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To get rid of dust that had gathered near the fan, I put a vacuum cleaner to the air intake (with the computer turned off).

This removed the dust.

It also caused the fan to rotate at a fairly high speed. Quite faster than normal speed, judging from the sound.

Do I risk destroying stuff by doing this?

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I have done this before. I accidentally put the air compressor too close and I snapped one of the fins off when the tip of the nozzle hit the heatsink fan. Wasn't good. The thing vibrated like crazy when I powered it up, had to replace the fan. I still clean it this way and haven't had any issues thus far. –  qroberts Oct 14 '10 at 18:33

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You could damage the fan from spinning it that way. You could also damage many components in the PC using a vacuum cleaner - it generates a large amount of static electricity! You should NEVER use a vacuum on electronic equipment!

The proper thing to do would be to open the machine out and blow the dust free with non-static compressed air. (It's best to hold fans still rather than letting them spin freely for the same reason having the vacuum spin them up is bad, but very few people bother to do this because with quick bursts of air the odds are very slight.)

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Just curious, could enough air flow cause static to occur? –  qroberts Oct 14 '10 at 18:34
    
In theory, sure, especially depending on the ambient humidity and just how dusty the damned thing is. I wouldn't worry about it if you're just using compressed air though. –  Shinrai Oct 14 '10 at 18:37
    
Thanks, will try compressed air. –  codeape Oct 18 '10 at 7:29

I have been told that each motor of the PC's fans relies on bushings, that are built to tolerate a certain RPM. Exceeding that RPM, such as when large volumes flow, can reduce the life of the fans. In addition, off-center suction can place a tangential torque on the axle of the fan. So you do risk this kind of damage as well.

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Yes and no:

I have done it to many many machines and have not reduced the useful life of expensive fans.

You can definitely destroy a cheap fan very easily. For desktops, fans are easily replaced. For laptops...not so much.

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