Cats Clogging Computers

  • Dander from pets and household dust are the enemy of keeping computers cool. (Photo by Mattes - creative commons license)

You probably know to let your computer go to sleep when you’re not using it to save energy. Your monitor at work might be set to shut off automatically, but as Ann Dornfeld reports, your computer’s energy efficiency may have an unexpected enemy – your pets.

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Alex Mamishev is an electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington. He says modern computers have a lot of energy-saving features built in. Like screens that dim when you aren’t using them, and hibernation mode as the default setting, but he says despite these high-tech strides toward energy efficiency, some decidedly low-tech things can mess it all up. Like pillows, and pet hair. That’s because they can block the vents to the computers internal fans.

“When the computer gets clogged, the fans have to work harder. If you put a computer on a – a laptop on a pillow, for example, and leave it on a pillow for a while it’ll overheat and eventually stop.”

Dust can block the vents, too. When your computer’s vents get blocked, the fans can run constantly. Mamishev says that’s a big energy suck.

“It could, depending where you are, how expensive energy is, could add several hundred dollars per year to an energy bill.”

“Several hundred dollars per year?”


Mamishev says the bigger the processor, the more easily a computer overheats. So he doesn’t worry about his tiny netbook like he does his heavy-duty office computer.

“My five-year-old has even more powerful computer for his gaming. Typical, the child has the most powerful computer in the house.”

Mamishev says office computers don’t tend to get as dusty as home computers because offices are often vacuumed frequently.

“I have very clean office here. There are books, it’s only me here usually. Household is different. I know that at my home, this backside of computer looks horrible.”

One reason? Cats.

“Pets are typically drawn to the warmth of the computer, and the hair definitely clogs up the filter.”

“So if when you come home from work your cat is sleeping on your laptop you might want to vacuum it.”

“Vacuum the cat?”

“It’s a start.”

Mamishev says vacuuming is actually the best way to clean dust and pet hair out of your computer’s vents. You can even buy a tiny vacuum that plugs into your computer’s USB port, but Mamishev says a regular vacuum should work fine.

My friend Andrea and I gave it a shot.

“Okay, so we have one laptop with a loud fan and some dust in the vent holes… our upright vacuum, our wand and the little brush that came with it, and we’re just going to hold it up to the vents…”

(sound of vacuuming)

“What do you think? Is that good enough?

“Does that look cleaner? I dunno! Oh yeah, it is cleaner! It looks cleaner.”

“So we can go take ourselves out to dinner and celebrate, right?”

“With the extra money we’re gonna save now. (laughs) Right. (laughs) Drinks on me!”

Along with vacuuming your computer’s vents, Alex Mamishev says you should keep the computer in a well-ventilated area. That means placing your tower computer away from heaters, and letting air circulate around it. For laptops, avoid setting them on soft surfaces like the bed or sofa for long periods. Mamishev says there’s another way to make your computer more energy efficient. Just turn it off.

I’m Ann Dornfeld.

I ran this idea by our systems administrator, Rusty Brach, and he says it is safe to vacuum the outside case of your computer and the keyboard.  But he says you want to use extreme caution before you vacuum the inside of your computer.  If you do that, you’ll want to use a small, battery powered vacuum, ground yourself and be very careful. The static electricity could nuke your hard drive, so be careful!  If this makes you a little bit nervous, you can also use canned air on the inside and the outside of your computer.  You can get more advice on vacuuming your computer at environment report dot org.  I’m Rebecca Williams.