Take the 2-minute tour ×
Super User is a question and answer site for computer enthusiasts and power users. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I bought a spray bottle of isopropyl alcohol, but I'm having a hard time to figure out how to use it to clean my computer.

My two concerns are:

  1. Can I just spray it onto the motherboard? Or should I apply it to something else (i.e. a paper towel)?
  2. Which parts of my computer should I NOT clean using isopropyl alcohol?

I have tried to do some research, but it looks like there's not much out there. However, I did find this pretty good video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BovgvppZX4k

Is there a proper way of cleaning computer components using isopropyl alcohol?

share|improve this question
9  
I usually clean my computer using compressed air as the only dirt that really gets in is dust. I would only use isopropyl alcohol for parts have hard to remove dirt on them like thermal paste. It should also be noted, that isopropyl alcohol can be dangerous in conjunction with heat, so be VERY sure to let the computer dry sufficiently before reassembling it and turning it back on, especially if you've used it on "hot parts" like CPU or heat sink. –  Janoszen May 22 '13 at 8:00
    
Thanks for the warning, I never thought it could happen something like that. –  user658091 May 22 '13 at 8:16
    
Isopropyl alcohol, in the most commonly available form, is 30 percent water. I don't know about isopropyl itself, but water is a conductor (especially when dirty). So never put the stuff on "live" hardware. In addition, of course, it's poisonous and flammable. (Why do you feel your computer needs cleaning anyway?) –  Daniel R Hicks Sep 2 '13 at 3:29
    
@KronoS: When writing a blogpost you probably want some "official" sources, too. So the Material Safety Data Sheet will be a good starting point, which (of course) refers to the pure substance. Important is the section "Precautions for safe handling", and IMHO especially "Avoid inhalation of vapour or mist." which "may cause drowsiness or dizziness" when using some spraying method without sufficient air ventilation. –  mpy Sep 2 '13 at 11:08

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It should be okay to clean all of your computer with isopropyl alchohol. The alchohol vaporises at room temperature, so just make sure it is completely dry before connecting the power again. I'd be carefull which paper towels you use, as some paper towels tend to leave behind small traces of paper.

I usually use a cotton but when cleaning my computers.

share|improve this answer
3  
Generally speaking, you should spray onto the cloth, not the object to be cleaned. This prevents excess liquids from building up and running into places it should not go. –  Keltari Aug 29 '13 at 14:55
1  
It is ok to use high concentrate rubbing alcohol. (91% or higher). Avoid lower mixes because they contain a significant amount of water which can corrode components. –  spuder Sep 2 '13 at 4:30

If you're using high purity isopropyl alcohol, the advantages are that it is non conductive (being a non polar solvent), is not terribly reactive with the things you'd normally find in a computer, and generally dries fast. Water is a polar solvent, so you don't want to be using it in computers in larger quantities. 70% seems to be what people use, but you really want to be using 90% or better.

It's a very effective cleaner that at the quantities you use won't end up poisoning you, or dissolving your fingertips.

It's apparently safe to immerse entire devices in isopropyl alcohol—it seems to be a common way to save 'dead' cellphones—but I wouldn't recommend it as you'll see. It probably won't damage electronics; this thread on the HP calculator forums talks about immersing an entire calculator in alcohol, though with no follow up on whether it works.

enter image description here
via here - no idea on the original source.

And this is allegedly an entire PC soaked in rubbing alcohol. (No, do not do this. isopropy alcohol is highly inflammable - it will evaporate into something that can be ignited at low temperature (13-15 degrees), and will catch fire at around 400 degrees C, and we do not want to be responsible for house fires. BAD BAD IDEA.) And since this is kinda being mentioned in the comments (Its potentially explosive under the right conditions - I do not recommend trying to blow up plastic water jugs unless you're a trained professional and/or a chemistry teacher).

It will, however, probably dissolve things like thermal paste (which can be conductive, especially in formulas that contain metal.) As such, you don't want to be using it in bulk (by spraying or dipping a whole panel.) Additionally, it's a bad idea to combine it with grease, since you might end up dissolving some minor thing—conductive stuff in CPU sockets is bad, as would be accidentally removing all the lube from the mechanical parts of a drive. It'll also loosen any stickers present on the hardware. Apparently it also does nasty things to plexiglass and Lucite, so test before you clean any plastic bits.

Applying it to a paper towel may leave lint (coffee filters seem to be a common lint-free alternative), and the computer has lots of bits that stick out which may catch and rip out bits of it. I've generally used the stuff for spot cleaning on a cotton swab for particularly nasty, hard to remove dirt. It's also pretty good for cleaning contact pins or dirty lenses on optical drives (often using a lense cleaner) VERY carefully. As such, while alcohol itself might be safe, be very sure to clean the surfaces again after you have removed the intended residue with something lint free.

You'll also want to be careful with a cleaning cloth, tissue or other cleaning material not to bend anything. Bent pins are a PITA.

There are also large, pre-moistened wipes—there's variations for screens and other surfaces—that also contain other substances. These are excellent for external cleaning, and are lint free.

In most cases, air dusters for electronics and a dry microfiber cloth for surfaces work for me. Save the alcohol for tough situations like cleaning off heat sink compound or stuck-on dirt.

TL;DR: "How do I clean a computer with isopropyl alcohol?"

Sparingly. Use it when you need to clean electrical contacts and need to remove tough-to-remove substances. It's tricky for bulk cleaning but works well with specific issues. It's definitely the thing to use when cleaning monitors, degreasing a touch screen (ewww) or for cleaning dirty contacts. In many cases an air duster may be safer since you aren't touching the contacts.

Sources: wikipedia - for the chemistry bits.

share|improve this answer
    
Regarding the immersion of a HP calculator in isoprop... I didn't dunk mine completely, but used a good portion of it for cleaning purposes. It worked, but it needed several weeks until all keys were responding again. The alcohol obviously crept easily into the encapsulated keys, but took its time to evaporate completely. –  mpy Sep 2 '13 at 11:15
    
+1 for the cool pictures. –  Antony Lee Sep 2 '13 at 12:06
1  
-1 The picture is probably a fraud - very conveniently it doesn't show if the video cable is connected to the monitor - so it only incites people to take too much liberty with a very volatile substance. You detail some practices of yours, but no references to show whether they are safe or correct. "It works for me" weighs less than advice by manufacturers of cleaning materials. –  harrymc Sep 2 '13 at 12:54
2  
I think you missed the two paragraphs below that stating why its a bad idea, and some of the things to watch out for. I would think the 'allegedly' and the capital letter bad idea would be obvious enough. –  Journeyman Geek Sep 2 '13 at 13:49
1  
That would make an astoundingly poor bomb. –  Falcon Momot Sep 4 '13 at 9:01

Two sources explain very well the subject :

The boiled-down answers to your questions are :

Is is safe to use alcohol?

It can be used freely on the motherboard, fan and thermal paste, but not on the raw CPU, RAM, add-on cards, CMOS battery and of course disks.

What specific techniques should be applied?

If you strip-down from the motherboard all the above parts, you can even dunk it in a bath of 99 percent isopropyl alcohol.

Great precaution should be used for the CPU. The following extract is from Arctic Silver :

  • If you are removing thermal material from a heatsink or waterblock that has already been mounted, detach the heatsink or waterblock from the CPU and remove the CPU from the motherboard. Place both on a clean, flat working area with the thermal surfaces facing up.

  • Examine both thermal surfaces. Note whether the thermal interface material is a thermal pad (wax-based) or thermal compound (grease), then prepare the surface(s) as follows:

    • Pad - Use a credit card or similar plastic piece to scrape off the majority of the pad. Be careful not to scratch the base of the heatsink.

    • Compound - Use a dry cloth or paper towel to wipe away loose material.

  • Fully saturate the remaining thermal pad or compound with several drops of ArctiClean 1 and wait 30 to 60 seconds for the thermal material to dissolve.

  • Gently wipe with a cloth or paper towel to completely remove thermal material.

What are some concerns?

Do not use isopropyl alcohol for any other component than thermal paste, fans or the motherboard. Use alcohol gently applied to a cotton swab, paper towel or toothbrush - do not spray.

Use pure isopropyl alcohol or you risk leaving residues on the cleaned surface.

Some advice from Arctic Silver you might not think of :

Remove any rings or other jewelry that could scratch the surfaces being cleaned.
Coffee filters are excellent, inexpensive lint-free cloths.

Why should it, or shouldn't it be used?

It should be used for deep cleaning. For the occasional one use compressed air. Specialized materials, such as ArctiClean, might be better than pure isopropyl alcohol, but this hasn't been proved.

share|improve this answer
    
Interesting, so I shouldn't use it on any of the other components besides the motherboard and top of the cpu? What makes the motherboard so special that it's safe? –  KronoS Sep 5 '13 at 14:20
    
I don't exactly know, but I would imagine that the motherboard's material is not reactive with alcohol, and also that it doesn't have holes that can drink-in the alcohol and then cause problems for weeks. –  harrymc Sep 5 '13 at 17:27

partial answer:

2) any parts which may have reaction with alcohol (high concentration) . some examples:

  • your keyboard and any plastic case may de-color
  • the insulation coating of motherboard, (some motherboard have used insulation spray to pass ESD test.
  • some cheap plastic parts, some of china capacitors will actually melt and deform in alcohol.
  • your warranty code, "make sure you won't wipe it to white so the warranty void"

    anyway, pull off the plug and let it dry will be fine.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.