Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Plugged In: Don’t let Redoubt’s ash be downfall of electronics

Before concluding our series about cost-effective computer upgrades, here’s a brief word about dealing with the byproducts of our namesake across Cook Inlet, whose unpredictable geological mutterings are likewise kicking up some dust on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Volcanic emissions are potentially damaging to almost any mechanical or electrical device. Damage can occur in several ways. Although light traces of ash are not a problem, it’s wise to remember that local volcanic ash is an industrial-grade abrasive, which, in sufficient quantities, can abrade and mechanically damage engines, bearings, fans or any other rotating or mechanically actuated devices.

This can quickly cause major computer failures. For example, if the bearings on your CPU’s cooling fan fail, either your computer will shut down almost immediately or your CPU will basically suffer catastrophic heat stroke within a few seconds. Modern processors really do put out enough heat to cook themselves unless constantly and efficiently cooled. In addition to general abrasion of moving parts, other electronic devices like printers, scanners and photocopiers are highly vulnerable to mechanical scratching of interior parts and can become quickly and permanently unusable unless covered and cleaned with compressed air. Don’t try to wipe the dust off such parts and surfaces — blow it off.

Volcanic ash can also damage electronics because it’s electrically conductive, which can cause short circuits. It’s also chemically corrosive due to sulfur oxides which, when combined with atmospheric water, hydrolyze into sulfuric acid, among other noxious chemicals. That’s the same process that results in long-term toxic acid drainage from open-pit mines and mine tailings exposed to oxygen.

Even if abrasion, corrosion or short circuits don’t get you, and even if the ash doesn’t clog your computer’s cooling fans, accumulated ash and other dust is a good heat insulator, causing electronic devices to retain heat, sometimes to the point that the device fails.

I have lost high-end Western Digital Raptor hard disks because I forgot to take a computer outside every few months and thoroughly blow out any and all dust, including dust hiding on the bottom of exposed hard disk circuit boards. The older, 36-gigabyte Raptor hard disk ran pretty warm even when everything was being cooled properly. That disk didn’t have a chance when its circuit board had a nice warm insulating layer of dust. Redoubt’s ash falls will greatly increase the need for regular internal cleaning.

What to do? Appropriate precautions are quite straightforward. Monitor the Alaska Volcano Observatory’s Web site, www.avo.alaska.edu, throughout the day and evening so you’re informed about any explosive ash events and the probable trajectory for any ash that might be ejected over the next 24 hours. You can’t predict whether there will be ash at any given time but you can predict where any emissions will travel on the winds over the next 18 to 24 hours.

When there’s any chance of an ash fall coming down over your area, shut down all of your electronic equipment immediately. Also shut down any uninterruptible power supplies or other battery-operated devices to avoid possible short circuits due to conductive ash. Unplug them from the wall if you don’t have high-grade surge protectors installed. If there’s a power loss, then there’s also the possibility of damaging voltage surges when electrical power is restored. Homer Electric Association’s state-approved tariffs provide that you, the end consumer, are responsible for preventing surge damage and that HEA is not liable.

If possible, keep dust from infiltrating into your premises. Seal leaky windows with wide masking tape. Prevent ash from being tracked into your house and workplace. Put extra filters on any air intakes. For example, I put some regular furnace filters in front of the normal dust filters in my office’s air-handling system. This should provide an easily replaced second line of defense against ash being sucked into my building and being uniformly distributed by the heating system. Also consider shutting down your air-handling systems if you’re present during the day, or setting them so low at night that they’ll not activate very much, if at all, throughout the night.

Covering all electronic and sensitive mechanical equipment is obvious. For more expensive or sensitive devices, I have been fully covering the top and sides of each individual device with a 33-gallon trash bag and then covering the entire area with large, heavy-duty plastic drop cloths bought at Trustworthy Hardware. That gives me a second layer of protection. Ash slides easily, so I have been turning up the edges of the drop clothes to prevent ash from sliding off them on to whatever I am trying to protect.

You’ll need to internally clean any ash or dust regularly. Even if you’re not in the path of an obvious ash event, there’s enough circulating ash that your computer will build up a damaging layer of heat-insulating internal dust more quickly than usual. The best way to clean this dust is to buy several cans of compressed nitrogen or dried air. These are available locally at Three Bears, Save-U-More and other stores.

Unplug your computer or printer, first noting and marking where each cable attaches so that you’ll be able to reassemble the computer without any configuration problems. Then, take the entire system outside, remove each of the sliding side panels and thoroughly blow out any and all dust. In addition to obvious general dust, take particular care to clean the system board, the underside of any hard disks, all fan blades and fan housings, all power supply openings, and the air spaces between the fins on the coolers on the CPU, the video card and any smaller fans on the system board. Repeat regularly while Redoubt’s dust is floating about.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com.

No comments: