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If Your Computer Can't Stand the Heat, by Thomas W. Shinder

Back in the "olden" days of computing, the mainframe systems and "minicomputers" in use were a bit more fragile and pampered than our modern PCs. A special concern of "computer people" was heat -- and special air conditioned rooms were built to house the systems, sometimes kept so frigid the people who worked there ended up wearing coats to work in the summertime. The old technology was prone to overheating, which could result in loss of precious data or even the destruction of machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (even though they had far less processing power than the under-$1000 boxes for sale everywhere today).

One of the selling points of personal computers, and one of the reasons they became so popular so fast, was the fact that you could run them at regular room temperature. No expensive meat-locker-cold computer room required. The chips generated relatively little heat; stick a two-inch fan on the processor and you didn't have to worry about monitoring a thermometer anymore.

Cool, huh? Well, yes -- and no. Hold your hand behind the power supply fan at the back of your computer sometime. You may find that the air coming out is warmer than you expected. Although manufacturers will boast that heat is not a problem with the new systems, that's not necessarily so. High speed processors, although the latest run much cooler than older ones, can still put out a lot of heat. Compound that with a multiplicity of add-on cards and peripherals, and cram it all together in a "mini-tower" case in the effort to take up less space on the desktop, and you've got the potential for trouble.

As Mark Minasi's PC Maintenance and Upgrade Guide says, "every electronic device carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. More than half the power given to chips is wasted for heat -- but heat destroys chips." Continual overheating may kill your computer gradually, or the processor may just fail one day and the computer won't boot. Either way, it probably could have been prevented.

You may think you don't have to worry about overheating because your processor chip has a fan sitting on top of it. Well, almost all systems come with a processor fan now, but unfortunately, the $5 fans supplied with most new PCs is not particularly reliable. Yet it is one of the most vital parts of the computer; if it dies, it's likely to take some of the system's most costly components with it. And the cheapie made-in-Taiwan fans do die.

So the first precaution: pay attention. You don't have to install a constant temperature monitoring probe inside your case (although they are available from places like Radio Shack for $20 or so and are certainly worth it just for the peace of mind) but at least be familiar with the normal sounds your computer makes. If suddenly it seems that's it's so much nicer and quieter than before, beware. That may mean your processor fan or the fan on your power supply has died. Also, check occasionally to see how that air being expelled from the rear feels on the back of your hand. If it's warmer than usual, or actually hot, you may need to shut the system down and open up the case and see if the fans are still running.

Pick a larger, roomier case if possible, where the components inside have room to "breathe." Some might be tempted to just leave the cover off, thinking the "innards" will stay cooler that way, exposed to the open air. But actually PC cases are engineered to provide for optimum air flow and ventilation, and may actually get hotter with the case left open.

What can you do, then, to keep your computer from dying of "heat stroke?" One thing is to install additional and/or better cooling units, especially if you add more drives, circuit boards, and chips. Large hard disks and CD ROM drives can build up a lot of heat. There are multi-fan cards available that fit into an empty slot and circulate more air, and for $25-40 you can even buy a tiny "air conditioner" to cool off your high-speed Pentium-class processor.

A good rule of thumb: don't run your PC in a place where the room temperature is so hot that you're uncomfortable. Remember that heat aids the corrosion process. Chips deteriorate slowly, but the hotter it is, the faster they corrode.

Direct sunlight isn't good for electronic equipment either. And laptops present special problems, such as being stuck in the oven-like trunk of a car for hours on end. And don't think you're safe leaving it there overnight in the wintertime -- if you do, and then bring it inside and turn it on, you may get condensation on the hard drive's platters and other problems related to the too-quick warming. Which brings us to:

Finally, guard against thermal shock. A PC is generally warmer on the inside than on the outside, so the effect of sudden changes in room temperature can become multiplied many times. This can disable the computer, due to expansion/contraction damage. This is one reason hardware experts and experienced PC users recommend leaving the system on 24 hours a day, seven days a week so that the temperature inside the system will be more constant.

You know the old saying: "some like it hot." Computers, in general -- though better able to withstand the tropics than they were twenty years ago -- don't.

Tom ShinderThomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P. is a neurologist-turned-computer systems engineer who practiced medicine in Texas, Oregon and Arkansas before moving to his present home in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas metropolitan area.

E-mail Thomas at:

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