CPU Heatsinks: A Quick Guide to Their Purpose, Importance, and Repair

Posted on: 28 March 2017

Most people know that computers contain fans to help cool down the central processing unit (CPU). However, not everyone knows that the fan is only one part of the cooling system. Perhaps even more important is the heatsink, and any problems with the heatsink can seriously damage your computer.

What is a Heatsink?

Essentially, a heatsink is a thermal conductor. When your CPU is working, it creates heat. The heatsink is made of a very conductive metal, usually copper or aluminium, which draws away some of that heat. When the heat is absorbed by the heatsink, it cools the processor. The fan can then move hot air across the heatsink and out of the system, completing the cooling process.

How Can Heatsinks Be Damaged?

Heat sinks cannot really be damaged in a structural sense, but that doesn't mean they aren't prone to problems. More specifically, heatsinks can easily become clogged. When the area around the computer is not kept clean, dust, dirt, and other debris can infiltrate the system and start to clog the heat sink. This reduces the surface area available for cooling, meaning that the heatsink cannot perform effectively.

What Happens When a Heatsink Isn't Working Properly?

When your heatsink becomes clogged, overheating is likely to occur. If this conjures up images of electrical fires, worry not – overheating is very unlikely to cause anywhere near the amount of heat necessary to ignite a fire. However, damage can still occur. Internal circuit boards can slightly melt or warp, as can thinner cables, and such issues can seriously damage a computer. You may also find that your computer automatically turns itself off for no discernible reason when the CPU gets too hot; this will protect internal components, but you'll probably lose whatever you were working on.

What Signs Indicate a Clogged Heatsink?

Apart from unexplained shutdowns, there are a few clues that your heatsink has become overheated. One of the most obvious is an overworked fan. As the heatsink becomes less effective, the fan will need to work harder to cool down the system; yours will seem to come on more regularly and work much harder.

You may also notice that your computer feels hotter. This is relatively easy to notice when you feel the underside of a laptop, but it's tougher when you have a desktop. You can always install a utility that measures the CPU's temperature to get around this issue.

What Should You Do When Your Heatsink is Clogged?

It's relatively easy to clean your heatsink yourself by opening up the computer, removing it, and either spraying it with compressed air or wiping it down. However, it's also relatively easy for people who don't know their way around computers to make a mistake, so it's best to call a professional if you think your heatsink has become clogged.

For more information on computer repairs, contact a professional.