Remember best practices for opening a machine

If you've been rooting around in computer cases for a while, you've probably established your own methods for getting the job done. You may be risking more than you think if you've strayed from basic, time-honed principles.

The Hippocratic oath may have been written long, long ago to ensure the proper conduct of physicians, but support professionals should take note of the venerable pledge’s admonition to “do no harm.”

That’s not always an easy task when much of your open-machine surgery is performed at the cluttered desks of hapless end users. These conditions are often complicated by the fact that there’s typically carpeting on the floors and frost inside the windows.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to remember that there are certain accepted best practices for cracking the case and working on computer components, including:
  • Preparing for the unexpected by backing up data and recording configurations
  • Turning off and unplugging all related equipment
  • Using the appropriate tool for the task
  • Doing what you can to reduce the risk of electrostatic discharge (ESD)

Preparing the patient
Before you can cure an ill computer or open it up to upgrade its capabilities with new cards or chips, there are a few things that you should do to prepare your patient—and yourself.

If the situation allows, it is best to back up the data on the computer to another storage device or medium. This ought to be part of the standard operating procedures with any organization’s computers, but if the IT staff isn’t doing it, you can bet the end users haven’t done it for themselves.

You might want to record the vital stats for the hard drive or drives on the machine along with all of the BIOS settings. These are details that will come in handy if you have to give it a lobotomy, or it blows up on you.

In the medical profession, doctors will wash their hands and put on sanitized attire before the operation. Support techs need to prepare themselves for operating on a computer’s inner workings as well.

Among the things you should do is tie any loose hair back out of your face. Watches, rings, bracelets, and long necklaces should be removed to prevent them from being damaged or conducting an electrical charge.

Uncontrolled electrical charges are something to be wary of while working on a computer. After you have shut down the computer, many people recommend unplugging the equipment. Some OEMs may recommend that you leave it plugged in so that the equipment remains grounded through the power cord.

Either way, be careful of what you touch within the bowels of the machine because there are components, such as capacitors, that store electricity and can cause a fatal electrical shock under the right conditions.

Opening the patient up
Once you are working inside the computer, it is important to use the appropriate tool for the job and avoid adding an electrical charge to the system via static electricity.

Much of what needs to be done in the computer can be accomplished with either a flat- or Phillips-head screwdriver. Screwdrivers without magnetic heads are best suited for the job because a magnetized object can damage integrated circuit boards.

Force should always be avoided when dealing with components within the computer’s box. When faced with a stubborn chip or board, the best way to remove it is to work it loose through a back-and–forth motion while holding the card by its edges.

If you are working on a computer that you haven’t worked with before, you might want to sketch drawings of which wires plug into which sockets and where the number one wire in ribbon cables is connected. If you are installing new components, use the static-free bag the component came in to hold the component that is removed.

Avoid placing cards on monitors, which are infamous sources of static discharges and magnetic fields. Also, if you must stack cards, make sure you put something, such as foam, between them to prevent scratches.

There are a number of things you should do to prevent transferring static electricity from your skin to electrical components. Remember, if you can feel a static shock, the voltage of the static electricity you have stored on your body is many times what is needed to harm electronic components.

To prevent electrostatic discharges, you should:
  • Use a grounding mat on your workbench.
  • Wear a grounding strap when you can (the exception being if you are working on a monitor or the inner workings of power supply where the grounding strap could be a lightning rod for discharges from the powerful capacitors that are present in both devices).
  • If you don’t have a grounding strap handy, leave the equipment off, but plugged in, and touch the computer chassis frequently.
  • Don’t touch equipment if either you or it has just come from a cold, low-humidity environment.

Leave component cards in their static-free bags until you need them and then handle them only by their edges, avoiding the edge contacts.

How do you ensure survival?
Do you have any favorite operating procedures when you are working on the guts of a machine? Share them with your peers! Tell us what you think in the discussion below or send us a note.


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