Computer froze up, emitted melting plastic smell, but now works fine.
February 1, 2014 8:10 PM   Subscribe

So, I have a PC. It was custom built by some guy but is nothing special. Runs XP, has a hard drive, etc. Earlier today I used it for 2-3 hours and then shut it down. It emitted a serious melting plastic smell that stunk up half the house, and it froze on the shutdown screen--the mouse would not move. I freaked out and unplugged it. There was no smoke or anything visible, and there were no sounds of any sort. I opened it up and nothing looks amiss. I started it up just now and it works fine. No smells, all the fans work fine. I'm actually using it to post this question. Any idea what could have happened? I'm 99% sure it was the computer emitting the smell--it was definitely localized right there.
posted by Slinga to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
Dust in a fan motor, cat hair on a hot hard drive, cocaine spilled on the motherboard?

We're all going to just guess here about this...

I would continue to use it, but I would shut it down when I'm not sitting in front of it with a fire extinguisher. (or use this as an excuse to go buy a new 13" MacAir!)
posted by HuronBob at 8:18 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you backed up your files?
posted by jbenben at 8:33 PM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I had this happen a few years ago when a capacitor melted down. A week or so later the motherboard caught fire. Backup your files.
posted by Jairus at 8:48 PM on February 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Runs XP

In any event, you're going to want to upgrade in the next couple of months.
posted by zamboni at 9:02 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Very often strange computer smells are caused by capacitors going bad. Sometimes they can do so but keep working, at least for a while. But zamboni is correct, you need to have a plan to not being using XP in about a month. And jbenben as well - make sure you have current copies of your files on an external drive.
posted by Candleman at 9:18 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Burst capacitor remnants on the motherboard will probably be close to the processor if they're there, so if there's a shroud on the CPU cooling fan that obscures your view of that part of the mobo, take it off and look around under it.

If you can't see anything amiss with the motherboard itself, the next most likely place for a failed capacitor is inside the power supply. Even if it's still working it will be doing so at reduced efficiency and vastly reduced reliability. If that were my PC I'd be opening up the PSU for a look, but I'm a technician and you're not, so take it to one and get it checked out.

And of course you already have up to date backups of everything you care about, because you are clueful enough to understand that digital data doesn't really exist unless you can put your hands on at least two copies.
posted by flabdablet at 1:34 AM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Assume your computer could die at any instant, just completely brick itself, and make sure that this will not incommode you at all.

I'm repeating this because it's the sort of thing that should be repeated.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:57 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh and to also repeat what flabdablet said, don't open up the PSU - it contains major voltages even when the computer is switched off.

Basically, get a new computer is what we're saying.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:58 PM on February 2, 2014

My experience is that tantalum caps blow more often than electrolytics. The former are usually too expensive to over-spec the voltages on, so they are more often borderline. They stink good and proper, then stop, because they are usually small.

Electrolytics are bigger, and usually stink for longer.

When tantalums go, they often pop or crack. Electrolytics not so much. Big ones emit lots of smoke and smell like the Exxon Valdese.

Usually, electrolytics are in the power supply. Tantalums more on the PC boards. Generally, not always.
posted by FauxScot at 3:22 PM on February 2, 2014

Also n-thing getting anything important on that computer backed up. There are plenty of ways for computers to still nominally work despite failed components, but it's very likely that there's a component on its last legs in there. Also, if it's running XP, it is definitely time to upgrade as it's going to get progressively harder past April to keep it running malware free if you use it to access the internet at all.
posted by Aleyn at 4:52 PM on February 2, 2014

If there's anything on that hard drive you want, yes, back it up -- frankly I'd just remove the HDD entire and toss the rest. You can get the drive into an external enclosure or something if you no longer have a computer that will match the interface, and then connect it to your modern equipment using USB.
posted by dhartung at 10:55 PM on February 2, 2014

When tantalums go, they often pop or crack. Electrolytics not so much.

Then again, I've seen and heard a low-ESR aluminium electrolytic go off like a firecracker (even looked like a firecracker post-explosion - can blown to FK where, just shreds of blown-out torn brown paper left attached to the PCB) and I've seen a row of solid tantalums fail in match-head mode, erupting in hissing towers of white-hot flame.

All of them stank afterwards.
posted by flabdablet at 4:01 AM on February 3, 2014

« Older So what are the rules around PACs and labor unions...   |   How can I display football scores/info on a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.