A computer fan is any fan inside, or attached to, a computer case used for active cooling, and may refer to fans that draw cooler air into the case from the outside, expel warm air from inside, or move air across a heat sink to cool a particular component. Generally these are found in axial and sometimes centrifugal forms. The former is sometimes called a "electric" fan, after the Rotron Vertical line, while the latter may be called a "biscuit blower" in some product literature.
As processors, graphics cards, RAM and other components in computers have increased in speed and power consumption, the amount of heat produced by these components as a side-effect of normal operation has also increased. These components need to be kept within a specified temperature range to prevent overheating, instability, malfunction and damage leading to a shortened component lifespan.
While in earlier personal computers it was possible to cool most components using natural convection (passive cooling), many modern components require more effective active cooling. To cool these components, fans are used to move heated air away from the components and draw cooler air over them. Fans attached to components are usually used in combination with a heatsink to increase the area of heated surface in contact with the air, thereby improving the efficiency of cooling. Fan control is not always an automatic process. A computer's BIOS (basic input/output system) can control the speed of the built in fan system for the computer. A user can even supplement this function with additional cooling components or connect a manual fan controller with knobs that different set fans to different speeds.
In the IBM compatible PC market, the computer's power supply unit (PSU) almost always uses an exhaust fan to expel warm air from the PSU. Active cooling on CPUs started to appear on the Intel 80486, and by 1997 was standard on all desktop processors. Chassis or case fans, usually one exhaust fan to expel heated air from the rear and optionally an intake fan to draw cooler air in through the front, became common with the arrival of the Pentium 4 in late 2000. A third vent fan in the side of the PC, often located over the CPU, is also common. The graphics processing unit (GPU) on most modern graphics cards also require a heatsink and one or more fans. In some cases, the northbridge chip on the motherboard has another heatsink and fan. Other components such as the hard drives and RAM may also be actively cooled, though as of 2012 this remains relatively unusual. It is not uncommon to find five or more fans in a modern PC.
Used to aerate the case of the computer. The components inside the case cannot dissipate heat efficiently if the surrounding air is too hot. Case fans move air through the case, usually drawing cooler outside air in through the front or bottom (where it may also be drawn over the internal hard drive racks) and expelling it through the top or rear. Some ATX tower cases have one or more vents and mounting points in the left side panel where one or more fans may be installed to blow cool air directly onto the motherboard components and expansions cards, which are ones of the largest heat sources.
Standard axial case fans are 80, 92, 120, 140, 200 and 230 mm in width and length. As case fans are often the most readily visible form of cooling on a PC, decorative fans are widely available and may be lit with LEDs, made of UV-reactive plastic, and/or covered with decorative grilles. Decorative fans and accessories are popular with case modders. Air filters are often used over intake fans, to prevent dust from entering the case and clogging up the internal components. Heatsinks are especially vulnerable to being clogged up, as the insulating effect of the dust will rapidly degrade the heatsink's ability to dissipate heat.
While the power supply (PSU) contains a fan with few exceptions, it is not to be used for case ventilation. The hotter the PSU's intake air is, the hotter the PSU gets. As the PSU temperature rises, the conductivity of its internal components decrease. Decreased conductivity means that the PSU will convert more of the input electric energy into thermal energy (heat). This cycle of increasing temperature and decreased efficiency continues until the PSU either overheats, or its cooling fan is spinning fast enough to keep the PSU adequately supplied with comparatively cool air. The PSU is mainly bottom-mounted in modern PCs, having its own dedicated intake and exhaust vents, preferably with a dust filter in its intake vent.
Used to cool the CPU (central processing unit) heatsink. Effective cooling of a concentrated heat source such as a large-scale integrated circuit requires a heatsink, which may be cooled by a fan; use of a fan alone will not prevent overheating of the small chip.
Used to cool the heatsink of the graphics processing unit or the memory on graphics cards. These fans were not necessary on older cards because of their low power dissipation, but most modern graphics cards designed for 3D graphics and gaming need their own dedicated cooling fans. Some of the higher powered cards can produce more heat than the CPU (dissipating up to 289 watts), so effective cooling is especially important. Since 2010, graphics cards have been released with either axial fans, or a centrifugal fan commonly known as a blower, turbo or squirrel cage fan.
Used to cool the heatsink of the northbridge of a motherboard's chipset; this may be needed where the system bus is significantly overclocked and dissipates more power than as usual, but may otherwise be unnecessary. As more features of the chipset are integrated into the central processing unit, the role of the chipset has been reduced and the heat generation reduced also.
Fans may be mounted next to or onto a hard disk drive for cooling purposes. Hard drives can produce considerable heat over time, and are heat sensitive components that should not operate at excessive temperatures. In many situations, natural convective cooling suffices, but in some cases fans may be required. These may include -
Fans are, less commonly, used for other purposes such as:
Due to the low pressure, high volume air flows they create, most fans used in computers are of the axial flow type; centrifugal and crossflow fans type. Two important functional specifications are the airflow that can be moved, typically stated in cubic feet per minute (CFM), and static pressure. Given in decibels, the sound volume figure can be also very important for home and office computers; larger fans are generally quieter for the same CFM.
Many gamers, case modders, and enthusiasts utilize fans illuminated with colored LED lights. Multi-colored fans are also available.
The dimensions and mounting holes must suit the equipment that uses the fan. Square-framed fans are usually used, but round frames are also used, often so that a larger fan than the mounting holes would otherwise allow can be used (e.g., a 120 mm fan with holes for the corners of a 90 mm square fan). The width of square fans and the diameter of round ones are usually stated in millimeters. The dimension given is the outside width of the fan, not the distance between mounting holes. Common sizes include 40 mm, 60 mm, 80 mm, 92 mm, 120 mm and 140 mm, although 8 mm, 17 mm, 20 mm, 25 mm, 30 mm, 35 mm, 38 mm, 45 mm, 50 mm, 70 mm, 250 mm and 360 mm sizes are also available. Heights are typically 10 mm, 25 mm or 38 mm, but this is usually not an important dimension as it does not affect mounting holes or apertures in the case.
Typically, square 120 mm and 140 mm case and power supply fans are used where cooling requirements are demanding, as for computers used to play games, and for quieter operation at lower speeds. 80 mm and 92 mm fans are used in less demanding applications, or where larger fans would not be compatible. Smaller fans are usually used for cooling CPUs, graphics cards, northbridges, etc.
Screw hole spacings and fan sizes:
The speed of rotation (specified in revolutions per minute, RPM) together with the static pressure determine the airflow for a given fan. Where noise is an issue, larger, slower-turning fans are quieter than smaller, faster fans that can move the same airflow. Fan noise has been found to be roughly proportional to the fifth power of fan speed; halving the speed reduces the noise by about 15 dB. Axial fans may rotate at speeds of up to around 23,000 rpm for smaller sizes.
Fans may be controlled by sensors and circuits that reduce their speed when temperature is not high, leading to quieter operation, longer life, and lower power consumption than fixed-speed fans. Fan lifetimes are usually quoted under the assumption of running at maximum speed and at a fixed ambient temperature.
A fan with high static pressure is more effective at forcing air through restricted spaces, such as the gaps between a radiator or heatsink; static pressure is more important than airflow in CFM when choosing a fan for use with a heatsink. The relative importance of static pressure depends on the degree to which the airflow is restricted by geometry; static pressure becomes more important as the spacing between heatsink fins decreases. Static pressure is usually stated in either mm Hg or mm H2O.
The type of bearing used in a fan can affect its performance and noise. Most computer fans use one of the following bearing types:
Connectors usually used for computer fans are the following:
If a fan is not desirable, because of noise, reliability, or environmental concerns, there are some alternatives. Some improvement can be achieved by eliminating all fans except one in the power supply which also draws hot air out of the case.
Systems can be designed to use passive cooling alone, reducing noise and eliminating moving parts that may fail. This can be achieved by:
Other methods of cooling include:
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