Cleaning dusty servers is one thing - but I have a slightly different problem: Soot in the servers!

During some warm summer months, we needed to open the windows at our server room. Unfortunately, the windows are located directly above the exhaust vent from a diesel heater, and we soon discovered that all our servers were (internally and externally) covered with a fine layer of soot. The soot sorts of "stick" to the surfaces, making cleaning a difficult task to say the least.

I wonder if anyone has any experiences in removing soot when vacuuming / compressed air doesn't work. Some surfaces can easily be cleaned with paper towels / water, but not the circuit boards, fans and power supplies.

I would guess this could also be appliccable to servers salvaged from fires etc.

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    Yikes! Surely it can't be that expensive to put a window air conditioner or something in those windows, instead of just opening them. – Russ Warren Jul 13 '09 at 20:30
  • Certainly not, but now the damage has been done. :( – Kristian Jul 13 '09 at 20:59
  • And if it was hot out, why was a diesel heater running? – Ward - Reinstate Monica Jul 13 '09 at 20:59
  • ..because it was heating water, for the car wash at the petrol station on the ground floor. Luckily, we have now moved out of this building. :) bit.ly/R3M7j – Kristian Jul 13 '09 at 21:07

I actually have salvaged computers from a fire. Isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs will help you tremendously.


Now that I have a second to post, here's some backstory. About 14 years ago a friend's apartment building caught fire while I was visiting. He lived on the second story and his hallway was blocked by a large pile of flaming debris. He and I jumped out a second-story window onto a mattress that the downstairs neighbors were nice enough to drag out onto the sidewalk. My friend was unhurt. I broke both bones in my lower left leg.

It was a small town, and people knew that I was "into computers", so I did a short but steady business of cleaning up machines that were in the various units around my friend's apartment. (I didn't have much else to do-- I was on break from college and unable to walk effectively.)

The worst machine was probably the computer hosting a dial-up bulletin board system that was in the adjacent unit to the fire and running during the fire. It inhaled quite a bit of smoke and was a sooty, tarry mess inside when I got started on it.

I always warn Customers about fires, and I often cite my own fire experience as reasons for off-site backup. A little over a year ago I received an email from a server computer that I'd installed as part of a subcontract job for a small local IT service provider. I'd configured my email address as a test recipient for hardware notifications and the provider or the Customer never bothered to put in their own addresses. I forwarded the fan failure message to the IT support firm with a note that they should remove my address from the hardware notification service.

The next day I learned that the Customer's building caught fire the prior night and that the email I received came, undoubtably, from a server computer that was inhaling smoke and experiencing fan failures-- running on its UPS (which was keeping the router at the end of the T1 line up) while the building burned up around it. They weren't really big enough to have an EPO attached to their fire suppression system-- we're talking two (2) server computers in a small rack in a closet kinda sized.

I won't make this post any longer, but here are some Cisco switches (and one no-name something-or-other at the top of the picture) post fire. (Click for a larger image)

Burned out switches
(source: wellbury.com)

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    Its surprising how much punishment a computer can take in a fire, a client had an office fire that caused the office above to come through the ceiling. The CRT monitors were melted into "mushrooms", the plastic on the outside of the pcs also melted, yet they were able to boot without any problems, after a bit of TLC with cottons swabs and isopropyl alchohol. – JS. Jul 13 '09 at 20:48
  • I do NOT recommend this but I know of a guy who actually put his 486 mother board into the dishwasher and rinsed it off after his cat urinated/sprayed into the open case. You can imagine my shock and surprise when he dried it off, let it set for a day or two, then fired it back up... worked flawlessly. Its one of those things I doubt one could repeat but it does show how robust hardware can be sometimes. Be safe... go with alcohol and cotton swabs. ;-) – KPWINC Jul 13 '09 at 21:24
  • I never thought about it but I guess the ability for the actual system to survive a fire kind of makes sense. The aluminum housing would only translate so much heat and CPUs and their heat sinks are built to dissipate quite a bit of heat as well.. – Spencer Ruport Jul 13 '09 at 22:01
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    @KPWINC as long as there's no soap in there it should work fine. I've told several people to soak keyboards and whatnot in a clean bath tub to loose the food left inside, then flip over and shake. Let try for 2-3 days then they should work fine. – mrdenny Jul 13 '09 at 23:37
  • Logs Logs Logs - The log files from an application I wrote a couple of years ago were used to help determine the start time of an arson fire at a radio station. The amazing thing was that the station stayed on the air for quite a while after the disgruntled employee poured gasoline on the digital mixing console. The audio was passing through a different linux based box, and the console was just a controller for that box - so they stayed on the air. – AudioDan Jul 14 '09 at 0:58

I'm not sure what the best solution to your problem is but using a vacuum cleaner on a server or pc is not a good idea, due to the amount of static they generate. You may not see the effects immediately, but many of the components on the motherboard are easily damaged by ESD.

  • Aren't there vacuums that are made for safe use on electronics? – Dennis Williamson Jul 14 '09 at 2:39

I would recommend dilute isopropyl alcohol (cut with distilled water about 60/40) and a natural-bristle paint brush. Don't use paper towels/napkins as they will shed fibers. When done, make sure you let it dry completely.

Before you start on a particularly nasty machine, where you might need to remove the motherboard:

  1. Reboot to the CMOS settings screen
  2. Write down EVERYTHING
  3. Remove the motherboard
  4. Take out the CMOS battery
  5. Clean completely
  6. Let dry
  7. Reinstall the CMOS battery
  8. Reinstall the motherboard
  9. Use those settings you wrote down.

If it is really bad, you can use the dishwasher trick, but please:

  • No soap
  • Air dry (turn off the heat-dry feature)
  • No "extra heat" (some dishwashers will double-heat the water you don't want that)
  • Let it dry a WHILE.

I salvaged some smoke damaged network equipment after a fire (2 rack mount HP switches), I took them apart, then used a cotton swab and engineering wipes, meths and soap+water on the case and isopryl alcohol on the boards where the build up was particularly bad, I vacuumed the fans.

Came up all ok afterwards, no sign of the fire except a slight smoky odour...

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