Besides your camera, your computer is probably your single most important piece of photography equipment.
Laptops and iMacs are nice, but if you’re relying on a big beefy desktop PC or Mac Pro to take care of the heavy lifting, your computer is probably tucked away in a computer cabinet somewhere under your desk.
Have you ever checked to see how hot your hard working computer is getting in that enclosed space?
If not, I suggest you check – a computer that is always running hot will not perform as well and will have a drastically shorter life span than a computer with adequate ventilation. There is a big difference between the amount of heat generated by the average office PC running Excel and a creative professional’s PC rendering 4k video. And although most computer desks come with a computer cabinet that isn’t totally enclosed, the available openings can be clogged with wires or ineffective if pushed up against a wall.
So, in this article I am going to share a few really easy ways to add active computer cabinet cooling with fans.
Computer Cabinet Ventilation Locations
If you are using a typical Ikea-esque computer desk, the computer cabinet likely has 5/8″ MDF sides and either no back or a flimsy thin cardboard / masonite back. You want to mount your computer cabinet cooling fans to something solid and dense. If you try to attach a fan to the flimsy back it will just amplify the vibrations from the fan like a drum. That means that you likely have to cut a hole or holes through the sides of your cabinet.
Depending on your carpentry skills, you could either use a hole saw or a jig saw. Use masking tape to protect the finish on the surface of your cabinet before you start cutting, and if you are using a hole saw, start the hole from both sides to avoid damaging the finish when the saw breaks through.
Also, remember that MDF connectors can extend up to a couple inches past the edge – so don’t get too close to the corners.
Finally, remember that hot air rises, so ventilation near the top of your cabinet will be more effective than ventilation on the bottom.
Quick and Cheap Computer Cabinet Fan
The easiest and cheapest way to add a fan to your computer cabinet is to use an external USB cooling fan. There are a ton of options available at Amazon, but a model like this 80mm fan gets its power from a USB port on the back of your computer, has a built in speed controller and its only $10. Or you could use a larger 120mm diameter model.
The advantage of a USB fan is that it will automatically power on when your computer is on, and with a speed controller, you can turn the fan speed down if you want it to run with minimal noise.
To mount a fan like this to your computer cabinet, you can just remove the wire cage and stick it directly to the side of your computer cabinet with double sided foam tape (with this particular model you might also have to move the speed controller to mount it flush).
Slightly More Complicated and Expensive Computer Cabinet Fan
A slightly more complicated and expensive option is to use a commercially available cabinet fan system. Again, there is a wide range of models available on Amazon, but something like this 120mm fan has a nice face grill and a thermostat on/of and speed control.
Installation will be a little more involved with this model, especially since you will have to cut rectangular shaped holes with a jigsaw – but it shouldn’t be too complicated. The only problem with a model like this is that it has a wall-wart AC outlet – which means that its not necessarily going to be on or off when your computer is on or off.
I ended up installing two 120mm diameter fans on the side of my computer cabinet. That is way more capacity than is necessary, which allows me to run them at minimum speed to keep the noise down. I used a commercially available option, but in hindsight an external USB fan would have been just as effective and a lot easier to install.
Before I installed the cabinet fans there was a noticeable amount of hot air coming from the front of my computer cabinet. With the fans installed and running at low speed, just that little bit of active airflow keeps everything nice and cool. There is a little bit of fan noise from the fans I used – which I hate – but its better than frying the CPU.
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