If your power supply is dead, count your screws.

Blog, Computer Repair

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Some years ago, I was watching The Complete Sam Kinison on my original Xbox, sharing some laughs with a friend.  25 minutes or so into the show, I heard a sparking sound.  The video of Sam on the screen turned to a digital photograph, and flames shot forth from my beloved Xbox.  Apparently a bug had crawled into my gaming console seeking warmth, and shorted two points on the motherboard that he shouldn’t have.  This left the charred remains of an insect and the burnt carcass of an Xbox.

“Ma’am, you’ve got a screw loose.”

This story is to setup why it’s important that foreign objects do not enter into our electronic devices.  But also to show that attacks can come from domestic combatants as well.

I recently worked on a computer with a bad power supply.  The power supply unit (PSU) is the component that provides power to the other electronic system components (motherboard, video card, CPU, etc.)  A PSU will last for many years if it is not taxed too hard.  Eventually electronic parts fail, but they fail sooner if they are working harder.  So when a customer told me that she had just had her PSU replaced less than 6 months ago, I know that either the PSU was undersized and had to work harder to keep up with the demand, or, as was the case with Kinison’s Xbox, we had something creating a short.

The job was supposed to be routine.  I opened the case to get a look at the components.  I plugged in the PC and attempted to power it on.  No juice = dead PSU.  Newegg, 50 bucks, and a few minutes got me this PSU with ample power.  Two days later, everything back together.

All together now.

Plugged in and fired up.  I have motherboard lights.  That was easy.  *sniff, sniff*  What’s that smell?  Oh yeah, it’s the smell of hot electronics.  If you ever smell that smell, you need to move faster than A Band Of Ninjas and turn off the power source.  A swift motion here can save you hundreds of dollars and a lot of heart ache.

Further inspection revealed a screw sitting in the bottom of the case wedged against the edge of the motherboard.  A screw that should have been secured in a motherboard standoff.  A standoff holds the motherboard off of the case so that it doesn’t short out and cause the problem we are examining today.  But what if that brass standoff was instead loose between the motherboard and case and had itself caused the short?

Motherboard standoff/cause of all our problems
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the culprit.

That in fact is exactly what happened.  I found this to be true only after doing a complete tear down and removing the motherboard entirely, to find this little guy tucked away causing trouble.  Had the smell of sad electronics not pierced my nose so quickly, it would have meant a new motherboard, and at my expense.

Closing thoughts

There is probably some life-lesson hidden in this story somewhere.  Perhaps about how sometimes the things that are meant to help us can turn around to harm us.  Maybe it’s about how Sam Kinison can kill your electronics from the grave.  I wonder if it’s just about having a keen sense of smell.

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Oh so many time I have seen magic released from the computer case in the form of smoke. Sure standoff are easy to misplace or put in incorrectly not following the standard ATX pattern grounding the motherboard to the case. I found typically high quality PSUs would protect the rest of the system components upon failure but not always. I had an Antec 450w PSU new out of the box lose a capacitor arching to the case before erupting into a grenade of noise and smoke.... All components destroyed. Even if the system completesPOST it could be flaky forever.