How to Clean Your CPU Fan: A Comprehensive Guide

A clean CPU fan is essential for maintaining the longevity and performance of your desktop personal computer. This small hardware device sits on top of the CPU housing and keeps it cool by circulating air across it. 

Over time though, the CPU fan can become clogged with dust, debris, and other particles like pet dander and hair, which can lead to overheating. Too much heat for extended periods can lead to CPU fan errors or even component failure. 

By keeping your CPU fan clean and unobstructed, you can extend the life of your computer and keep it running at peak performance. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll teach you step-by-step how to clean your stock CPU fan without removing it from the motherboard. We’ll also explain how to use q-tips, a soft cloth, and compressed air to get the job done. Finally, we’ll answer some questions about CPU fan cleaning that new desktop users often ask. 

The Supplies You’ll Need to Clean Your CPU Fan – Stock Version:

Cleaning your CPU fan is a relatively simple process, but there are a few things you’ll need for the job:

  • A soft, clean cloth – microfiber works really well here. 
  • Q-tips, if you have them. This makes getting between the fan blades easier.
  • A can of compressed air. You can buy a disposable one or an electronic air tool.
  • Isopropyl alcohol wipes (for thermal paste). 

You’ll also need a dry and clean workspace, with a flat surface like a tabletop, so you can lay your desktop tower down on its side. This will make it easier for you to remove the side panels and get to the CPU fan you are going to clean. 

7 Steps on How to Clean Your CPU Fan without Removing It

While cleaning your CPU fan is definitely a delicate process, it’s not an overly difficult one. The steps are fairly straightforward, and you only need a few commonplace tools to get the job done. 

Step 1: Cut the Power to Your Computer

You don’t want to be working on your computer with live electricity running through it, as this is dangerous! 

Before you do anything else, you need to power off your computer, and then disconnect it from its power source. The easiest way to do this after shutting your computer off is to unplug the power cord from either the power supply connection at the back of your tower or from the outlet that it’s plugged into. 

Back of PC tower with unplugged power cord
Back of PC tower with unplugged power cord and power switch

If you unplug the power cord from the power supply connection at the back of your PC tower, toggle the power supply switch as well. 

Step 2: Remove From Designated Spot & Open It Up

Once you have your computer tower powered off, and unplugged from the power source, pull it out and onto an empty, dry, clean, and flat workspace.  If you are moving it farther than a few feet away from its designated space, you may have to unplug all cords from the back of it. 

Once moved, you’ll need to open it up by removing one of the sides of the casing (typically, it will be the left side when the front of the case is facing towards you). Here is how to do this:

  1. If you have tempered glass on one side of your case, you’ll know immediately which side to remove. If you do not, you’ll have to pick either side and open it up to see if you have access to the front of the motherboard or not.
  2. To open, look towards the back of your case, where the sides of the tower meet the back. You should see two thumb screws, one at the top and one at the bottom.
thumb screws at the back of PC tower
  • If you don’t see two thumb screws, look directly at the back of the case for screw holes along the back edge. There should be one at the top and one at the bottom. You’ll need a screwdriver to remove the screws that sit within these holes.
tiny screw holes for alternative panel attachment
  1. Unscrew these with your hand, or use an appropriate “Allen key” or screwdriver. Once these are unscrewed and taken out, the side should slide right out. Slide towards the back of the case. 
sliding off side panel to open PC tower
  1. If these steps aren’t working for you, consider grabbing your computer’s manual to see if it has instructions for opening the tower housing/casing. 

Step 3: Use Compressed Air to Remove Dust and Debris

Cans of compressed air for cleaning CPU fan
Cans of compressed air for cleaning your PC

Once you have access to the CPU fan to clean it, hold the can of compressed air upright at about 12 inches (30 CM) away from the fan blades, and give it a few short bursts.  

Do not point the can directly at/near/on the fan blades, as the air pressure can damage them, or they might bend to the touch. You may need to use several short bursts to remove all loose dust and debris.  

If you’re looking to learn how to clean the CPU fan without compressed air, move on to steps 4 and 5 below. 

Step 4: Use Q-Tips to Remove Small Piles of Dirt/Debris

Using Q-tips to clean CPU fan

If you see any small piles of dirt or debris on the fan blades that the compressed air didn’t remove, use a Q-tip to carefully remove them.

Step 5: Wipe Down the Fan Blades with a Soft Cloth

using toothbrush to clean CPU fan
You can also use a toothbrush instead of a piece of cloth in cleaning your CPU fan.

Once you’ve removed all the dirt and debris from the fan blades, use a soft, clean cloth to wipe them down. This will remove any residual dirt or debris and leave the blades clean and free of streaks. You can also use a toothbrush as well. 

Step 6: Clean the Surrounding Area

While you have your computer open, take this opportunity to clean the surrounding area. It’s very easy to get dirt and debris to go everywhere when cleaning the CPU fan while it’s still locked in the case. 

cleaning the other areas of your PC
Take the opportunity to clean other parts of your PC tower.

For cleaning the rest of the PC, use compressed air to blow away dirt, dust, and debris that may have accumulated at the bottom of the tower, or on other motherboard components. 

Pro-Tip: Use Q-tips to clean hard-to-reach areas.

Step 7: Re-assemble Your Computer

Once you’ve finished cleaning everything, it’s time to put your computer back together. To do this: 

  1. If you did not remove the fan from the CPU casing, then all you need to do is put the side panel back onto your tower housing. However, if you did remove the CPU fan from the motherboard for cleaning, then you’ll need to re-plug it back into the motherboard and reseat it on top of the CPU casing with a new dab of thermal paste (see thermal paste removal down below in the next section).
CPU fan plugged in to motherboard
The CPU fan must be properly connected to the motherboard.
  1. Slide or place the side panel back into its spot along the side of the tower. You may need to use one hand to hold the panel flush with the front of the tower, while you use the other hand to insert the screw into the holes at the back edge of the tower (top and bottom).
  2. Now tighten up the screws and re-plug into your power source. If you unplugged all of your cords to move the tower to an easier-to-work place, then plug in all other cords before your power cord.  Then plug in the power cord to the back of the tower, and into your outlet. Do this BEFORE flipping the power supply switch. 
  1. Now your computer is re-assembled. 

If you need further help with this, let us know in the comments below, or consult your computer’s manual for specific instructions on how to do this for pre-built computers (not custom-built). 

How to Clean and Reapply Thermal Paste to a CPU Fan

If you’d like to go a step further and replace the thermal paste that adheres your CPU fan to the CPU housing, there is one method that we’d recommend – isopropyl alcohol wipe. This step helps your fan to cool the area more efficiently. 

To complete this, you’ll need to remove the fan from the motherboard. Here are the steps:

  1. The first step is to locate the fan wiring that connects to the motherboard. Unplug it from the motherboard very gently.
  2. Unlock the CPU fan from the motherboard. Most stock fans (not aftermarket fans), come with 4 pins at the 4 corners of the fan that require a small twist to unlock (counter-clockwise).
4 pins on corners of CPU fan
CPU fan showing 4 pins on its 4 corners.
  1. Once unlocked, lift the pins until they disconnect entirely from the motherboard. This will then allow you to lift the fan directly off of the CPU.
unlocked pin to remove cpu fan
Unlocked pins for removal of CPU fan.
  1. Now, with the fan and its heat sink off the CPU outer casing, you can clean it and the thermal paste simultaneously. Many people think that removing the thermal paste off of the CPU fan’s metal base is enough, but you need to also remove it from the outer CPU casing that the fan sits on.
remove thermal paste from CPU case when cleaning the CPU fan
Removal of old thermal paste.
  1. Take a dry, gentle cloth and dampen it with a small amount of isopropyl alcohol. Rub it across the outer CPU casing, being careful to avoid other surfaces. 
  2. Repeat step 5 for the metal fan base that sits directly on top of the outer CPU casing.
  3. Allow the surfaces to dry completely before reapplying thermal paste to just the outer CPU casing. You only need a pea-sized amount, which should be applied directly to the center of the CPU casing.
pea-sized amount of thermal paste
Pea-sized amount of thermal paste.
  1. Once you have a pea-sized dot of thermal paste on the outer CPU casing, go ahead and directly position the fan down on top of it, locking it in place with the aforementioned pins once you have it lined up.
  2. Re-lock the pins down, and reconnect the fan’s wiring connection to the appropriate matching one on the motherboard.
  3. Re-assembled your computer using Step 7 in the Step Section above. 

Frequently Asked Questions If You’re New to Cleaning CPU Fans

If you’re new to the process of cleaning your CPU fan, then you might have some questions in your head, such as, how to determine when your computer needs a cleaning, and how often you should go about clearing out all dirt and dust. We’ll answer all this, and more, below!

How Does Dust Affect PC Performance?

Dust clogs up everything in your computer, from the fan blades to the heat sink fins, and within every other nook and cranny it can find inside your desktop tower case. All of this trapped dust not only hampers airflow, which is essential for keeping your components cool but also acts as an insulator. This means that newer and newer heat that builds up will have a harder time escaping, causing components to overheat more easily. dusty computer tower

How Often Should I Clean the CPU Fan?

Ideally, you should clean your CPU fan every few months to ensure optimal performance. However, if you live in a particularly dusty area or have pets that shed a lot, you might need to clean it more often. A good rule of thumb is to check the fan blades every month or so and give them a clean if they’re starting to look dusty.

How Do I Know If My Computer Needs Cleaning?

If your computer is running hotter than usual, or if it’s been a while since you gave it a clean, then it’s probably time for a clean. Another telltale sign that your computer needs some attention is if the fan starts making strange noises – this usually means that it’s either clogged with dust or is starting to fail.

Can I Use a Vacuum or Hair Dryer to Clean My CPU Fan?

No, we don’t recommend using a vacuum or hair dryers to clean your CPU fan. Not only they can generate static electricity that can damage the sensitive hardware components inside your desktop computer case, but the power from both can severely damage the fan blades. Finally, if you place the hair dryer on the warm or hot setting, the heat from this can potentially damage any plastics inside the case and across your motherboard.

Can I Use WD40 On the CPU Fan & Should I Lubricate My PC Fan?

No, you should absolutely not use WD40 to clean your CPU fan. WD40 is not designed for use on electronics, and it can damage your hardware components easily. We also do not recommend using ANY type of lubricant on your CPU fan, as this will attract more dust and debris, which will clog it up faster and even potentially ruin it. 

If you want to lubricate the fan bearings, we suggest using a silicone-based lubricant, as this won’t attract dust. However, you will need to be comfortable removing your CPU fan from the case and opening up the fan to reveal the fan bearings. Only do this if you know how to install and uninstall hardware components. 

Can Compressed Air Damage My PC?

While compressed air is the best way to clean your CPU fan and all other hard-to-reach areas in your computer case, it can damage sensitive components, if you’re not careful. This is because the high-pressure stream of air can dislodge small components like RAM modules and graphics cards. It can also blow dust and debris into areas you can’t see, which can lead to long-term damage. 

To use it properly, do not spray for more than a few seconds at a time to avoid the freezing moisture in the compressor. Hold the can upright, 12 inches or 30 CM away from the surface you’re cleaning. Move it around evenly to cover all areas.  Make sure to use short bursts of air rather than one long stream. By doing it this way, you won’t damage your PC at all. 

Now, You Know How to Properly Clean a CPU Fan!

If you have any other questions about cleaning your CPU fan, let us know in the comments below, and we’ll get back to you! If you liked reading this and found it helpful, consider sharing it.

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