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Why Computers Hate the Valley Summer

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 2007 Issue
April 4, 2007

Why Computers Hate the Valley Summer

Summer is nearly here and I’m already worried about the heat. More specifically, I’m worried about the heat and my computer systems.

Computers hate warm temperatures, even though you can use some systems as space heaters during the winter months. How can anything so hot hate summer days?

Typical computer chips are not very efficient. While electricity powers millions of transistors in a processor or memory chip, most of the energy is lost as heat. As a computer warms, it becomes even less efficient. This is because heat increases electrical resistance… causing more heat! So, though computers don’t like heat, they create it.  Eventually, the ever-increasing resistance interrupts data flow and serious data loss occurs. In the worst cases, chips literally “fry” and motherboards melt.

As a technician, I have seen melted parts first-hand. When I ask if the system had been acting strangely, the client’s answer is predictable. “It was crashing a lot all day.”

Before a system gets so hot it melts, the odds are it will develop the nasty habit of restarting on its own. It might also “crash” or “lock” (ironically known as “freezing”) and not respond to anything but holding down the power button. Newer computer systems route the power switch through the motherboard, meaning a power or heating problem is more likely to destroy components. In the worst instances, I’ve had to unplug a computer because the button on the case did nothing.

Windows machines might display a blue screen with an error message when memory has been affected by heat. Apple’s OS X has been known to report “kernel panic” errors when a system overheats. Regardless of your operating system, you end up losing work and having to restart once a computer is overheated. If you keep encountering errors and think it might be due to heat, there are ways to check.

The easiest way to resolve a problem with heat is to clean any exposed cooling vents. I’ve seen pet hair and dust completely cover a fan opening. Even if they aren’t obvious, most computers have ventilation holes or slots. Make sure the computer has room around it, allowing air to flow through the case. Wait for an hour or more before using the system again. If the problem goes away, it was heat related.

If a simple cleaning doesn’t resolve the issue, you can install software to check the temperature of various components.

For Windows and Linux users, some motherboard manufacturers include software to display sensor readings. A simple Windows utility that reports cooling issues is SpeedFan (http://www.almico.com/speedfan.php). PC Wizard is another free utility that will also report sensor readings, including temperatures (http://www.cpuid.org/pcwizard). For Macintosh users, I suggest the appropriately named “Temperature Monitor” from Marcel Bresink (http://www.bresink.com/products.html).

When I was an undergraduate, I worked in a large computer center. The computers were in a clean white room that remained 65 degrees at all times. Air conditioning entered through the ceiling and floor, and massive pipes filled with refrigerant ran through the huge mainframe computers to keep them cool. And still, systems would overheat.

Personal computers don’t generate quite the same amount of heat, but they are still difficult to cool. The most noticeable technology is the annoying, omnipresent cooling fan. The first IBM personal computers had two fans: one for the power transformer and another aimed at the motherboard. Today, you can purchase a system with seven or more fans, each one trying to keep the temperatures inside a computer from reaching the somewhat literal melting point.

This means you’re constantly trying to cool a device that seems to want to overheat.

Full-size PCs generate from 140 to 350 watts of heat energy, depending on a lot of factors. Small computers with minimal features are at the low end of this scale. Most of us won’t settle for slow but energy efficient computers. We want speed, hard drive space for our music collections, and great graphics for games (or work). Higher speed computers, with more memory, larger hard drives, and expensive graphics cards generate as much heat as three people.

That’s right, people. We each add heat to our environment. An average adult human generates 115 watts of heat energy, which is why a crowded elevator feels hot. As an example of how natural heating affects us, three hundred people in a small theater measuring 100 feet by 60 feet will raise the temperature nearly two degrees over an hour. A computer is much hotter than any person.

How do we deal with this heat? Air-conditioning. I’ve been in offices that need to run in the air in December because of the heat generated by electronic devices.

The problem in the Central Valley is that we seem to tolerate higher temperatures than most people. That’s fine for people, but bad for computers. Most computer manuals claim 50 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit is a safe range for equipment. The reality is that computer manufacturers assume an office will be from 65 to 75 degrees. Do you really keep your home or office below 75 degrees?

My apartment is often 80 degrees or warmer in the summer. Even at that temperature, our air conditioning seldom cycles off — and I blame the computers and printers.

Our tower system runs very hot. It has a fan on the CPU, a fan for the transformer, a high-end video card with a pair of small fans, and two exhaust fans. The case displays two temperatures: motherboard and internal air. The air temperature stays above 130 degrees and the motherboard is always ten degrees or more higher. Until recently, we had two such systems, as well as a two iMacs and a laptop.

Yes, we really would have four computers on for two people. That’s the heat of fourteen people in a small apartment!

Using a laptop is a little better than most desktop computers because laptops tend to use slower, cooler computer chips and slower components. The idea is to consume as little power as possible, mainly to conserve battery life. But my laptop system averages 120 to 135 degrees internally. The case gets plenty warm, too, with an average temperature in the high 80s. As I write this, my laptop is 143 degrees and the case is 102!

You can buy “cooling stands” for laptops, and I strongly recommend them. Laptops are designed to be rugged, but heat is a weakness for even the best built system. A cooling stand lets air flow under the laptop, while also proving a tilted surface for typing comfort. Targus makes a stand with two fans, available for under $50.

Remember, summer temps might be an unpleasant part of Valley life, but don’t let warm days kill your computer.

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