What's That Grinding Sound In My Computer?

My computer is making strange grinding sounds, but not all the time. There is no rhyme or reason to when the noise occurs; it just seems to go in and out on its own. What can this be and what should I do? –Tom

Most of us operate our computers in an environment where we can hear the normal whirring and blowing sounds of the various fans and mechanical components that are inside of the computer.

When you start to hear grinding sounds from your computer box (often referred to as the CPU), it most likely will be one of the mechanical devices inside the computer.

The actual device that is making the noise can either signal a minor issue or a major issue, so it is important that you determine the source of the noise as soon as possible.

Some of the more minor items include floppy drives, CD or DVD drives or secondary case cooling fans. The reason that I refer to them as minor is that if they do fail, it won’t cause permanent damage to the system or cause the system to be completely inoperable.

If you are familiar with the insides of a computer, you can remove the cover (with the system turned off) and try to locate the source of the noise just by listening. Be sure to avoid touching any of the electronic boards so you don’t generate electrostatic discharge (ESD), especially if you are on carpet.

If the grinding noise is constant, all of the minor items can be quickly eliminated by shutting down the computer and disconnecting the power to each item (one at a time) then restarting your system.

The items that could create a major issue include your power supply cooling fan, your processor cooling fan and your hard drive.

If the power supply cooling fan (usually located at the top and back of your computer) is the source of the noise, it is more annoying than it is destructive. If the nose stops, however, it could mean that the grinding fan has stopped spinning all together, which will cause the power supply to overheat and fail (the most obvious symptom of this failure is that nothing will power on).

When a power supply overheats, before it completely fails, it is likely to start sounding erratic voltage to the various devices that are connected to it, such as your motherboard, add-on cards, memory, processor or hard drive.

If the voltage becomes excessive, it can cause damage to these components further increasing the cost of repairs.

The key here is that if the grinding sound suddenly stops on its own, make sure that the power supply fan is still spinning. Usually, you can just hold your hand by the opening of the fan to feel that it’s still blowing out.

If it has stopped spinning, shut your computer off immediately and have it serviced by an experienced person that will also examine your main board for signs of “blown caps” (capacitors).

Blown capacitors are much more common than most folks realize because they don’t necessarily cause the computer to stop working, they cause the computer to have very strange intermittent issues (examples of how to spot them can be found here).

If the noise is coming from the fan that is designed to cool your processor, you will want to replace the fan before it fails, especially if you are running an AMD processor. Over the years, we have seen Intel processors hold up better when they overheat, but you really don’t want to put any processor in a position to ever overheat.

The final mechanical item that will cause you the most distress is your hard drive. If you know that the sound is coming from the hard drive or if the grinding sound coincides with the flashing of the hard drive light (on the front of your computer) or if it’s accompanied by an occasional clicking sound (in the data recovery business, we refer to this as the “click of death”), your data could be in jeopardy.

The various components inside of the hard disk drive are designed to operate in very tight tolerances and running a computer with a failing disk drive will most likely cause irreparable damage. Again, if you think the sounds are coming from your hard drive, turn off your computer immediately and seek a qualified technician, especially if you don’t have a good backup.

The real message is when you hear strange noises coming from your computer don’t ignore it. Unless you like big repair bills, you don’t drive your car until it breaks, so from now on, don’t drive your computer until it crashes either.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services, Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show, and Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers.

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  • JaneDoeJohnDoe

    If you are familiar with the insides of a computer, you can remove the cover (with the system turned off) and try to locate the source of the noise just by listening.
     
    How do you hear the noise when the system is turned off?  lmao