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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 11 Issue 10
October 2017
Does Your Computer Suddenly Power Itself Off? It May Be Overheating

The problem

Has this ever happened to you? You're working on your computer, writing an email or working on a document or using a web site, or even doing nothing at all, when all of a sudden your computer suddenly turns itself off for no apparent reason.

Why did that happen? Is your computer overheating?

There are many things that can make a computer suddenly power off, and overheating in particular can have many symptoms. Suddenly powering off is one symptom, here are some others:
  • The computer's case, especially the underside of a laptop, feels noticeably or surprisingly hot to the touch, not just warm.
  • The cooling fan becomes louder, sounding like a motor that's "revving up" or accelerating, not just occasionally, but most of the time, regardless of what you're doing. Your computer may have multiple fans in different locations around its case.
  • After a sudden shutdown, if you turn it back on again, within a relatively short time your computer suddenly shuts down again.
  • If your habit is to shut down your computer at night and start it up in the morning, you may notice that it runs for a longer time before the first sudden shutdown of the day, probably because it cooled off overnight. Assuming you immediately turn it back on each time and try to get back to work, as the day goes on those sudden shutdowns get closer together, probably because it doesn't have time to cool off. And, after being off overnight, this pattern repeats the next day.
  • In extreme cases, your computer can't stay on long enough to complete a backup or an antivirus/antimalware scan, much less give you enough time to get anything done.
All of the above, not just occasionally but taken together as part of a frequent and growing pattern are good indicators of an overheating computer.

What increases the heat inside a computer?

There are a number of things that can make a computer heat up, including:
  • Cooling vents: Blocked by furniture, paper files, pets lying on top of (or next to) the vents attracted by the warmth, etc.
  • Laptop cooling vents: Blocked because it's on a bed, blanket, soft carrying case, etc. while it's running
  • Busy CPU: Running very active software, such as complex web sites or intense computer games
  • Hard drive: Disk-intensive activities, like doing a backup or downloading lots of large files
  • Hard drive: Overworked due to causes like insufficient RAM (so your computer is "swapping out" to the drive, i.e., using it as "overflow" RAM) or the drive being almost full to capacity
  • Very high ambient room temperature
An older computer can have additional issues that contribute to overheating, including:
  • Accumulated dust, pet hair, airborne carpet fibers, etc. may have settled inside on the motherboard over many years forming a kind of "blanket," trapping in heat and preventing the cooling fan from doing its job.
  • Accumulated dust may have coated the blades of the fan (or clogged the space around it), slowing it down or making it less effective.
  • The cooling fan motor may be wearing out or not working at all.
  • The internal power supply may be faulty or wearing out.
  • There may be a problem with your surge protector or uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
Why does overheating cause sudden shutdowns?

If your computer detects that it's overheating, it is designed to shut itself off to protect its internal components from damage. While inconvenient for you, this is far better than causing permanent damage or worse.

Other symptoms that are somewhat heat-related

You may also notice symptoms like:
  • Your computer may be running more slowly than before.
  • It may randomly exhibit odd behavior, including freezing and crashing.
While overheating can cause problems like these, many other software and hardware issues can also cause them, including too much software running at the same time (not just installed), having insufficient RAM, a hard drive that's wearing out, problems with a laptop's battery or lid switch, a faulty power switch, a flaky surge protector, power problems in your building or neighborhood, etc. In other words, if the above two items were the only symptoms, I would look for other reasons for them, not overheating.

Additional reasons a computer may suddenly shut down that are not related to heat

Certain types of software can shut down your computer on a schedule or at pre-programmed times. For example, your backup program may have an option to shut down the computer after the backup has finished.

Also, a loose power cable may randomly cause a desktop computer to suddenly power off, or cause a laptop to quietly switch to battery power, which can then run the battery down, which then eventually causes the laptop to go to sleep or power off.

Ways to address overheating

Here are some simple things you can try first:
  • Make sure that the power cord is securely connected. Check 3 places: the end at the outlet, the end that goes into the computer, and any junctions along the cord in between.
  • After saving your work and shutting down your computer, try unplugging the outlet end of the power cord from your surge protector and plugging it directly into a wall outlet. If that makes no difference in the overheating, move the power cord back to your surge protector.
  • Make sure nothing is blocking the cooling vents. Leave at least 2-3 inches of room on all sides, and don't operate a laptop on a soft surface like a pillow or a blanket. If your computer is inside a desk or cabinet, don't keep the door or drawer closed all the time.
  • Check that the fan is turning, and blowing warm air out of the case.
  • Desktop computer: If you're comfortable shutting it off, disconnecting all the wires, and opening up the case, use compressed air to carefully blow out any accumulated dust inside. Do this outside!
  • Laptop: Investigating further into the hardware will probably require taking it apart, which I don't recommend for most users.
Laptop cooling pad - regular vs. frozen

Some users find it helpful to put a laptop on a "cooling pad," a separately-powered external platform with built-in fans designed to increase airflow around the case.

However, if your laptop is overheating to the point of frequently shutting off, here's a short-term workaround that can provide temporary relief if you need to get some work done, or copy your data to an external drive (to either back it up or transfer it to another computer):
  • Feel the bottom of the case to find where it's hot.
  • Put a freezer cold-pack under that part to try to cool it off temporarily.
  • Depending on how long that helps, you may need to "rotate in" multiple cold-packs.
  • If you're in a humid environment, be careful to prevent any condensation on the cold-pack from dripping into your laptop.
Call a professional

Overheating can be a complicated problem to solve, so if these simple ideas don't help, I suggest you talk to a professional computer person for more in-depth help diagnosing and solving the problem. Do this before deciding to buy a new computer!

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2017 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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