Computers, like basically all electronics, don’t get along well with liquids. This can present difficulties when disinfecting computer, cell phone, and tablet surfaces, especially on shared-use devices. During cold and flu season, or when a pandemic hits, shared computers/devices are getting a lot of extra attention and for good reason. Cleaning these devices, while relatively simple, can have major consequences if done improperly.
Common issues can be damaged keyboards with “stuck” keys, faint “scratches” on screens, and even fried components. Also, yes, with the rush for people disinfecting everything due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are already seeing computers coming in from liquid damage from people attempting to disinfect their computers incorrectly. This can be a fairly expensive fix and easy to avoid.
Make sure you have the right tools for the job before you attempt a physical cleaning on your own.
Can of compressed air – readily available at most stores that carry office supplies, do not use an air compressor as the pressure can be too high and can cause more harm than good
Microfiber cleaning cloth – having 2 of these is a good idea, dedicate one for only cleaning screens to avoid dirt and debris from getting stuck in a cloth and causing scratches
Cleaning & Disinfecting solution – mild cleaning solutions (such as 1:1 mixture of 70% Isopropyl Alcohol and Water) can be great for the keyboard, mouse/touchpad, and case. Do not use straight-up alcohol or ammonia-based cleaning products on screens as they can degrade screen surfaces and destroy protective coatings! Cleaning kits with screen safe cleaning solutions or wipes are also available). Bleach, Ammonia, Hydrogen Peroxide, and Dish Soap is not recommended to be used on a computer. For example, hydrogen peroxide when used on the keyboard, can destroy the membrane and allow liquids to get in and generally should not be used elsewhere on the device (it could also destroy phones in general, screens, etc). Some ammonium cleaners (ammonium, not ammonia) have been found safe for electronics – but not all and likely has to do with a specific dilution and other ingredients, but the bottom line is… read the product label first.
Other tools that can be beneficial
Computer Cleaner/Computer Vacuum (do not use a household vacuum as they create too much static electricity) – effective for removing debris from a keyboard before blowing it out.
Cleaning brush – handy for getting under keyboard keys.
The next important factor is properly using the tools:
Shut down/turn off the device AND disconnect power from it. (If cleaning the interior of a desktop computer, opening the side wall of the case will make this much easier)
Using the can of compressed air held up-right, blow into the cooling vent of the computer, the reverse direction of its normal airflow (this is especially important in laptops as it will dislodge debris from the cooling fans rather than forcing further in and it getting stuck)
Using the can of compressed air held up-right, blow out the keyboard starting from one side and working across the surface, then go back across the other direction to get any remaining debris.
The final step with the compressed air is to blow out peripheral ports such as audio, video, USB, network, and power.
Next is the screen, (if you do not have a screen-specific cleaning solution or pre-moistened wipes safe for screens, use water) dampen the clean microfiber cloth (do not spray directly onto the screen and do not over-saturate the cloth) and gently wipe the screen clean in small circular motions. Do not press too hard as this can damage some screens, especially touch screens. Manufacturers recommend NOT using alcohol-based cleaning solutions or even just soap and water on screens as these can likely damage them.
The last cleaning step is the case (keyboard, mouse/touchpad, and other peripherals as needed), again dampen the cleaning cloth only (do not spray directly onto the computer or device case) with your cleaning solution or isopropyl alcohol dilution. There are also disinfecting wipes that are made safe for electronics, most will say that they are not safe for screens so don’t use them on it. Using gentle circular motions clean the remaining portions of the device. The keyboard is often best cleaned by focusing on one key at a time and working your way from one side to the other.
Before reconnecting and turning the device back, make sure there is no visible liquid. If there is, make sure to use the compressed air to blow it off and dry the location. Another good measure is to wait 10 minutes after cleaning before reconnecting and turning it back on.
As a final word of caution and reminder, electronics and liquid rarely get along. If you are uncomfortable performing the cleaning yourself, professional assistance is available.