If you have ever worked on your own computer or watched someone else do it, you may be familiar with using a can of pressurized air to blow dust off the circuitry. Also known as an aerosol duster or air duster, it is more effective than vacuuming and with less risk to tiny circuits.
What’s Wrong with Canned Air?
I could never bring myself to pay money for a can of air. Besides my initial reaction that buying air in a can is simply silly, the manufacture and recycling (once the pressure is released) are worse than just a waste of energy and resources.
Canned air not only contains air, but also propellants that can harm the ozone layer. For example, Chemtronics list five commonly-used propellants in their article, “Ultimate Guide to ‘Canned Air’ / Aerosol Dusters.” The safest of these is carbon dioxide, but that is also, unfortunately, the least effective for maintaining enough pressure in the can.
Where is the Harm in a Little Dust?
Aerosol dusters are popular because removing dust can save you money and in rare cases, even save your life.
In general, dust poses a risk to computers and peripheral devices in several ways:
- Overheating: Accumulated dust can clog up the fans and air vents that help regulate the temperature of the components. This can cause components to overheat, potentially causing system crashes, data loss, or even permanent hardware damage.
- Short circuits: Dust that has settled on exposed circuitry can create an electrical short circuit, causing a device to malfunction. In extreme cases, it can even cause a fire.
- Corrosion: Dust can contain corrosive particles that may damage the metal contacts on connectors and other components, causing them to malfunction or fail.
- Performance degradation: Dust can create extra friction in moving parts, such as fans and disk drives, causing them to heat up, slow down or fail prematurely.
You can minimize these risks by keeping computers and peripheral devices clean and free of dust. Regular vacuuming on and around the outside of the computer will lower the amount of dust that gets sucked inside when the computer’s cooling fan comes on. Any time you open the computer, use an air pump to blow out dust from hard-to-reach areas.
Advantages of Air Pumps
- Environmental Impact: As already mentioned, aerosol dusters usually contain propellants that harm the ozone layer. In contrast, a hand pump does not emit any harmful substances, while emissions due to the use of an electric pump are mostly at the site generating electricity and do not include substances that attack the ozone layer directly, unlike many propellants.
- Health Considerations: Many air dusters release harmful chemicals and irritants, which can be harmful if inhaled. Using a pump does not pose these inhalation health risks.
- Practicality: Both a hand pump and canned air can be used anywhere, but the latter is limited by the amount of compressed air stored in the can, which will run out after a certain number of uses. The can does have the advantage over many pumps of needing no attached hose, which is one reason air dusters are popular. However, there are battery-powered hand-held air pumps which can be just as convenient, often with rechargeable batteries that will long outlast the air in a can. Some are made specifically for use on PC’s. You can quickly find examples by searching for “electric compressed air duster cleaner for PC” at Amazon, Walmart or elsewhere. (Full disclosure: These are not affiliate links. Not worth my time to bother with those here.)
- Convenience: You will have to buy canned air more often, taking extra time. Furthermore, waste management companies will not take pressurized cans because of a heightened risk of injury when they are crushed or heated. Once the air does not have enough pressure to be useful, you will have to release what pressure is left and then recycle the can.
- Cost-Effectiveness: The air for a pump will never run out and costs you nothing, though of course the pump itself is not (usually) free. Most air duster cans are not refillable. A pump can be used until it breaks or wears out, far, far outlasting a can of air and well worth the initial investment. You can often save even more money by repairing a broken pump with a new part that costs far less than a whole new pump.
- Versatility: A pump can be used to pump up bicycle tires, balls, and other inflatable objects, while a canned air is much more limited in its use.
My Dirty Keyboard
Here is a personal example of how dirt or dust can cause hardware to malfunction and how I fixed it with my bicycle pump. I have had three particular keys in my favorite old ergonomic keyboard stop working three times now. I attached a ball pump adaptor on the end of my bicycle pump to blow out dust from underneath the malfunctioning keys. This worked very well because the adaptor is thin enough to fit between keys and focus the air from the pump into a powerful thin blast.
The first two times, my air blasting technique worked immediately and lasted over a year until the problem returned. I just blasted under the keys again today. At first nothing had changed, but just now that I am writing about it, those keys are suddenly working again. I must have moved some obstacle just enough that a little more movement from pressing keys finally knocked it away. Eventually I may have to take the keyboard apart, but for now, a little air has proved its value once again.
Air pumps can be as convenient as aerosol dusters and are more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly. Use an air pump to blow dust off of circuitry the next time you have a chance.
In spite of all your efforts, when the cat sits on the keyboard, dirt will fall between the keys. Try pumping air there, ideally with the keyboard upside down or on its side so that the dirt you blow out stays out. This little blast of air may save you extra work or extra expense. It would be a shame to dispose of a keyboard that might be fixed so easily. Likewise, keeping your computer as dust-free as possible will help keep your computer working as long as possible.