How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC

How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC

Can you remember the last time you cleaned your desktop PC? I don’t mean wiping some guacamole off the the side of the case during a burrito binge. I’m talking about going in there and really getting all the accumulated dust out of your expensive parts (and fans). Spring cleaning your system isn’t hard to do, but it’s critical to your system’s longevity — and helps your computer look a lot less gross.

Prepping your spring cleaning shopping list

You don’t need a lot of supplemental stuff to give your desktop system a thorough cleaning, nor do you need to blow a ton of money at the store. To clean my desktop PC — which I probably haven’t opened up in more than a year — here’s what I purchased:

  • 99% Isopropyl Alcohol — $9 at JayCar
  • Q-tips Generic cotton swabs — $3, grocery store
  • A microfiber rag — $12 on Amazon for a 24-pack
  • Compressed air — $10 on Officeworks for 400mL
  • Arctic MX-4 thermal paste — $11-13 at places like Mwave
  • Some kind of cleaning solution — I use Puracy’s Natural Multi-Surface Cleaner, but you’d be fine with just Windex, or even the rubbing alcohol you just purchased

That’s it!

Let’s take a look at my desktop PC’s gross exterior

My gaming desktop is housed inside of an older NZXT H440 chassis. This case — built for silence — comes with a number of narrow ventilation slots around its top and sides. Here’s what happens when you forget about them for a decent length of time:

Since my case is white, a fatal flaw on my part, it’s also a magnet for smudges, grime, cat hair, and dust. Lucky me:

How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC
On the plus side, the case’s top is still pretty reflective, even when dusty. (Photo: David Murphy)

On the plus side, the case’s top is still pretty reflective, even when dusty.

And, of course, there are all the regular nooks and crannies that dust loves to hang out in — and some not-so-regular places too, like the two rubber grommets on the case’s rear, which I’m sure I’ll use for a fancy water-cooling setup someday. Maybe.

Cleaning the exterior of your desktop PC

Tempting as it is to bust out the Shop-Vac and go to town on the exterior of my case, that only gets rid of loose dust. For a pristine PC, you’re going to need to give your chassis a little handheld TLC. First, power down your system and unplug all of its connections, and then drag it out from under your desk. Break out your cleaner and your microfiber rag and start going over as much of the case’s exterior as you can.

How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC
🎵 Friends forever / With you everywhere 🎵 (Photo: David Murphy)

???? Friends forever / With you everywhere ????

At this stage, it’s generally safe to spray the cleaner on a larger section of a panel and wipe around. I tend to avoid spraying near the case’s ventilation grills or any external connections. I don’t want to get cleaner anywhere it could possibly do harm, and I’ll get to both of those in a bit anyway. This case comes with a few nooks and crannies that require a little extra manoeuvring beyond a standard “wax on, wax off” move.

For your case’s nooks and crannies, switch to the cotton swabs. It’s annoying detail work, sure, but taking some time to really tidy up all the unpleasant corners of your case will make it look great. You’d detail your car to make it all pretty and clean; why not your poor computer?

Cleaning your PC’s exterior — the advanced edition

You’ve wiped down all the external parts of your PC that you can see, so you’re done, right? Nope. Not even close.

This next trick might not apply to most people, but if you have a case whose front panel snaps off — ideally, concealing a fan or two (or three) behind it — it’s time to gently pop the front panel off and do some more cleaning. I can’t stress the word gently enough. The last thing you want to do is break off your front panel because you were a bit overeager at removing it.

How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC
Gently! (Photo: David Murphy)


In the case of the NZXT H440 chassis — pun unintended — you’ll find a giant, three-fan dust filter behind the front panel, which is a little dusty itself. Wiping down the rear of the front panel is easy. Just give it a little TLC from your cloth and cleaner. If you haven’t touched your system in a while, the dust filter will probably look like mine did: gross. Don’t bother ruining your cloth trying to wipe this up. Take this sucker right to the sink and give it a bath.

Before you put that dust filter back on, now’s a great time to clean any case fans it was protecting. To do this, open up your rubbing alcohol, dip your rag or cotton swabs, carefully put a finger (or a pen or pencil) into the clearing between two of the fan blades so your fan doesn’t spin around unnecessarily as you’re cleaning, and gently wipe between the blades. You’ll be surprised at the gunk you’ll be able to extract.

Once you’re done with your fans, give your case’s front one good wipe with your rag (that you’ve already sprayed some cleaner on), and put your front panel back on. If your case supports it, pop off its top panel and get ready for a similar routine. For my H440, that consisted of wiping down as much of the case’s top as I could with a rag and cleaner, and then using the “dip a cotton swab in the rubbing alcohol” technique to clean around its USB connections. After that, I gave the USB ports a few blasts of compressed air to get rid of any lingering dust — and to give the area an even quicker dry.

Slap your case’s top panel back on and remove its side panel — the right one, as you’re facing your system head-on.

Cleaning the inside of your messy desktop PC

Finally, we’ve (almost) reached your system’s guts. Its core. Its big electronic hamster wheel. Whatever you want to call it. Now that you’ve popped off your case’s side panel, here’s a quick list of places you might wan to clean (and you can probably just get away with using a rag you’ve sprayed with cleaner, so long as you’re avoiding components (like your hard drives) and connections:

  • The rear of the motherboard tray
  • Any cracks or crevasses between the side panel and your hard drive bays or the motherboard tray
  • Your system’s cables (gently run your rag up and down each one, making sure not to tug them)
  • The inside of your case’s side panel
  • Empty drive trays
  • Around your hard drives (if your cloth is dry)

When you’re done, put your case’s side panel back on. You’re almost finished cleaning!

How to clean the real inside of your desktop PC

Here we go here we go here we go. Take off your system’s left panel. With a quick spritz of your cleaner, wipe it down with your cleaning cloth. That’s the easiest part of this, your final stage of spring cleaning. Set it aside.

How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC
It’s especially important to keep your case’s side window clean, if it has one. A dusty side window doesn’t make for a very sexy-looking system. (Screenshot: David Murphy)

It’s especially important to keep your case’s side window clean, if it has one. A dusty side window doesn’t make for a very sexy-looking system.

Actually, cleaning this side of your system — the guts — is easier than you think. For any areas that aren’t too close to your components, just spray your cloth with cleaner and wipe them down. It’s the same technique you used when cleaning the right side of your chassis.

To clean your system’s rear case fan, you can also just do what you did when cleaning the fans on the front of your case: wipe as much as you can with your cloth, then switch to your cleaner and some cotton swabs to really get in there.

Dusty, expensive electronics, like the top of your graphics card or its fans, require a little more care. Use cotton swabs dipped in your rubbing alcohol to wipe off dust and grime. You probably won’t have that much to deal with on your motherboard itself, but rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs should also allow you to address any issues you see. It’s easy.

Bonus time: Replacing your CPU’s thermal paste

You probably don’t have to do this step, but I’m going to throw it in for anyone who really wants to go the extra mile during their spring cleaning session. When I built my PC however long ago, I just used Intel’s default cooler for my CPU; thermal paste and all. It’s been a number of years, and while the thermal paste still probably does a decent job helping to transfer heat away from my processor to its heatsink, a cheap aftermarket solution could probably do a little better — ensuring the longevity of my system and, hopefully, a slightly quieter system.

Popping off an Intel cooler is easy. Just look for the four push pins, turn them in the opposite directions of their printed-on arrows, and pull them up slightly. Once all four corners are free, you can easily remove the cooler.

To clean all the old thermal paste off your CPU (and the underside of the cooler), just use your rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs. You’ll be surprised at how easily it comes off.

Adding new thermal paste is just as easy. Squeeze out about a pea-sized worth right in the center of your CPU, and then reattach your cooler. It will be a tight squeeze between the cooler’s plate and your CPU, which will ensure that the paste gets evenly spread around your processor. No need to do that part yourself.

And that’s it! Your system is now free of dust; your CPU (hopefully) runs a little cooler; and you can now go to your favourite calendar (or calendar app), pick a date about six months out for a quick spot check of your system’s dust levels, and show off your pretty-as-new PC to all of your friends.

Oh, and before you put your PC back to wherever you usually stash it under your desk, don’t forget to vacuum (or wipe down) the area it previously took up — no sense putting a freshly cleaned PC back on top of a bunch of dust. Yuck.

How To Clean Your Dusty, Messy Desktop PC
Dust, dust, everywhere. Time to get out the vacuum. (Photo: David Murphy)

Dust, dust, everywhere. Time to get out the vacuum.

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