Sometimes a certain noise—or lack thereof—can be the smoking gun when you troubleshoot a malfunctioning system. In this instance, the case fan was the problem, causing the server to overheat and work less efficiently. Here’s a good intro to troubleshooting overheating problems in your machines.

Listen and learn
Years ago, I knew just enough about computers to know when to call our in-house IT pro to fix any problems with our applications server.

One evening, the network seemed to be working erratically, and I tracked the IT guy down to tell him. He listened patiently and then I followed him to the glass room, where four PC servers were housed.

I had followed this fellow into the glass room dozens of times before, and he always went straight to the terminal of the two servers on the right, where he’d type in the DOS commands to pull up management software to check on either the application or file server for our department.

This time, however, as soon as we entered the cold room, he stopped and stood there like he was contemplating life’s great mysteries.

“This isn’t good,” he said, and as I started badgering him to explain, he walked around to the back of the server boxes and wiggled a finger at me to follow.

“What’s wrong here?” he asked me, pointing to the back panel of the server. I could see the fan blades of the case fan sitting still, and I told him so.

“That’s the problem,” he said. He pulled out a pen, stuck it through the fan grill, and gave the fan blades a little tap. As the fan whirled back into action, he took the side cover off the computer, and it stayed off until he could replace the fan the next day.

I’ve learned a lot about keeping computers cool in the years since this IT pro first showed me that stalled case fan, and here is some of what I found out.

A hot box is a big problem
I was amazed then at how quickly that old IT pro diagnosed our network problem, but eventually I learned that heat is an enemy to microprocessors. That IT pro had many years of experience, first on the big mainframe boxes and then with those PCs. When he entered the glass room he knew so well, he heard a difference in the fan noise.

That glass room was chilly for a good reason. Not only does heat cause processor errors and slow CPU functions, but it also speeds up the chip’s deterioration and causes corrosion.

Computers work best at the cooler end of a 65- to 110-degree range, but you’ve got a lot of heat generators in a computer’s box. These include:

  • The CPU
  • RAM
  • Some hard drive and CD drive motors
  • High performance video cards
  • Power supplies

If you want to know more about the effects of heat on your computer, read Kyle Harmon’s article “Why is it important to keep your computer cool?” and Ed Engelking’s “How do you cool your computers?”

Your biggest heat generator, as anyone who has ever overclocked one can tell you, is the CPU. There are a number of things you can do to cool a CPU, as you can read in “The hot chips need cooler fans.”

Here’s what you can do about a hot machine
Not everyone has an overly air-conditioned, glass room to house their servers in. The major computer manufacturers design their systems to provide adequate cooling in the box, but when those machines get out into the field, it’s going to be the support department that has to adjust for the conditions those computers end up in.

There are a few things you can do to help your computers operate as cool as possible:

  • Keep them in cooler places, if possible.
  • Make sure the case fans are not up against a wall or other obstructions.
  • Inside the computer, make sure ribbon cables and other gear don’t cover ventilation holes in the case.
  • Keep the fans clean, oiled, and free of debris.
  • Vacuum and use compressed air, in combination, to remove dust from inside the computer.
  • While you are cleaning out the insides of the computer, start it up before you put the cover back on and check that all the fans are working properly.
  • Listen and learn what your computers sound like when their fans are operating normally, so like the old pro in this article, you’ll know when they aren’t.

Deal with extreme conditions
If you have to place a computer in a hot environment, you might want to consider building one from scratch so that you can buy a custom case with a greater number of fans. Many of these custom cases boast filters that can be easily replaced and will keep dust and dirt out of the inner workings.

You can also find kits that help you convert your current boxes into miniature wind tunnels.

Some sites that may be useful in your research are:

  • Cooler Master, which features all-aluminum cases.
  • CoolerGuys, which sells an array of cooling products, including modified boxes, slot fans, and fan filters.
  • 2CoolTek, which offers how-to articles and other cooling resources, along with info on its cooling products.

Keep it cool

What do you do to keep your computers running as cool as possible? Have you ever been perplexed by an operational problem and then found that a fan had quit? Tell us what you think in the discussion below or send us a note.