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Background

I am hoping to convert a shed in my garden into a home office. The shed has a concrete base and brese block walls. It already has Power and Ethernet and will soon be watertight. However I am now wondering about some of the practicalities.

Questions

How do computers cope in (cold -5 - 5 C) and damp (over 100% humidity) environments over an extended period of time?

Are there ways to mitigate the problems?

Are there components that you can buy which will work better in such an environment?

Is it possible to use the head produced by the computer for heating, is this efficient?

shed

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closed as off topic by Holocryptic, Iain, sysadmin1138 Nov 14 '11 at 19:30

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16 Answers 16

Unfortunatly I have had experience of keeping computers in cold and damp churches, and it isn't a pleasant story.

Some of the problems I came across:

Humitidy + Dust - any dust that gets into your computer will turn into mud and after a while the fans get gunked up, which seems to affect the power supply quite profoundly (3 PSUs in 2 years), the other fans will get louder and less effective. The soloution is to install filters on all of the fans, keep the surrounding area clear of dust as far as possible and clean out the inside more reguarly than a normal PC.

Humidity + Components - as dss_so mentioned the components won't stand up to the cold and damp. I have used a small chemical de-humidifier placed in the bottom of a sufficently large case which seems to have had its effect, it does fill with water quickly so be careful moving the computer around.

Cold - repeatedly starting a PC from cold (-5) as mentioned is going to cause a lot of wear, my soloution was to keep the heating in the building on low when it was unoccupied installing insulation will save on your heating bill.

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I don't have any experience, but I wonder if one option would to simply setup a computer that is actually submerged in liquid. Something like this perhaps.

Mineral oil has a freezing temperature that us at -30C instead of the 0C freezing temperature of water. I am not sure what will happen at low temperatures though.

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2  
seems a little.. uh.. impractical, no? :) –  Jeff Atwood May 11 '09 at 9:18
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Though I am terrified at the idea of running a submerged computer this does seem to resolve a lot of the dust, frost and humidity issues. Of course the monitors are still an issue. –  Jeremy French May 11 '09 at 9:33
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+1 for an actual solution to the problem, practicality aside. Recently, Systm did an episode on building an 'aquarium PC'. They found that 1) mineral oil is very expensive and 2) it's ridiculously messy. –  spoulson May 11 '09 at 12:22
    
I think that MaximumPC did a submerged PC as well a couple of years ago. I don't remember if it was an oil bath or a distilled water bath, though. –  gWaldo Nov 12 '10 at 3:49
    
I've seen that link on the submerged PC in the tank. Is that for real? Wouldn't that cause short-circuits? –  itsols Oct 29 at 12:09

Presumably, you won't be working in there when it is -5C, so can't you just take a laptop PC into the shed when you go there to work? It solves any potential physical-security problems too.

You shouldn't have any big problems leaving a larger LCD screen in there due to the temperature, but I couldn't comment on the humidity.

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I did think about this, but generally you can get better performance per $ from a desktop. However this may be negated by paying for it to be hardened. –  Jeremy French May 11 '09 at 9:45
2  
If it's just going to be used as an office computer, do you really need performance? Balance the cost of a laptop vs the cost of heating and or desktop replacements due to environment. –  Jeff Miles May 11 '09 at 14:32

Shed-computing, huh? Is it anything like boat-programming? :)

If it's very humid, over time the internal components can rust and otherwise be negatively affected because of changes in electrical resistance or thermal conductivity. As for the temperature, I'm not sure about -5C, but I know LCDs have a minimum temperature beyond which the screen will not be functional.

Make sure you keep regular backups of your data as well, since spinning up cold hard drives may be an issue if the cold causes contraction of any of the numerous little parts inside.

I'd recommend reading the operating temperature/humidity levels on each component of your setup (if available) just to be sure.

If possible, look for some type of air conditioner (with heating functionality) that you can use to reduce the humidity and keep yourself warm.

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I really do want to use the shed as an office, and don't want my computer to die over winter. –  Jeremy French May 11 '09 at 9:18

As long as the shed is watertight, your PC should be ok. I'd worry more about your comfort. Humidity is a red herring: your house is going to be just as humid, just with less severe temperature swings.

My friend operates a auto repair shop and has a desktop computer for state inspections in one of the repair bays. This is on top of a mountain upstate New York, so temperatures vary from -20F to 100F (and swampy humidity in the summer) with interior temperatures running from 20F to 100F. Not only is the temperature range awful, but it's a repair shop, so there is oil, grease and dirt everywhere.

In short, he's had no computer problems whatsoever. He does proactively open up the case every few months and vacuums out dust. Chips will overheat when covered with greasy dust.

The computer won't heat the room enough for your comfort -- invest in a good space heater. I'd look at busting out another window and adding an air conditioner as well.

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You should look to purchase a specialized enclosure for your equipment that can protect it from unusual environments. One of the sites I manage is an acid plating plant and so everything rusts within days. We'd have to replace the PCs every few months, but this solved the problem and we've not had to replace them for about three years now.

Make sure whatever you buy has an IP rating relevant to your environment, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_Code for more details.

I don't want to recommend any particular supplier, so to get started I recommend you just search Google for: "pc enclosures" harsh.

As well as this, you may also want to consider using a PC with no moving parts and re-case it inside a sealed box. We used this method for the plating line controller, but the computer was a small industrial 486 board which produced almost no heat so that was viable. Higher-spec computers would be more difficult.

Good luck!

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It'll probably would be less of a problem, if you'd be planing to put 24/7 home "server". If you're planing to use it as a office, then you're going to power-cycle that PC. With temperatures so low, it's going to go trough a lot cold-hot-cold cycles. That, over extended time will kill any electronics (some faster then others).

As for humidity, that's generally bad for any electric equipment. But humidity and subzero temperatures, that's really terrible combination.

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I think humidity is going to be your biggest issue.

If you leave your machines on most of the time the cold wont be an issue and possibly a benefit as it would prevent overheating and nighttime condensation.

Damp and electronics dont mix though.

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I have a dehumidifier which I used in a previous house, but I figured it would be a bit futile running it in a draughty shed. –  Jeremy French May 11 '09 at 10:10
    
sometimes the futile fight is the right one. Unless you want to pack your computer in silica gel and replace it frequently ;-) –  Matt Simmons Jun 24 '09 at 11:47

Leave the computer on and get a dehumidifier for the shed. You could also see if you can add some draught-proofing to the shed. Also, consider getting a case that will let you put air filters over the fans.

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I'd say investing in a false/raised floor would worth the benefit

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Is it possible to use the head produced by the computer for heating, is this efficient?

As it turns out, I live in a New England state where it can get pretty cold doing the winter and I tend to keep the heat turned a bit lower as well, so speaking from a bit of experience, my fairly powerful computer only outputs enough heat to raise the temperature in a 250 sq ft (23 sq meters) room about 1 degree Fahrenheit (about half a degree centigrade). So a space heater would be highly recommended during the winter. Getting a new window might help to retain the heat a bit better as it appears that the one in the picture is single pane. Likewise, it looks like the roof would be a major cause of loss of heat so you might want to see if there is some way that you can upgrade that as well.

The dampness issue you are likely going to need a dehumidifier for and I don't see much of a way around that with you having to invest more money in insuring the shed is weather sealed and even then it might be hit or miss.

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Thanks for the info. It is nice to get some real data. I'm thinking it may have to be a summer office only for the moment. –  Jeremy French Jun 25 '09 at 16:17

This is my take on a solution, but I don't know how practical it is.

I was thinking that I could use liquid cooling for the components of the PC, this would stop hot air being blown around the case and condensing on any cold surfaces. I believe that you can attach this to most of the hot components in your system (not sure about the HDDs though).

I was then thinking that I could take the hot water from this and put it into a radiator to try and keep the ambient temperature up. I could even try and get some high demand jobs to run when the temperature dips.

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Is the computer going to be all of the time? if not remember to take into account the freezing point of the coolant you use, also you can get waterblocks for HDDs although it may not be nessecary. –  Richard Slater May 11 '09 at 10:51

This looks like a classic Brit garden shed so I assume cold, damp and windy UK!

If this is going to be a home office, then take a laptop in to the shed. Put your "server" (if you need one) in your house (loft or under the stairs). Then your not storing sensitive equipment overnight. If you need more CPU than a laptop then just RDP onto the server.

A laser printer / inkjet will be fine but your paper may get a bit damp so don't keep your stockpile in the shed.

You may want to insulate the walls better using some kind of foil-backed foam, and install a slightly raised floor (again, this foil-backed foam plasterboard with laminate over the top).

Finally, I'd try to get a better door (like an old uPVC front door) and window. First because it will keep the damp / drafts out and also to improve security.

Don't forget a few toys though. At least a radio (too keep you company). Depending on how disciplined you are, setup a small TV & playstation etc.

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You assume correctly. I was thinking of getting a HTPC at some stage so I could RDP to that and keep the shed expensive hardware free. –  Jeremy French May 11 '09 at 12:03

Insulate the shed and make it weather tight. Invest in a small heater and AC. If you would not want to live there 24/7, then neither will your PC equipment. OK the last is a slight exaggeration. Your PC will be OK over a wider temperature range then you would, but you get the idea.

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If it is so cold why worry about fans? Seal it up with some silicone and leave it be.

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That would likely be a hassle for any kind of repairs. –  Theuni Dec 8 '12 at 23:24

You'd be surprised what computers can handle. Humidity may not be the worse thing. Try salt spray. Once had to reinstall a PC that had been used as the weigh-in terminal for a fishing company. It was out on the pier where the boats came in. A bit of rust, and some shrimp shells in the case but it worked.

My only suggestion would be to look at some of the old perspex cases they used to put printers in to muffle the noise. You might be able to find one of them you can seal to keep the moisture out.

Nice shed btw.

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