How to Silence a Noisy Computer

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably being driven mad by a noisy computer. I’ve been through this a few times, most recently with a home-built machine I made for running the scientific research program Folding@Home. In my situation, it sounded like a small tornado was having its way with the inside of my computer case. As this demonstrates, the noise from a computer generally emanates from the cooling system, although there are other sources that can threaten the otherwise decibel-free environment of your home or office. Thankfully, most noise problems with computers can be fixed. Hopefully by browsing the headings in the rest of this article, you can find your problem and get some ideas towards how to fix it.

Remember, when working inside your computer case, always ground yourself by touching the case’s metal power supply or the metal supports of the case itself. This will prevent any static electricity from jumping off your finger and damaging your computer’s circuits. I don’t recommend trying to open up a laptop, as they are very easy to damage and this will void your warranty.

Excessive, Constant “Whooshing” of Air

This was my problem, and it was caused by the cooling system. My desktop had been running non-stop for four months, and it had gotten very dusty inside. The dust was clogging the fan blades and limiting the effectiveness of the CPU cooler. As such, the fans had to spin faster in order to keep the computer cool. This, along with the disrupted airflow patterns caused by dust in the passive vents of the case, was causing the noise. The fix here is simple: run out to Staples, Wal-Mart, or something similar and pick up a can of compressed air. It should cost about five bucks for a 10 oz. can, which is more than enough to blow the dust out of your computer. To clean a laptop, all you have to do is fire the compressed air into all the air vents (make sure the computer isn’t running).

For a desktop, it’s helpful to unplug it and open up the case, so that you can blow the dust out easier. Take special care to target the processor’s heat sink, so that any dust coating the cooling fins is removed. Also, if your computer has a graphics card with a centrifugal fan on it, don’t hesitate to clean the little guy out. Although small, the fans on graphics cards spin at very high speeds and are really loud when dirty. Just be careful when using the air can to not accidentally fire out the propellant (spraying the can upside down will make a mess).

Note: if there is still a lot of noise coming from your computer after cleaning it out, you might just have fans that are overly loud. Skip down to the paragraph titled “Noisy Case Fan”.

Constant, Possibly Pulsating “Humming” Noise.

This one is a little harder to fix, as it is most likely caused by an out-of-balance mechanical part. The only mechanical parts in computers are fans, CD Drives, and hard drives, and if the bearings in any one of these are going, the vibration might just give you a headache. The first step to the fix is to locate the culprit. With the computer running (if it’s a desktop, take the side-panel off the case if you can), move your head in close and find the part that’s making the noise. It’s most likely a noisy fan, and that shouldn’t be too hard to pinpoint. If you’re having trouble, it’s ok to unplug the case fans one at a time to see if the noise goes away (don’t do this to any fan that’s cooling something on the motherboard). If it doesn’t, skip the following paragraph.

Note to Laptop Users: The following is written with desktop computers in mind. If blowing the dust out of a laptop doesn’t fix the noise problem, you should probably take it to an authorized dealer or service shop for repair.

Noisy Case Fan

Now that you’ve found the problem fan, you need to figure out if it needs replacing. If the computer is fairly old and if it never used to be this loud, then the bearings in the fan are probably worn. If the computer is new, it might just be a particularly loud fan. In either case, replacing the fan should solve the problem (if you have a laptop, then this procedure should be performed by a professional, as opening up a laptop is much more difficult than a desktop). You can use a ruler to figure out what size the fan is, and then proceed to pick up a new one. Fans can be found at most retail stores that sell computers, but the best deals are on the internet. Quality fan manufacturers will often advertise how silent their fans are. Generally, anything under 20 decibels should be a big improvement over the generic fans most PC manufacturers use. I recommend these Enermax Fans with magnetic bearings, as they are almost silent (make sure to navigate around the site to find the right size, although most computers are 80 mm). A quality case fan will run anywhere between $2 and $6 dollars. If your problem isn’t a case fan, then it is most likely coming from a fan in the power supply or from a fan on a heat sink. You’ll need to listen to figure out where the noise is actually coming from.

Noisy Desktop Power Supply

If the noise is coming from the computer’s power supply, there isn’t much you can do other than replace the power supply. Opening up a power supply to try and replace a fan inside always voids some sort of warranty. It’s also dangerous, because the capacitors in the supply are highly charged, regardless of whether the computer is plugged in or not. New power supplies can be had for as little as $30, but these cheap units are prone to burning up. Expect to pay around $60 for a good unit (you’ll probably want one that provides at least 400 watts of power, as this is generally enough for a modern desktop). While you’re at it, you might want to consider a power supply with a high efficiency rating. This will make your computer run cooler as well as shave a couple dollars off of your electric bill. For more information on this, feel free to check out my article on Energy Efficient PC Power Supplies.

Noisy Processor (CPU) Heat sink

A heat sink fan can be replaced, but the procedure is often different depending on what the application is. If the fan cooling your processor is worn out, you might be able to find another one that will fit on top of the heat sink. However, you run the risk of using a fan that doesn’t provide enough air flow for the heat sink, so only do this if you know the rate of air flow of the old fan and can find a fan that has the same air flow or higher. A better solution is to replace the entire heat sink with a new one. There are many aftermarket heat sinks for processors that are quieter and provide better cooling than stock units. These can be found at online computer parts stores, such as newegg.com and tigerdirect.com. Make sure to look up what kind of socket your motherboard uses to make sure a new heat sink will fit (some examples are: Intel 775 LGA, AMD 939, AMD AM2). Since replacing the entire CPU heat sink can be tricky even with the instructions that come with a new heat sink, you might want to consider letting a computer repair shop do this. A new CPU heat sink will run anywhere from $20 to $80.

Noisy Video Card (GPU) Heat sink

If you’ve identified the graphics card cooler to be the source of your noise, then you’re pretty much in the same pit as those people with loud CPU coolers. If blowing the GPU fan out with compressed air doesn’t help, the only solution is to replace the heat sink with an aftermarket one. As with CPU heat sinks, aftermarket GPU heat sinks tend to work better and be quieter than their stock counterparts. These can be found online at places such as newegg.com and tigerdirect.com. You’ll need to make sure the aftermarket solution is compatible with the particular graphics board your computer has. As with the CPU heat sinks, install here can be tricky, and you might want to leave it to a computer repair shop if you don’t feel comfortable with it.

Another option here is to just buy a new graphics card that doesn’t use a fan. If you’re not a big gamer, there are plenty of fanless cards that will display text and 2-D pictures admirably. For the current top-end of fanless cards that might run a few games, I recommend the Geforce 8500 GT (depending on the board manufacturer, some versions of this card have fans and others don’t).

Intermittent Grinding, Clicking, or Scratching Sound

If your computer makes these noises, you probably have a noisy hard drive. Not to worry; hard drives tend to be very loud, and if your particular computer case is prone to transmitting vibrations, you’ll hear your hard drive make noise each time it is accessed (when the computer’s HDD access light comes on). If your computer only just started making these noises when the hard drive is accessed, something has probably worn out inside the hard drive and you should replace it. This is often the case for laptops.

Noisy Hard Drive

For desktop computer users, first check inside your computer to see if you have an empty 5.25 inch drive bay (the type of bay a CD drive would fit into). If you do, then you can fix your problem for about $20. Many online computer parts stores sell hard drive dampening kits that allow you to relocate your hard drive from its 3.5 inch bay to a 5.25 inch one. The extra space between the hard drive and the bay walls is filled with plastic or rubber dampeners, which effectively isolate the noisy hard drive from the computer case and thus silence it. Just search for “Hard Drive Silencer” in Google to get some ideas.

Obnoxious, Humming/Vibrating when CD Drive is Accessed

Older CD drives (and some faster, cheap new drives) tend to be loud, and if you notice that your computer roars like a monster when you feed it CD’s, then you might want to look at a new CD drive. If your drive is new and in good condition, you may be able to quiet it a little by tightening the screws that hold the drive in the drive bay. If this doesn’t work, there isn’t a whole lot to be done other than finding a quieter drive. The best way to do this is to read the customer reviews on drives before buying a replacement.

Other Thoughts

If you’re shooting for perfection, you can pick up a few more things to make your computer as silent as the grave. The first one is a fan controller. As a Google search will show, there are hundreds of fan controllers out there, ranging from simple rheostat-based turn-knob jobs to fancy computer controlled units with LED lights and temperature displays. Fan controllers mount in a drive bay of your computer, and allow you to reduce the speed of your fans. Just backing them off 10% from full speed does a lot in the noise department while hardly impacting cooling performance.

In addition to fan controllers, you can get fan/power supply rubber dampeners to help isolate the moving parts from the computer case. These are simply a rubber cutout that gets sandwiched in between the fan or power supply and the metal case. They only cost a couple dollars, and they can be found on online computer parts stores. Here’s an example from newegg.com.

In order to kill off those final few decibels, you can pick up a roll of acoustic matting. This stuff is used to line the inside of your computer’s case and stop ambient noise from permeating the case walls. Here’s an example from xoxide.com.

Conclusion

The number one thing you can do to keep your computer quiet is to keep it clean. A regular air-canning once every two months or so will ensure cool and quiet operation. Beyond that, some work is required to tame the beast. Every computer has its own quirks, and there’s a pretty good chance that what makes one computer loud is a non-issue in another. No matter what the problem, hopefully this article is helpful in diagnosing and treating whatever audible issue is plaguing your machine.

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