked a few PCs that came out of smokers' homes. But a while ago a girlfriend gave me her old PC when she upgraded and besides getting a still decent computer I liked it because the scent of the perfume she always uses was coming out of the exhaust fans in back.

      1. PoorLumpyPony


        You're wearing her skin while you type that arent you?

    2. Steve X

      Times change

      The computer history museum in Mountain View, Ca, has one of the old cold-war era early warning computers on display, the ones that were used to watch for Soviet missles. It has an ashtray built-in beside the keyboard...

  6. mamsey
    Thumb Up

    Thank you...

    That reminds me that I need to hoover out my PCs, if you could keep posting these Dirty PC articles it will save me having ot put a note in my calendar.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Paris Hilton

      you said hoover

      and i naturally thought of.....

      1. Captain TickTock

        and i naturally thought of.....

        ... which way to mount the case fan.

        either way is fine with Paris...

        ok, ok.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hey that last PC

    Looks like it was used to code applications that crawl the internet for indexing purposes.

    Thankyou, I'm here all night, do I win an award?

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Re: Smoking and PCs

    Many years ago when I was starting my PC support habit I had to fix an old PS/2 (the IBM type, not the Sony one) that had been on the desk of a heavy smoker. I took one look inside and refused to touch it - several inches of brownish tacky sludge covering everything inside the case. Even back in the early 90's it was agreed by all that this was a health hazard..

    He ended up having a new PS/2. And smoking at the desks got banned shortly afterwards with the company setting up a cancer cabin for the addicts to go and smoke in.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      You should do desktop support at some of the fag manufacturers, the staff were allowed to smoke duty free tobacco at the desk so they smoked *lots* of it.

    2. . 3

      TVs too

      colour CRT TVs this is; the ones that came from a smoking household and had been on 12 hours a day for a few years tended to grow sticky tendrils about the back of the tube and over the HT portions of the PCBs. A vacuum cleaner and brush would only ever be partially successful at removing it before you had to start working on it. Trike was the best stuff for getting it off.

      1. Santa from Exeter


        You do realise that this probably did you more damage quicker than any smokers gaspers?

        Flames for the result of using trichloroethane on hot CRT's

  9. Annihilator


    Not a patch on last year's. Most PCs I open look like that!

    The mouse and spider ones, well I imagine they were stored in a loft/shed and are thus excluded from the awards.

    1. J. Cook Silver badge

      No pictures, but I do have a story...

      a number of years ago when I worked as a field technician for one of the local service companies, I had to go out to one of our client's rural offices- they had a workstation die and needed us to repair it.

      I got out there, opened the case, managed to hold down my lunch from the stench of the mouse urine and droppings, and informed the client that it would have to go into the shop for decontamination and repair.

      Fortunately, I had gloves with me and it got put in the back of my pickup truck for the ride back to the shop. I feel sorry for the poor sod who probably had to sterilize his workarea after dealing with the machine.

    2. Ammaross Danan
      Paris Hilton

      I agree

      These machines were rather average compared to the "X-Rated" Pictures of last year. The Dells in particular. I find it humorous that PC makers put filters and such in their air intakes and the like, but neglect to mention to the end-user that they need to be cleaned... They should design cases more like the Antec 300, which leaves the filters rather obviously positioned just behind the front mesh, where it's rather easy to spot a pile of fur/dust/etc since it collects on the /outside/ of the case.

      /Paris, because dirty computers aren't the only things that make one want to wear gloves.

  10. Chris Hawkins

    Laptops as well

    These are all desktops!

    This year, the fun and games in my neck of the woods down here in the Southern Iberian Peninsula, has been with Laptops!

    I had several in, where I've had to strip them down to the gunnels and take the casings to the local garage to use their compressor to clean out exhausts! The dirt that came out! The CPU's started behaving a bit better with mean temperatures dropping 5 to 10º!!!

    What people do with them I do not know????'

    1. jake Silver badge

      Word of warning ...

      Don't use a standard air compressor, as found at a typical garage, when blowing out electrical gear. They typically don't have filters on them to remove water and oil ... Instead, for home use purchase a can of compressed dry air from a photo shop. For more industrial "bulk" dusting, purchase a small compressor with an oil filter & dryer on the output. And whatever you do, don't crank the PSI! Keep it down to "just enough" or you'll start loosening components ... I augment mine with a data-vac to remove the bulk of the dust, before using the compressor.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Except ...

        "Don't use a standard air compressor ... They typically don't have filters on them" - the one in the paint shop will.

        "don't crank the PSI" - not a problem as long as you keep the blowgun at a sensible distance.

        1. jake Silver badge

          @AC 21:18, Re: Except

          ""Don't use a standard air compressor ... They typically don't have filters on them" - the one in the paint shop will."

          Except the dude/tte running the paint-booth won't allow anyone with a dusty old computer anywhere near the place.

          ""don't crank the PSI" - not a problem as long as you keep the blowgun at a sensible distance."

          Are you aware of the phrase "human nature"? Far fewer problems my way ...

    2. dssf

      I usually give my laptop a good

      Blowing out. I try to keep a can of compressed air on hand just to keep the fan coils clear.

      It also helps if the machines are on the desk, or some intermediate ledge or shelf and in good airflow, rather than on the floor. On the floor or carpet, dust and fibers get circulated, and heat buildup just worsens things. I keep low-speed air blowers beneath or adjacent to my two laptops' ducts, but i stll blow them out every few weeks. Plus, i like to hear the fan go "ZZZWEEEEEEE!!!!!" I think i blow more air on the sound effects than on getting out the ghost turds (dust, in US Navy Sailor parlance, hehehe).

      But, yeh, those rat and mud-laden machines are HIDEOUSLY DISGUSTING.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        re: i like to hear the fan go "ZZZWEEEEEEE!!!!

        That's great as long as you also like replacing them more often.

    3. Andrew Norton

      oh sweet jesus

      compressors and canned air... dear god...

      Industrial compressors. Nice. Nice as in nice oily air from it that is. just what you want...

      And canned air. Ooh lovely very cold air, nothing quite like it to crack solder joints.

      The other problems is that you;re BLOWING. that dust, where's it going? You don't know. Some of it you're jamming under components.

      The whole point is to REMOVE it, not randomly shift it about. Use a vacuum cleaner. Either make sure the nozzle is grounded (static=BAD) or, some people use a paper funnel on the end. When you've got the loose stuff, use a WOODEN toothpick, it's hard and small enough to shift the crap, BUT not hard enough to cause damage to components. Then repeat with the vacuum cleaner.

      BLOWING dust around randomly is just stupid.

    4. The Badger13

      Laptops Ahoy

      Hi Chris

      Do you service laptops? As I am passing through Potugal with my dodgy laptop perhaps I could stop over and you could have a look at it?

  11. Gav

    Different standards...

    Never, ever, believe a builder when they say they'll cover something up, "it'll be fine". Simply put, builders have an entirely different concept of the meaning of "clean". A inch thick coating of building dust over every surface translates as "clinically clean", piles of rubble and debris translates as "a bit of a wipe and it'll be clean"

    I speak from repeated experience of building work in computing environments.

    1. Alex Rose

      James Dore is a bit of a doughnut

      I'm sorry but it doesn't matter how much sheeting the builder covers the machine in, the machine is still sucking air in from outside to cool itself. Therefore if there's dust in the air then it will get inside the machine, The only way to stop this is to stop the air going into the machine, in which case the machine will overheat.

      Either encase the server and filter the air going into the case or move the damn server.

      Anybody who can't work this out has no business looking after servers.

      1. James Dore
        Thumb Down

        Thank you!

        This was part of our risk assessment, which went roughly thus (I'm paraphrasing):


        a) Encase and filter /entire 42u rack/ - Approx £2k, delay project start by two days


        b) move server: requiring new, temporary, (exposed and vulnerable) fibre laid from current location to new location that's not under refurb or occupied (only suitable area was an unused bathroom, no mains power) Cost unconfirmed.


        c) If firewall fails replace with spare unit in storage that has same image on it.

        Guess which one we did.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          Easiest (and cheapest solution)

          Options a-c sound very familiar, I went also to c).

          Moving fibres around technically can be done but usually costs so much you don't do it. Racks are even worse.

  12. Reverend Brown

    Remind me....

    .....again why I don't eat and read the bootnotes. Baaahf. I do appreciate the reminder that on the worst day, I've never run into true filth when opening up a computer.

    Keyboard, but that's not coffee.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Reminds me of a machine that got brought to me ~6 years ago for cleaning - got brought in from a farm where they had goats... difficult as **** to get rid of the scent of biological waste matter from it. :S

  14. Lars Silver badge

    You silly bastards

    When did you last clean your mobile phone, your coffee maker, your washing machine, your tape recorder, your watch, your vacuum cleaner, your television, your set-top box, your playstation, your Xbox, your electrical toot brush, your bank account, your ...

    Suppose there is simply something rotten in how computers are made.

    1. jake Silver badge


      "When did you last clean your mobile phone, your coffee maker, your washing machine, your tape recorder, your watch, your vacuum cleaner, your television, your set-top box, your playstation, your Xbox, your electrical toot brush, your bank account, your ... "

      I keep all my kit maintained. Life's easier that way.

      "Suppose there is simply something rotten in how computers are made."

      Disagree. It's in the way humans are made. Lazy bastards, the lot of us. Some of us have learned over time that routine maintenance is the easy way out.

  15. Martin Howe

    Don't forget pet owners

    My laptop's fan vents need de-cat-furring about every other month. Despite the eight cats in the house, keeping the place itself clean isn't too hard - it's the electronics that really need it :)

    1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

      Easy solution..

      .. hoover the pets more often.

      Yes, I don't like cats. How did you know?


      1. Alan Newbury

        Hoover the Cats?

        Actually one of our old cats really enjoyed a quick vacuuming - and it kept the fur to a manageable level (he was a long-haired).

  16. Dave Rickmers
    Thumb Up

    I use my leaf blower

    at least once a year on the innards.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I might have been in this game too long, but most of those PCs I wouldn't have even bothered taking pictures of!

    Plus, the 486dx2 and the PIII should be excluded as they're clearly not in use.

    I replaced a computer just last month and asked the customer whether they wanted the 8 legged inhabitant transferring to the new PC! They declined.

    And I agree with the comment about laptops - they definitely seem to be the worst culprits these days. We regularly do before-and-after pictures in order to shame the customer into being more selective in where they use it!

    1. richard 7

      this is a title

      I'm glad I'm not the only one doing that. I'll have to post some of the laptop horror stories. Love the way customers selectively dont notice that the base of their laptop is hotter than the surface of the sun too.

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  19. Stewart Atkins

    Perhaps this is the first step...

    ... towards creating Cybernetic Overlords, first all the computers around the world begin collecting as much organic matter as they can until the formula for growing Arnold Schwarzenegger is discovered in a small machine somewhere in southern california. Before we know it, we'll all be killed!

    Cleaning your machine regularly is important.

  20. Montreal Sean

    Unfortunately no pictures, but a story.

    About a decade ago I was working as a field tech for a Dell warranty service provider in Canada.

    I got sent to a flower shop to find out why their machine was running so slowly and shutting down all the time.

    Now, I'm used to dirty machines, but this one was worse than anything I'd seen or heard about.

    I get to the shop and am shown into the back where they make the flower arrangements and do all the cuttings. The pc looks dusty from the outside, like everything else in the backroom, but nothing could prepare me for what was inside.

    I removed the top cover on this first gen Pentium (you know, the cases where top and sides are one piece), and inside it was packed solid with dust. Not loose, floating dust, more like a dust brick that filled every inch of space in the machine.

    I pulled it out in chunks. Cleaned it and replaced the fans. It's a miracle the thing would function!

    1. I_am_Chris

      Modern PC

      If it was a modern PC it probably would have caught fire.

  21. Pat 9
    Gates Horns


    Ok i have seen a lot of dust and gunk in pcs over the years. But seriously? Cobwebs? thats a first. Couldn't have been running (or at least if it was left in a basement)

    1. Andrew Norton
      Thumb Down

      not really

      my kids PC sometimes has cobwebs in it. It's not a powerhouse, just something for them to play games on. Of course, I live on the edge of a big forest, and we get spiders all the time (land used to be a meadow, so lots of flies too) so sometimes there's spiderwebs in the 'open areas' in the case. Not a big deal.

  22. Mips
    Jobs Halo

    X - Rated?

    Well they all look about average to me. Seen a lot worse.

  23. This post has been deleted by its author

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Kleenex users take note

    If you are one of those people with bad allergies or frequent colds or whatever, and if you use a lot of Kleenex or other brand/type of tissue paper (sorry, I dunno what a comparable British brand would be) while sitting near your computer, be aware that each time you use tissue paper you're liberating a tiny amount of paper dust/fiber into the air. Over a period of months, it can be a substantial amount of fibers that your computer inhales through its cooling system.

    Note: some brands of tissue paper are far more dusty than other brands, whereas some brands aren't very dusty at all. At least that I've noticed, the rough cheap brands are a lot less dusty than the soft pleasant-feeling expensive brands.

    (For purposes of this post we'll disregard the possible vicious-circle aspect of tissue-paper dust sometimes making pre-existing allergies worse than they already were.)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Comparible brand would be...

      ...Kleenex. Some brands are international.

  25. Doug Glass

    Ever Notice ...

    ... under the hood (bonnet?) is spotless for those people whose life in embedded in their car? Some people just drive the damn thing and leave the internals to the mechanics when something goes wrong. Those simple drivers have better things to do obviously than worry if the air filter is a few miles past what the owner's manual says. After all, their car is just a tool to enable their real lives.

    Looks like some computer users actually have lives outside the computer case. Can you imagine that, the computer is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Radical.

  26. D. M

    I have seen a lot worse

    Years ago, I used to fix computers (paid and unpaid). I have seen much worse. One time, I got a machine from a client who used it in a builder's office. I opened the case, and there was a inch of thick brownish dust (stick together too) and certain living things in there.

  27. Anonymous Coward


    People insist on using them atop fabric surfaces (sofas, bedspreads)

    Manufacturers insist on having heatsinks with finely spaced fins on them and puttting the air intake on the BOTTOM of the machine.

    Deadly combination. Even a blowgun won't remove a lot of it as it's often clumped up and doing so simply blows the lumps backwards and blocks the fan completely.

    In some of them you can remove the fan assembly, then clean off the inside of the heatsinks. On others you'll have to resort to using tweezers to pick the blown back lumps out of the fan's inlet - IF you can get the cover off.

    Then again, a lot of owners think that getting hot/stopping means it's time for a new laptoy. Why argue if they want to throw the old machine in your lap?

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Horns

    The Secret to cleaning PC's

    Compressed air at a very low pressure.

    I forget exactly - but 5 or 10 PSI tends to work far better than 100 PSI.

    Doesn't roone your fans either.

    That is ~30 - 70 Kpa for the modernistas.

  29. bubba-bear

    Air freshener stinks

    I would much prefer to work on a computer from a goat barn than from someone with an air freshener fetish. A bonus with aerosol air freshener is that it frequently contains chemicals that attach to surfaces and causes dust to form a sticky layer.

    I used to repair microwave ovens, and they are even nastier than computers. I once repaired (cleaned, actually) a grossly filthy microwave oven that had severe mouse urine corrosion -- and a dead mouse -- inside the cabinet. This microwave hadn't been in storage, it was in daily use.

  30. Stu_The_Jock


    Several years ago while working as a Dell engineer on certain contracts I was talking to the site IT manager who had maintained the "old" dumb terminals systems. They had problems with some of the switches now working properly, and an engineer duly arrived. He diagnosed a fault of "1" of dust over everything in the rack" As the customer was a builders merchant they had an airline, so it was duly borrowed. unfortunately aforementioned engineer failed to open rear doors to cabinet, when applying air, all the dust had to go somewhere.

    When he emerged from the clouds of dust, coughing and spluttering the entire staff were almost in need of underwear from laughing so har.

    On his return to base a phonecall had got in first and for the next 6 months he was known as "dusty"

  31. Herby

    Ahhh... Problems I have known

    Back in the early 80's (before PC's) I installed terminals at answering services (we supplied the computer). The "after care" consisted of cleaning off the thick film of cigarette gunk that was always on the front of the terminals (the operators smoked like chimneys). When we left we we always complemented on how much better the system worked.

    In other venues, I have a brother in law that did maintenance work on Airplanes. The smoking in airplanes allowed them to find the leaks quite easily. Now that they have non smoking planes it is more difficult to find the leaks. Such is life!

  32. JC 2

    This is all silly

    Kids, these are quite old boxes. That they built up this much dust and many of which still working except for some other problem is evidence enough that your anal retentive desire to keep PCs clean enough to eat off of is grossly mislearned urban myth.

    Properly seated electrical contacts and systems built with sufficient cooling margin do not need to be pretty and clean.

    Read that again. If you think that dust is such a problem it is not a sign you "Know" something, it is a sign you can't engineer very well if you don't build enough margin into a system that it can run unattended, without maintenance, until it's expected lifespan is over.

    Granted, I mean average PCs, not some uber gaming box that needs twice the power, twice the airflow to keep it from bursting into flames. In that case you design for twice the air intake so all else equal, it once again takes the same amount of time till dust clogging has enough of an effect to matter.

    ... and yet, the average systems we saw pictures of ARE OLDER THAN THE AVERAGE PC STILL IN USE IN MODERN 1ST WORLD COUNTRIES.

    Perhaps this is more than anything, evidence suggesting that dust buildup prolongs PC lifespan. Yes that is ridiculous, about as much so as pretending to know that dust was a problem when by all accounts the age these systems were is PROOF TO THE CONTRARY!!

    Don't you hate crazy concepts like science though? Yes, damn science for disproving all the urban myths we like to hold in honor of feeling knowledgeable.

    Bottom line? It's not the computers we need to worry about, rather the humans living in such conditions that their systems ended up like that. Forget about the PC, buy a room air cleaner for the user.

  33. Grease Monkey Silver badge


    We have a few PCs with filters that are supposed to prevent this sort of thing. Unfortunately in dusty environments the filters clog up in no time and it's a huge job to strip the machine down to get the filters out to clean them. The end result is that after the second time the filters clog they are left out and the machine fills with crap anyway. Why could they not make the filters easilly accessible from outside the case?

  34. Nigel 11

    Mouse problem

    I didn't take photos, but I was once called in to fix a failed server (one of the old 130W TDP CPUs). Diagnosed a blown PSU, but smelt very odd when I took the cover off. Didn't take long to find the well-cooked mouse that had inserted its neck into the CPU fan. Hope the poor little squeaker died quickly.

    Never worked out how it got in. I know that a mouse can squeeze through a 1cm slot, but there wasn't any aperture vaguely that size.

  35. Michael C

    Worst in my past

    I wish i had a pic...

    Working in management for a retail PC repair shop in my earlier days, we had a machine come in from a farmer he kept in a barn. My tech opened it up, and 3 people got STUNG. A beehive was built inside the case by enterprising yellow jackets. Fortunately, most of the guesstimated 150 residents had either not been home when he put it in the back of his truck, or flew out on the ride over.

    We wrapped in in heavy plastic, put a few bio hazard stickers on it, and returned it to him advising him to see if his insurance company could help in out calling it a total loss.

    The nastiest case I'd seen was an old Compaq that lived in a dorm where 4 heavy smokers, 3 cats, and a slew of nasty friends lived with windows closed to avoid being caught having any of the above by campus security. You could smell the machine from across the bench before we even opened it. It was literally caked in tar and cat fur. Several years of build up from smoke being sucked through and filtered by the fur... No components could be seen. We refused to even plug it in for fear the fans might actually work, and send the stench throughout the store...

  36. Nigel 11

    Passive cooling rules

    Just realized, this is another advantage for a passive-cooled Atom-based domestic server. No fan, no vacuum-cleaner effect, no accumulation of God knows what in its innards and no subsequent failure caused by a blocked heatsink.

  37. Repo

    Dell desktops...

    There's definately something about the design of the Dimension 4xxx, 8xxx and to a lesser extent the Dimension 9xxx series cases that causes them to block up with dust/animal fur pretty quickly. I don't think there is enough inlet as the 9xxx series also choke up with dust/fur around the optical drives too!

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