Learning how to clean your gaming PC isn’t quite as exciting as learning how to install one of the best graphics cards or CPUs, but it’s a valuable skill to have.
If you’ve never cracked open your computer case for cleaning before, you might be surprised at just how much dust is caked between your fan blades and various components.
Unless there’s an enormous build-up of dust, having a grubby tower likely won’t affect airflow and component temperatures too much, but it can reduce the lifespan of these components.
Perhaps more importantly, having a squeaky-clean computer just feels good, and if you have a windowed side-panel it will look better, too.
Cleaning your computer can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. If you’re happy with the results of a quick blitz with compressed air, then you can get it all over and done with in less than a minute. But if you want to go all-out, you might consider removing your graphics card and CPU and really get in those nooks and crannies with an anti-static brush.
Tools for cleaning your computer
You shouldn’t clean your computer with the same tools that you use to clean your bathroom. You’ll be dealing with sensitive electrical components, so it’s best to air on the side of caution and do things properly. If you want to go all-out for a deep clean, here are some tools you might need:
- Cannister of compressed air
- Anti-static brush
- Anti-static cloth
- Anti-static wristband
- Phillips screwdriver
- Thermal paste remover
- Thermal paste
That’s everything you should need for a deep clean. For most cleans, though, all you’ll need is a can of compressed air. Anti-static brushes and cloths can be useful for dislodging particularly stubborn dust, but most of the time compressed air will work fine on its own.
How to ground yourself while cleaning your PC
When dealing with your computer’s internals, you run the risk of electrostatic discharge (ESD). ESD occurs when a surface’s ‘charge’ of static electricity contacts another conductive surface, and the charges of both materials attempt to equalise. In other words, it’s when static electricity discharges from one surface to another.
The real risk of ESD when cleaning your PC isn’t that it might hurt you – after all, hopefully your PC is turned off and there’s little voltage running through it – rather it’s that you might damage your components. If you’re statically charged and then touch a sensitive piece of circuitry inside your PC, this could damage it. And, importantly, this damage might be ‘latent’, meaning you don’t notice it for a long time.
Because of this risk, grounding yourself is important when tinkering inside your PC. Grounding yourself means giving static electricity an easy path towards ‘ground’. To ground yourself, you can use an anti-static wrist strap and connect this to a ground.
Keeping constantly grounded like this is best, but if you don’t have a grounding device, just touching something that’s grounded every now and then usually works. For example, touching a plugged-in (but turned off) PSU should ground you if its metal isn’t coated in too much paint. If you’re not constantly grounded, you should ground yourself in this way just before working on your PC’s internals, and every now and then following that.
1. Move your PC for ventilation
If you haven’t cleaned your gaming PC in a while, it’s a given that you’re going to get dust everywhere. Cleaning your PC essentially means taking all the dust that’s caked inside your tower and blowing it out. Because of this, the first thing you should do is turn off your PC, unplug it, and move it to a spot that’s well ventilated, or which you don’t mind getting dusty and then vacuuming.
If it’s a dry day you can clean it outside. If not, you can move it to your garage, or to a less-used room with the windows open. It’ll be easier to clean if it’s placed on a raised surface like a desk or table, too.
2. Remove and clean side panels and dust filters
You should start by removing your case’s side panels – and its front panel, if possible. You should also remove any dust filters that come with your case – these are often on the front, top, and bottom of the tower. Once these are removed, you can brush them and then blow compressed air over them to push the dust off.
When using compressed air, hold the can upright so that liquid doesn’t come out, and if the can starts getting cold let it rest for 30 seconds or so before spraying again. You should also keep the compressed air cannister a short distance away from the motherboard and other PCBs to reduce the risk of blowing off one of its small, soldered components.
3. Remove and clean your graphics card (optional)
It’s a little easier to clean your graphics card and its surrounding areas if you remove it, but this isn’t usually necessary. To remove the graphics card, first unplug its power cables and unscrew it from the tower’s back panel. Then, push down the PCIe latch that’s keeping it attached, and pull the graphics card up out of the PCIe socket.
One your graphics card is removed you can clean it. Brush the fan blades to dislodge any dust, and then spray the dust away as gently as possible, trying to prevent the fans from spinning too much. You can also spray into the graphics card, but you should try and do this in the direction of airflow. This will loosen any dust caught inside, which your graphics card should blow out when its fans start up.
4. Remove and clean your CPU cooler (optional)
If your CPU’s temperatures are fine, you should avoid removing and reseating the CPU cooler if possible, because thermal paste lasts a long time. However, if you need to reapply thermal paste, or if removing the cooler will make cleaning it and the surrounding parts of the motherboard much easier, you can carefully remove the cooler and set it to one side to clean separately.
To clean the CPU cooler, you should remove the fan before brushing between the heatsink’s fins to dislodge any dust, then blow it with compressed air. You should also brush and blow dust away from the fan’s fins.
If you’ve removed the cooler to clean it, you should reapply thermal paste to the CPU before you reinstall it. To do this, carefully wipe the paste off the CPU and the heatsink’s base plate with an anti-static cloth – or, if you’re careful, a paper towel. If needed, you can wipe the lid of the CPU and the base plate of the heatsink with thermal paste remover or isopropyl alcohol and then let it dry.
Once the cooler’s base plate and CPU’s lid are clean and dry, add a pea-sized drop of thermal paste to the lid of the CPU, then press the heatsink down onto it and secure it to the motherboard’s backplate. If you still need to attach the fan, you can do this now.
5. Clean dust from your motherboard and case
Now you can get to de-dusting the bulk of your tower’s internals. If your graphics card is removed this should be easier, and doubly so if your CPU cooler is removed. Hold your can of compressed air a few inches away from whatever PCB or component you’re aiming at and go to town.
Try to blow as much dust as possible out of the case with just the compressed air. Remember to hold the cannister upright and try to aim it so that dust will be directed towards either of the open sides of the case. Following this, if there’s dust that just won’t budge, use an anti-static brush to dislodge the dust gently and carefully, then blow with the can again.
Don’t forget to dust your case fans and the case itself, getting into all the oft-forgotten crevices and corners. You can also blow air into the PSU from a few inches away in the direction of airflow. This will dislodge dust that the PSU fans should then blow out the exhaust.
6. Put your computer back together
After admiring your hard work, you can put your PC back together. If you removed your CPU cooler and haven’t yet reinstalled it, now is the time to do so (described in step 4 above). Now’s the time to install your graphics card again, too. Slot it back into its PCIe slot, screw it securely to the case’s expansion insert, plug its power cables back in, and you’re good to go.
Once your components are back how they were, you can fit your side and front panels back on, and you’re as good as new. You can move your PC back to its rightful place and get to work vacuuming the room of all the dust you left behind.