Bad Capacitors

We deal with a number of systems here at Altitude Integrations.  Many of our clients bring in older systems that they’ve had for several years.  Often a system optimization or malware scan & clean will resolve  issues with system reliability or performance. When our diagnosis and troubleshooting moves beyond software issues, we have to open up the computer and take a look inside.

Heat can be a major contributing factor to system instability.  Dust and pet hair are common finds inside of fans, heatsinks and all of the other nooks and crannies inside a desktop PC.  One client brought in a desktop system laden with pet hair. I was accurate in my guess that he had at least two dogs or cats as I blasted their collective sheddings from his system.  Yes, you can be allergic to some computers!

During an onsite visit with another client, I opened a non-booting computer to find piles of dust, dirt and sand.  The machine had enjoyed a former residence in New Mexico and managed to hold on to a little bit of the desert.  Cleaning that system resulted in a dust storm that rivaled the atmospheric disruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano.

Volcanic Ash Cloud

Volcanic Ash Cloud

Other times, after we’ve determined that fans are spinning smoothly and that intermittent system freezes and shutdowns are not related to software or heat (see thermal shutdown) we start looking for bad capacitors.  A capacitor is a handy electrical component that stores electrical “juice” until needed.  A more thorough description can be enjoyed via HowStuffWorks.  While any electrical component can fail, there is a plague of bad capacitors that has had a significant impact on all sorts of electrical components.

While capacitor plague largely affects desktop computer hardware, this problem is by no means limited to that area. These capacitors can also be found in some cameras, network switches, audio equipment, DVD players, and a range of other devices[1].

We’ve seen a number of PC motherboards come through our shop and we’ve also taken apart a few large LCD televisions with our friends at Boulder Community Computers to find  bad capacitors lurking.

Bad Capacitors at iSU

Bad Capacitors at iSU: The left line of capacitors are bulging at the top with signs of electrolytic compound having leaked out. The line on the right are still good.

Just what makes a capacitor bad?  It isn’t the components it hangs out with after school, nor is it the capacitor’s moral and ethical values.  Most likely the problem stems from quality control issues during the manufacture process and the bad components find their way into the supply chain.  A more intriguing explanation points to industrial espionage gone wrong as “several Taiwanese electrolyte manufacturers began using a stolen formula that was incomplete, and lacked ingredients needed to produce a stable capacitor.[1]

What does all of this mean for your system if we find bad capacitors?  It points to eventual failure of your computer along with increasing issues with stability and reliability.  While the bad capacitors can be removed and your motherboard or power supply repaired, the cost of doing said typically outweighs the value of an older system and replacement of the failing component or system as a whole is the best option.

We share our clients’ frustration when this is the case and do our best to help with migrating/recovering data and any usable components from their systems.  We are also there to help with selecting a new computer when warranted.

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