Hardware

Support PCs in the dirtiest of environments

Desktops are designed for use in relatively clean settings, but that doesn't mean computers can't function properly in dirtier settings. Keep your PCs up and running even in the harshest environments with advice from fellow TechRepublic members.


When you first decided to go into PC support, I'm sure you thought your time would be spent replacing problematic hardware/software and answering end-user questions. You probably didn't think your list of responsibilities would include dusting, vacuuming, or window washing. For the majority of techs, this holds true, but some support professionals face the challenges associated with industrial environments, such as machine shops and garages.

Computers in such settings get dirty incredibly fast and are subjected to high levels of physical strain. Find out what types of problems one member experiences in his shop and learn some tips for keeping machines in such environments free of debris and working properly.

A demanding environment requires special equipment
Member Srineer supports 40 remote offices, each with one to four PCs. As he states it, "The problem is dirt. I go through hardware fast. Every three to four months, I am replacing parts (these PCs are only one to two years old) covered in grime, dust, dirt, and stuff that I don't even want to know about."

Now that's a demanding environment. Srineer is already cleaning the computers once every couple of weeks using compressed air, but this isn't keeping the fans from gumming up or the power supplies from going dead. Srineer wants to know what additional measures he can take to prevent further damage and if there are specially manufactured PCs for such settings.

Build a better mousetrap
Srineer's first course of action could be to modify the equipment he currently supports. TheChas suggests, "Start by setting up the PCs so that you have a positive airflow into the case. You want the intake fan to have a minimum of 10 percent more airflow than all outlet fans combined. You may need to block some of the air vents on the case to accomplish this. Allow for the loss of airflow with a filter over the intake fan. Then, install a high-efficiency filter over the air intake. You may need to service the filters on a weekly basis, but it sure beats opening the case."

This modification will increase air circulation within the workstations and filter out dust before it has a chance to collect. This will help, but Srineer can do more. TheChas also suggests building PC cases for these harsh environments. He writes, "Set up one or both sides of the case with a mesh grill in front of a one-inch or two-inch furnace filter. You can use a foam insert to seal the cable inlet. Make a self-closing door for drive access. Make sure to leave at least two inches between the inside of the filter and the side of the PC cabinet for airflow."

Member dj61 adds, "I would also look into using some form of sealant or gaskets on all the seams in the case." These are wonderful tips and should help Srineer keep the PCs clean.

Buy a better mousetrap
If more than a do-it-yourself modification is required, Srineer might do better by turning to industrial PC manufacturers. Member j.a.lawrence believes the added cost of purchasing such "hardened" equipment pays off in the long run. "If you're replacing them [Srineer's PCs] that often, you should easily be able to justify purchasing 'industrially hardened' PCs. Our industry, process control, has some very harsh environments, and the industrial PCs hold up well."

TheChas echoes this comment: "While I have not seen them lately, there used to be some completely sealed keyboards with capacitive keys in place of moveable keys that were designed for harsh environments. Check the tool supply and industrial computer catalogs for these." SyscoKid concurs and asks, "How about buying some computer enclosures? There's an upfront cost, but they should pay for themselves in terms of maintenance costs."

Manufacturers that offer industrial computing solutions include:

Pro-Tech even offers a downloadable PowerPoint presentation that explains "how hazardous areas are defined and the means for placing PCs and panel mount terminals in these areas."

PC support: Survivor style
As a support tech, you aren't going to end up stuck on a remote island supporting PCs with makeshift tools crafted from coconut shells and bamboo shoots. But you could find yourself in a situation like Srineer's, where end users and the environment push hardware to the absolute limit. Just remember to bring your handy miniscrewdriver, compressed air gun, and antistatic premoistened wipes. You might just be in for some spring cleaning.

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