$5 Fan Kills 100 times its value in hardware

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Mar 24, 2009

Filed under: Personal 51 comments

My new computer is here and I’m slowly hammering it into some sort of usable shape. I’ve performed an autopsy of the old machine and its accoutrements. The butcher’s bill:

  • My power supply.
  • Motherboard. (And without the motherboard, I can’t say if the CPU survived. Not that it matters. I’m not going to go shop for a compatible motherboard (a complex task even if the CPU is brand new and you know the exact make, which it isn’t and I don’t) so I’m calling it a loss as well.
  • Everything plugged into a USB port. (My wireless Mouse & keyboard set.)
  • My video capture card. (Nooooooooo!) That is going to be a nightmare to replace.
  • My AGP graphics card is most likely dead, although that’s no big loss as I no longer own an AGP compatible machine.

Silver lining: The hard drive survived. I have backups of the critical data and patchwork backups of the less-critical stuff, but the drive itself is far better.

I’ll post more about the new machine later.

Off-Brand Intel Single-Core 3.0Ghz passed on this weekend as the result of prolonged internal cooling difficulties. It was 3. Services will be held at the Greater Pittsburgh Recycling Center this Thursday. Born in 2006, Off-Brand is survived by a lone Western Digital hard drive.


From The Archives:

51 thoughts on “$5 Fan Kills 100 times its value in hardware

  1. radio_babylon says:

    isnt it more accurate to say “my willful ignoring of a fan in need of replacement cost me my computer?”

  2. Primogenitor says:

    (waiting for “fan” pun)

  3. RustyBadger says:

    Shamus- what kind of capture card did you have? I have some older analogue (yes, that’s how we roll in Canada- the Analogue Way) PCI cards and would be more than happy to fire one off to you. A better solution would be to shop ebay for a “dead” camcorder with a firewire port on it- many of those can be used as an Analogue-to-Digital converter; you just grab the footage through the firewire port on your PC. You don’t need one with a working tape transport, or lens, either- it just needs to power up.

    Also, WTF happened to my avatar, dude? I look like I got hit by a d10 and dropped in Pepto-Bismal!

  4. Mike says:

    What are your requirements for the capture card? You have a bevy of bored people at your disposal, after all. ;)

  5. Ludo says:

    My being ever the optimist… did you try this video capture card you’re so fond of in your new machine ?
    You can’t count it as toasted so long as you haven’t tested it :)

    … edit : my wavatar dosen’t do my optimist self justice :/

    1. Shamus says:

      Ludo: All of the listed items are confirmed dead. There is a netword interface card and a couple of memory bits that have yet to be tested.

  6. Lupis42 says:

    What Mike said. It’s often far easier to post specs to a forum of helpfully inclined geeks with time on their hands than it is to do your own research. It’s how I got an xorg modeline for my projector.

  7. Mystyk says:

    …Intel Single-Core 3.0Mhz…

    Wow, I didn’t realize it was that old!

  8. I am very impressed that you used a 3Mhz computer for so long, and even more so that you found one :)

    Honestly though, it’s very hard to overheat all parts in a computer at once, unless you just block off air flow completely, and even then the case will disperse some heat, and in the worst case the machine should shut itself down as an emergency measure.

    The worst you can do (and I would know) is use a cheap power supply which can wear down other components with random voltage/current spikes. But unless the fan literally exploded sending pieces of plastic and metal everywhere, the fan was probably a symptom of the real problem, not the cause.

  9. “Testing” hardware from such a machine in another machine can conceivably kill the other machine if it shorts wrong. I wouldn’t put anything from the old machine in any other machine. I’d even treat the hard drive as toasted and put it in the new system just long enough to get the data off of it, then toss it in the trash. I might be wrong…. but the odds are such that I wouldn’t risk it.

  10. Mari says:

    Rest in peace, Off Brand.

    And ditto what Mike said. Not only are many of us bored but a fair few of us are hardware jocks. We can get you sorted in no time :-)

    And finally, let this be a lesson to you. First off, ignoring a cooling fan = BAD. Secondly, the fans last way longer if you’ll pop the hood every three months and give her a good blow all up in there with some air in a can or a medium-duty compressor. That didn’t come out quite right but I can’t be bothered to fix it.

  11. Nathon says:

    Wow, you just motivated me to buy a new case fan to replace the ailing one in my 8 year old homebuilt 1.4 GHz Athlon box. Thanks!

  12. Rutskarn says:

    Whenever a computer breaks down, it’s always something that could have been prevented.

    The point is, you kept this one alive for three years. That’s commendable, right there.

  13. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Wow…I mean…Wow…All of those things were cooled by a single fan?That is…I simply cannot imagine that.

    Btw,have you considered liquid cooling for the new machine?

  14. Alexander says:

    Having a computer for three years is commendable? I suspect I have a very different attitude to most people, but I would consider three years a minimum. My current computer is 18 months old but second hand, replacing a computer I had for five years from second hand. My iPod is approaching three years, again second hand (my Dad loves TradeMe and knows more than I do about these things), as is my cellphone, although that was bought new.

    Do I just have a different attitude to electronics?

    1. Shamus says:

      For contrast: The computer I was using for the last few days was ten years old. So three years old is all a matter of perspective.

      Daemian Lucifer: My guess is that the fan in question was caring for the power supply, which overheated and killed everything else. It’s tough to be sure though, since it’s all dead now.

  15. nilus says:

    I am hugely suprised that one bad fan really killed all that. Which Fan was it. Usually when a CPU fan goes you lose the CPU and maybe the board. But the PCI cards a rare and I can’t believe the external USB devices died. You must have really angered the PC spirits.

  16. RPharazon says:

    How did your computer overheating lead to the mice and keyboard (which are clearly outside of your computer) to fail?

    Sneaky business.

  17. bbot says:

    As any tremendous nerd will know, PC fan bearings are user serviceable items. You can lift off the sticker, pop out the rubber seal, and oil the bearing.

    Despite the mildly wisable name, (“Haw, what next, changing the LED fluid?”) oiling fan bearings offer excellent return on investment, (ten minutes once a year to triple their life) and since you’ve already got the computer open, you can blow out the dust those selfsame fans have been blowing into all the heatsinks.

  18. guy says:

    That’s an impressive total.

    I can honestly say i’ve never heard of somthing blowing up badly enough to take any other components with it, but that’s probably because i don’t have much computer experience. The worst i’ve seen is a virus trashing read permissions and ability to log on.

  19. Ben says:

    If the failing fan was in the power supply, it could easily have taken everything else on that list with it. Pretty much any other fan in the system failing would have caused the computer to hang, and maybe taken out whatever component it was directly attached to. A misbehaving power supply, though, can do just about anything. When you’ve got a fan acting up, it’s a good idea to at least determine which fan it is before you decide to ignore it.

    All the same, you got lucky keeping the hard drive; that’ll save you some trouble getting up and running again. And as others have noted, if you post a list of requirements for a capture card, no doubt we can help you pick something nice. Maybe, if your requirements aren’t too strict, you can even end up with something better than you had!

  20. Brandon says:

    Yeah, the only fan that could do that much damage would be a fan in the power supply causing a power spike.

  21. guy says:

    I’ve seen people lose power supplies before. They swapped in new ones and the computer was fine.

  22. Zel says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of hardware to lose over a failing fan…

    I guess your motherboard must have fried pretty badly, since every dead equipment took its power from it (USB devices, PCI or AGP cards). Maybe its voltage regulators overheated, causing them to fail : (old) liquid capacitors can leak and explode when (much much) too hot.

    The board would have started delivering too much power to everything, which in turn would have fried the power supply’s fuse due to the extreme stress. If you’re curious and have the time, check out the inside of the power supply to see if only the fuse has blown.

    Hard drives and DVD/CD drives take power directly from the power supply unit, so this scenario would explain why they’re safe while the rest is not.

  23. Yikes. That’s a lot of damage. I’ve seen a lot of systems with bad power supplies at work (I work for a computer shop in the Youngstown area) and in most of the systems I’ve worked with the PSU died quietly and alone.

    On the bright side, at least you’re using a system with a PCI Express slot. Just slap a GeForce 9600GT (or the ATI equivalent) in there and you’ll be ready for just about anything. :)

  24. Julian says:

    Do remember to pop the case open every few months and give all the parts, especially the fans, a nice blow with some compressed air (a can of carbon dioxide works)

  25. Neil D says:

    I feel your pain. I just went through the same kind of hell all last week. In the end, wound up replacing motherboard, CPU, and power supply. Also bent the pins on the HDMI port of my video card, but I was able to re-route to the DVI port with an adaptor and run the sound from the onboard sound card (I’m only using stereo sound anyway).

    But when I got that all back together and tried to boot, I’d get a blue screen and reboot as soon as Windows started to load. Something about the new motherboard I guess. Couldn’t even repair it with the Windows CD, had to do a complete reinstall of the OS and software (and there went my weekend). At least I was able to back up all the data files to a secondary drive.

    So, yeah, good luck with the rest of it.

  26. Juni says:

    I know the kind of loss you’re going through, Shamus… it will get worse before it gets better, but you have to learn to move on.

    Seriously, though. That sucks. It’s too bad, eh.

  27. Mr. Cattle says:

    Is your fan going to have a funeral service too? And who all will attend the fanservice anyway? =D

  28. Mark says:

    One word of warning about the compressed air advice above. Short bursts only! And stop when the can gets cold. I had a buddy try to blow some dust out of his computer innards a couple of years ago. One long burst too many, and the resultant condensation ruined his motherboard.

    Generally I cleaned my P3 500 MHz gently with the brush attachment on my vacuum cleaner, and a little compressed air. The thing lasted 10 years, and was still running Office 2000, Win98, and Firefox fine until both cooling fans stopped spinning, and the fan on the chip started intermittently “grinding”. After that it slowly shuffled off to the recycling center in the sky.

  29. James Block says:

    For what it’s worth, it sounds like your power supply’s 5V rail went out of regulation (that’s engineering-euphemism for “done blowed up now”). The 5V rail feeds various bits of your machine, particularly the motherboard, PCI and AGP cards, and the USB ports. That would neatly explain all of your failed parts. Your old CPU is probably still good, since recent (P4 era and onward) Intel processors draw most of their power from the 12V rail, as do (I think) newer PCIe graphics cards.

  30. LintMan says:

    Unless it was like Brandon suggests, I doubt a cooling fan could have caused all that damage. The fan noise may just have been coincidental to the PC failure. It does sound like it’d have to be a PS failure or some sort, or maybe even something like a voltage surge on your AC line. Do you have a good surge protector? It’s well worth the extra money for a quality one: A good thing to keep in mind that some people don’t realize is that surge protectors wear out over time. The cheap ones don’t give any indication when they’re no longer providing any protection. (I use Tripp-Lite ones, myself, and funny, a google search turned up the same advice here“)

  31. MadTinkerer says:

    “Silver lining: The hard drive survived. I have backups of the critical data and patchwork backups of the less-critical stuff, but the drive itself is far better.”

    Well good! As far as I’m concerned, my files are the most important part of my computer. Every other part of the computer costs mere money to replace, and eventually gets upgraded anyway. If my files get fried and there isn’t a backup of some particular ones, it’s an irreplaceable loss.

    By the way, send me a message via Steam Chat if you need someone to pose in L4D (or any Source Engine game) for a comic.

  32. radhock says:

    More words on compressed air: I’ve commonly just used a drinking straw, either a fat thick-shake straw or one with a bendy end, and blown thru that. Just have to be careful to not include saliva when blowing. Otherwise works well, with enough but not too much pressure

  33. Jabor says:

    Hardware is hardware, data is a pain in the neck to replace.

    As someone who’s lost nigh on a terabyte of data to drive failure, but not had any other components fail on me, I can tell you I really wish it had been the other way around.

  34. Cuthalion says:

    My dad fixes computers for a living and he usually just blows puffs of air from his mouth for light dust and uses a vaccuum hose for thick dust bunnies.

    He kind of nodded with a knowing grin when I mentioned that a blogger I read just lost his computer to a dying fan that he knew Should Be Looked Into but never got around to.

    Love your obituary, btw.

  35. Rutskarn says:


    Perhaps your computers have less personal hatred for you than mine do.

    I’m not really sure what I’m doing wrong, but I’m starting to suspect it has something to do with the daily canings. Either that, or suspending them in boiling oil on a bi-weekly basis to clean the demons out.

    I can probably safely continue storing them inside cockroach farms, though. Roach droppings are naturally conducive to circuits.

  36. SolkaTruesilver says:

    At least, you won’t have to instal Vista.

    I see this as a +

  37. LintMan says:

    Looks like I screwed up my link syntax, so the link didn’t work, and it wouldn’t let me edit the comment. So my retry: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000632.html

  38. MuonDecay says:

    Just be glad you weren’t in charge of maintenance for CERN.

    “What’s that sound?”
    “It didn’t last long, and now it’s gone… probably nothing.”

    A group of international scientists visiting the CERN campus today were reportedly vaporized by a plasma blowout…


  39. Dev Null says:

    You bastard.

    Don’t you _know_ that reading about another machine’s death is the surest method of bringing down digital apocalypse on any local hardware? I swear to you I’m not making this up; the very last thing I did on my notebook the other day – back when it still worked! – was to read your initial post about your fan going into meltdown. Now I’ve got video memory wafting out the exhaust vents on a thin stream of slightly yellow smoke. I blame you for this.

  40. Bizarre says:

    3 years is a good run for a computer?

    We’ve got one from, what, 2003 that’s still going like a champ. I didn’t think that was unusual.

  41. Anaphyis says:

    Good thing the hdd is still working. As said before, a failure in the power supply can fry pretty much anything connected to it (which is, you know, pretty much anything).

    I would still recommend to back up all the data at the next opportunity. Hard disk death can be pretty sneaky after such an event.

    A PSU failure due to overheating comes down to luck. If you are lucky, the fuse blows before anything else that could result in in a massive power spike running through your system and frying anything on it’s way. I’ve seen cases where simply exchanging the PSU was enough while in others not even the cd drive was still functional.

    By the way, you have not lived until you’ve seen a CD that shattered in the drive because of the high speed, with a part blasting through the drive casing and lodging itself within the CPU. Karmic death at it’s finest.

    And 2 to 3 years is the standard deprecation for a computer, so while it isn’t exactly a good run, you still got what you payed for.

  42. Avilan the Grey says:

    We have four computers now, quite suddenly.

    Our oldest one is an old P4, 2,4Ghz (the oldest kind of P4, much slower than newer 2,4Ghz ones) with 6 hard drives and 2 DVD burners. It is these days serving as an improvised file server (we only have Home versions of the window software, so it’s workgroup-based, but it works)

    This one started as a DELL, but migrated into an Off Brand relative of Shamus’ computer 5 years ago. The CPU is from the original DELL and is roughly 7 years old. Graphic card, Motherboard, Memory and Power unit is 5 years old. All this has then moved on to yet another Box, which is more isolated and have had more fans and room for more HDDs.

    The big danger for us is Cat Hair ™ the number one fan-buster in the world ;). That’s why we keep it on a shelf about a foot above ground, far less dust bunnies to suck into the fans.

    (And yes, we backup everything important on an external drive).

    I look forward to upgrade this one from WXP to W7 (it should run it, it has 758Mb memory)

    Anyway, I am surprised that your (Shamus’) computer did not lock up before it got overheated.

  43. Hotsauce says:

    I’d be pretty cheesed off if my PC died after only three years. But then, I still use the PC I bought back in 2000 (and it wasn’t top of the line even then) for light web browsing and my son’s homework. The cooling fans died quietly about five years ago, but it’s given me no problem. I simply took the sides of the case. Apparently there’s plenty of flow-through to keep it cool enough to function.

    On the other hand, my less-than-a-year old machine is making a suddenly worrying buzzing noise. At least I hope it’s the computer and not the Wii right next to it.

  44. Rob says:

    About a month or two ago my power supplies fan started making a funny noise. I asked the girlfriend her professional opinion, replace now or replace later? She said it could wait but it would eventually have to be done.

    I didn’t listen to her because the noise was driving me crazy, reading this makes me glad I didn’t listen to her advice. Still sucks that it happened to you Shamus.

  45. ShockedMonkey says:

    I’ve heard power supplies make an “air raid siren” sound before going kaput and taking the rest of the machine with them. A toasted PSU may have been your culprit, especially to take out that much hardware in the process.

  46. Ferrous Buller says:

    We come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…

    So, enough mourning: what’d you buy? :-)

  47. Jeff says:

    First off, ignoring a cooling fan = BAD. Secondly, the fans last way longer if you'll pop the hood every three months and give her a good blow all up in there with some air in a can or a medium-duty compressor.

    Yes, your fans are probably your single most important component to attend to, as it keeps everything else alive.

    However, DO NOT randomly blow air into your fans, you can (and I have) burn out the motor by spinning it much faster than it is supposed to. Hold it in place before cleaning it.

    Back at Uni I had a PSU fan blow out in the middle of exam month, which was Not Good. Lately I had my motherboard burn out due to frickin old people at my apartment getting heat turned on way too frickin early every year. Ah well, my new Blackbird has a liquid cooling system (it was a free upgrade) so eh.

  48. Blackbird71 says:

    Three years a “good run” for a computer? I usually consider that the bare minimum, they can usually go a lot longer with proper care and maintenance. I’ve currently got six machines in my house – well, I should say six functional machines, as there are a couple more that aren’t exactly running. The oldest of these is one I put together back in ’97 with a Cyrix 200MHz MMX processor (yes, Cyrix actually did make MMX, but only briefly), a Diamond Stealth II video card, and a 2.1GB hard drive. It still runs Windows ’95 beautifully. I mainly keep it around for those times I want to pull out an old game that just doesn’t work in compatibility mode. When it’s not fulfilling its function as a nostalgic gaming platform, it multitasks as a decent footrest.

    Oh, and that ancient 2.1GB hard drive that keeps on spinning, also a Western Digital – they build survivors :)

  49. phiend says:

    Wow, I’ve seen lightning strikes do less damage to a computer. Literally computers that have large black holes that was once the modem jack and the only dead parts were the modem, motherboard and ram.

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