Fans of Dell: fans of Dell!
January 1, 2006 10:17 PM   Subscribe

My 2001 Dell Dimension 2100 desktop is making this incredibly scary and irregular grinding noise. This sounds way more serious than a fan having some issues, but I'm no expert. Help.

At first, the box just started making more noise than usual, sometimes for ten or twenty minutes at a time - kind of like a motor or something accelerating. I assumed it was something fan-related, but then the sound would go away, for weeks at a time, even if I was doing the same things as when the noise was happening before. This has gone on for a few months.

The computer worked fine while it made this noise - things didn't take longer to process, and I didn't see any consequences with lost data or Blue Screens of Death or anything.

But tonight the noise sounded WAY different, like a garbage disposal or some sort of grinding drain thing - very plumbing-sounding - so I saved the stuff I was working on and shut it down, even though everything on the screen seemed fine.

The noise was really erratic, and continued to happen I turned the computer on again, so I don't know if it's related to how "much" the computer is doing or if it's just some normal process that always happens when the computer's on, and this process is now making this frightening noise. I removed the case cover and saw dust but nothing hanging by a thread or anything. I know approximately zero about how to physically alter the inside of my computer, so there wasn't much I could do anyway. From what I could see, the fan blades look a little dusty, but nothing that screams, "Oh my God, I'm drowning in dust and can't keep spinning, so instead I'll just make this growling cry for help!"

I've seen the recent posts about crabby/demanding Dell desktop fans here on Ask MeFi and cruised around Google, but this sound seems somehow different, new, and more threatening, so I'm quite concerned about turning the computer on again and possibly doing it serious damage.

So, MeFites, any ideas? Will this require a huge outlay of costs and materials to repair? What are some possible causes (I'm thinking fans, but where/which one(s)/why is the noise erratic)? Are there things I, a novice with a screwdriver and some dust wipes, can do on my own? How can I determine which fan is causing the problem? Where would one get a new fan? What if they don't make it anymore - is there only one brand/type that would work here?

Finally, I don't have a lot of money to spend, but I can splurge if it's truly necessary. I appreciate whatever advice you can offer me, as someone who should know more about my computer than I actually do. Thanks.
posted by mdonley to Computers & Internet (9 answers total)
A recent Dell-fan-noise Ask MeFi post here. Couldn't figure out how to put links in questions. Thanks.
posted by mdonley at 10:21 PM on January 1, 2006

First you need to determine if it is, indeed, the fans. If it were me, I'd just run the computer with the case open and visually check the fans when the noise is occuring.

If it's a fan, they are cheap and easy to replace. Removing the fan, cleaning it, and replacing it may or may not work depending on the problem.

If it's your hard drive eating itself, well, good luck.
posted by Justinian at 10:25 PM on January 1, 2006

I've had a few fans go south over the years and they can be pretty damn noisy, but not in my experience garbage disposal noisy.

Last year I got my first garbage disposal noisy. And it was a hard drive head gouging into the platters. Not to scare you, but recovery of data from physically damaged hard drives via the "name" firms starts at about a thousand dollars. I was quoted a discounted priced of two thousands dollars on my 80G hard drive, with an expected recovery rate of 90-95% of the files. My data was not that mission critical to make the investment, though I did lose several hours work for reconstruction not in backups.

If you think there is a decent chance that it is a hard drive failure, you should not be turning on the computer while using that hard drive. The damage gets worse the longer it runs, scrapes, and grinds. There is a simple test you can try. While the computer is unplugged, pull the internal hard drive power cord. All of them if you have more than one hard drive. Then turn on the computer. Of course your computer isn't going to boot properly (unless you have alternate boot means), but we're not interested in that. Listen for the noise. If you hear the noise, lucky you, it means that it is due to a fan or another moving part that isn't your hard drive. See other MF posts/Google for replacement instructions, as appropriate.

If you don't get the noise when the drive has no power, that is not good. You are quite possibly experiencing a hard drive meltdown. With multiple drives, isolate which of the drives is bad by pulling the internal power connect on each one separately and trying a quick power-up. If you hear the bad noise again, power-off quickly and cry or curse loudly as the mood strikes you. If you need something on the drive, you have three choices at this point:

1) Boot up and dump critical files to backup as fast as you can before they get eaten. If you are comfortable with other boot/rescue disks, investigate using them instead of going through the whole Windows boot ordeal. Some recovery boots may allow faster access to user interactive copying -- or better yet, automatic copy with graceful recovery on read errors. Speed and a clear head is critical here; you are racing your hard drive to see whether it eats that irreplaceable data or you get copy first. Copy to a secondary hard drive, if one is available. USB stick if necessary or tape if you got it. Something with quick access speeds. Burning CD's or writing to a floppy, both are excruciatingly slow, use them only if that's all you got and can get.

2) Don't play Speed Racer with your valuable data and instead pull the drive right away. Send it off to a data recovery place. They may -- I don't know -- but they may give you a decent rate if the platters are not physically damaged. Consider also, when I balked at the initial quote of $2500 for my hard drive, they dropped it by $500 -- probably since they already had the sunk investment of opening it up and looking at it -- so you may not want to take the initial quote as absolute. They wouldn't budge after the initial drop for me, though.

3) If you're a serious gambler and poor, you can play mechanic yourself. People have purchased identical drives off of EBay or wherever, opened up both drives, transferred platters from the bad to the good drive, booted it and, once again, immediately copied vital data. Be aware that since you opened up drives in an environment that isn't close to a clean room, the new drive's life is very limited, potentially starting at zero. There are several websites that discuss how to do this with tips on maximizing success. Google for them, they are required reading before you even think about trying the home-brew route.

Finally, if this is absolutely mission critical data here; don't screw around with mini-powerup tests. If the noise goes away when the drive is unplugged but power is to the case, pull it and send it off to data recovery firm of your choice. Don't give it power, period.

Oh yeah, it just occurred to me that years ago there were prank programs which could make one's hard drive sound like it was in its final death throes. Dunno if they were ever updated to run on Windows, and naturally it's extremely unlikely anyway, but if you have a prankster around, might be something to consider.
posted by mdevore at 11:41 PM on January 1, 2006

Do not waste your money on one of those data recovery firms unless it is 3000% necessary! Also, don't try a platter transfer unless it's absolutely necessary. One little piece of debris could easily cause a head crash. Simply buy the program(s) necessary to recover your data to a safe place. The first program I would suggest is SpinRite. It's an incredible peace of software that will work wonders on hard drives with all types of problems. For actual data recovery, use R-Studio or Google around for something else.

But before we get all crazy, I'll bet that it's a fan (or perhaps the CD-ROM drive?). Simply remove the fans and take them to Fry's or another store to find a replacement. Fans aren't very expensive.

Do the process of elimination by removing the power leads for all of your storage and plugging them back in one by one.
posted by mr.dan at 2:52 AM on January 2, 2006

Open the case while the machine is running. Listen closely to determine what is making the noise. You can put your finger in the various case fans to stop them briefly - they won't hurt you, they're plastic and have almost no mass.

Now, what is making the noise?

a) fan on the case or on the CPU - this is unimportant. You can buy a replacement fan for $10-15. The machine will not be harmed.

b) Hard drive - this is bad. Copy your data off immediately, to another drive, another computer, email it to your self at your gmail account, whatever. Your hard drive will soon permanently die, with no hope of recovery.

c) CD drive or floppy drive: unlikely given your description, but it indicates the CD or floppy drive is toast. Fairly cheap to replace.

d) fan on the power supply - possible. This might or might not be replaceable, depends on the power supply. Supply could be damaged if it overheats. Over $100 to replace the whole power supply.

You need to find out if it is a) or b) immediately. Given your description of the noise, it sounds like b) to me. Garbage disposal noises are very indicative of serious hard drive problems.
posted by jellicle at 6:46 AM on January 2, 2006

I'm not sure where jellicle buys his power supplies. Power supplies are pretty cheap. CompUSA has one for $25.

A while back, the power supply on my computer died. I bought a new one at compUSA for $50 and had the computer running in a couple of hours.
posted by malp at 8:09 AM on January 2, 2006

Have you tried blowing out your system yet?
posted by k8t at 8:47 AM on January 2, 2006


I tried mdevore's test - I removed the power cord from the hard drive, turned the lumbering beast on, and lo!, the sweet sound of SOMETHING OTHER than my hard drive making a garbage disposal noise, namely, the fan blades of the heat sink/fan assembly over the microprocessor hitting the frame of the fan. Whew. Now to Fry's, etc, to find a new fan/heatsink thing.

Thanks to everyone for a) super-clear instructions and b) lots of options in case the worst had happened. I love AskMeFi!
posted by mdonley at 10:35 AM on January 2, 2006

When you replace the fan/heatsink just make sure it is seated properly so that the CPU doesn't overheat. It's not rocket science but you should be more careful than if you were just replacing one of the case fans or something.
posted by Justinian at 11:13 AM on January 2, 2006

« Older Where to stay with kids in Tahoe?   |   Help finding a PHP programmer Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.