If posed the question as to what you think the worst possible thing could happen to a PC is, your answer would probably be, "when the hard drive dies".
The worst possible thing that can happen is fire. This is when something in your computer overheats, catches fire and starts melting the "guts" (motherboard, chips, etc.). Fire is the worst because it makes any computer literally unusable – and that’s far worse than a hard drive that croaks.
A small and true story before continuing:
Years ago I was working for a large corporation and the LAN Administrator was delivering a brand new laptop to one of the six-figure guys in the corporate office in Boston Massachusetts. The laptop in question was a Texas Instruments TravelMate 5100. This was at a time when the Pentium processor was still new and laptop makers didn’t really know how to cool those things down just yet.
The guy goes into the six-figure employee’s office, sets up the laptop, plugs it in, presses the power button, and..
Sounded like a small gunshot.
Smoke comes streaming up from the keyboard. The smell of burnt silicon stunk up the office and more or less the whole floor soon after that. The stench stayed there for a week it was so bad.
Modern-day PCs and laptops thankfully rarely if ever catch fire and start melting stuff, however the threat of fire is not 100% out of the question.
Two common situations that may set your PC ablaze
1. Unbound wires/cables
Dangling unbound wires in a PC case is a fire threat. This is because a wire can get too close to a fan, a fan blade chops the wire, that sets off a spark and if that spark hits the right spot (which it always does), it’s burn city.
A wire gets too close to a hot item in your case, the wire wrap melts, wire is exposed, throws sparks and produces the same disastrous result.
I cannot stress enough that you should never have dangling wires in a computer case. Ever. Bunch your cables, keep them as far away from fans and sources of heat as possible.
2. Dead fan(s)
A fan’s job is to cool. If a fan dies and for some crazy reason the computer doesn’t shut off like it’s supposed to when it gets too hot, whatever it was cooling will overheat, burn up and possibly take the whole computer with it.
Indicators that your computer is running too hot
1. When you touch the side of your case, it literally feels hot to the touch.
This is bad news. It is normally okay for a case to feel slightly warm to the touch, but if hot, that’s a problem.
If you have a laptop, that’s a different story. Many laptops run hot on the backplane (a.k.a. the bottom) due to the very limited space inside the chassis and there’s really not much you can do about it other than deal with it, or use a laptop stand with built-in fans.
2. Your computer randomly shuts off for seemingly no reason.
There probably is a reason – it’s running too hot. And your computer is saving itself by powering off to prevent itself from burning up. The solution is more fans or better fans if you can’t add any. Maybe a cooling system if you’ve got the cash for it.
What type of PCs have a higher risk of fire?
Custom built. Many people who build their own PCs cut corners and this can lead to disastrous results like fire later.
Bear in mind that I’m not talking about just high-powered gaming rigs here. Any improperly wired/fan’d PC box can burn up.
OEM boxes on the other hand, be they by Dell, Apple, Gateway or the like almost never have fire threat issues, much less actually catch on fire. The manufacturing process is done in such a way where extra special attention is given to ensure fire (almost, repeat, almost) never happens.
Got a disaster story with a computer burning up?
Whether it’s your story or someone else’s box, let us know in the comment section. Bonus points if you have pics (although not required).
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