Inadequate Cooling

Some of the available replacement power supplies have higher-capacity cooling fans than the originals, which can greatly prolong system life and minimize overheating problems—especially for the newer, hotter-running processors. If system noise is a problem, models with special fans can run more quietly than the standard models.

These power supplies often use larger-diameter fans that spin more slowly, so they run more quietly but move the same amount of air as the smaller fans. PC Power and Cooling specializes in heavy-duty and quiet supplies. Ventilation in a system is also important. You must ensure adequate airflow to cool the hotter items in the system.

Many systems today (especially those from larger vendors such as Dell, Gateway, MPC, and so on) still use passive heatsinks that require a steady stream of air to cool the chip. If the processor heatsink has its own fan, this is not much of a concern. If you have free expansion slots, you should space out the boards in your system to permit airflow between them.

Place the hottest running boards nearest the fan or the ventilation holes in the system. Make sure that adequate airflow exists around the hard disk drive, especially for those that spin at high rates of speed. Some hard disks can generate quite a bit of heat during operation. If the hard disks overheat, data can be lost.

Always be sure you run your computer with the case cover on, especially if you have a loaded system using passive heatsinks. Removing the cover in that situation can actually cause the system to overheat. With the cover off, the power supply and chassis fans no longer draw air through the system.

Instead, the fans end up cooling only the supply, and the rest of the system must be cooled by simple convection. Systems that use an active heatsink on the processor aren't as prone to this type of problem; in fact, the cooler air from outside the normally closed chassis can help them to run cooler.

In addition, be sure that any empty slot positions have the filler brackets installed. If you leave these brackets off after removing a card, the resultant hole in the case disrupts the internal airflow and can cause higher internal temperatures.

If you experience intermittent problems that you suspect are related to overheating, a higher-capacity replacement power supply is usually the best cure. Specially designed supplies with additional cooling fan capacity also can help. At least one company sells a device called a fan card, but I am not convinced these are a good idea.

Unless the fan is positioned to draw air to or from outside the case, all it does is blow hot air around inside the system and provide a spot cooling effect for anything it is blowing on. In fact, adding fans in this manner contributes to the overall heat inside the system because the fan consumes power and generates heat.

CPU-mounted fans are an exception because they are designed only for spot cooling of the CPU. Most newer processors run so much hotter than the other components in the system that a conventional, passive heatsink can't do the job. In this case, a small fan placed directly over the processor provides a spot cooling effect that keeps the processor temperatures down.

One drawback to these active processor cooling fans is that the processor overheats instantly and can be damaged if they fail. Newer Intel processors have built-in safeguards that prevent damage. The Pentium III, for example, automatically shuts down if overheated, and the Pentium 4 automatically throttles the speed down, which allows it to continue to run even if the heatsink is completely removed!

Still, it is best not to depend on these safeguards because not all processors have them. Until recently, systems based on AMD Athlon processors didn't have thermal protection for the processor. Whenever possible, try to use a high-quality heatsink that is designed to properly cool your processor.