“My computer just stopped working – I don’t know why!”

How many times have I heard that one? These days, it seems like my title should be “Computer Mortician” instead of “Computer Repair Tech.”

Let’s face it – today’s desktop and laptop computers have a life expectancy of somewhere around 3 to 5 years due to aggressive hardware refreshes and constantly-evolving marketing. Most hardware is covered by a standard 1-year warranty, so the manufacturers obviously don’t hold a lot of hope for your machine’s longevity. The world’s top two hard drive manufacturers, Seagate and Western Digital, have shortened their warranties from the standard five years to just one, with just a few flagship drives retaining a 3-year warranty.

So when a relatively-new computer suddenly gives up the ghost, most people chalk it up to Darwinism, suicide, or poor manufacturing. We even talk about failures in the passive voice – “my system died,” or “the computer stopped working.” We, the users, can’t be held accountable for the demise of our electronic brethren, right?

Wrong. Most of the time it isn’t suicide or cosmic rays that killed your machine.

It’s homicide.

Today’s user has an expectation that their computer will only last a little while before it needs to be replaced, whether due to a hardware or software failure, planned obsolescence, or some new marketing trend. So we’re careless with our machines’ lives, endangering them through both wrong action and inaction.

Here’s a few of the more common ways to kill your computer:

5. Don’t dust it. Mortality rate: 98.5%

I’ve seen more hardware failures due to dust than any other reason. Those little vents and fans inside your computer that get warm when you use it? They need to be cleaned, regularly and correctly. Otherwise, like a dog stuck in a car on a hot parking lot, they’ll overheat quickly. When heatsinks and fans get caked with dust, smoke particles, and pet fur, they stop being able to transfer heat away from the processor or component, leading to an early demise. Use a can of compressed air monthly to keep them dust-free. DON’T go after them with the vacuum cleaner – the resulting static charge can hurt your machine.

4. Eat, Drink, and Be Sloppy. Mortality rate: 90%

What goes together better than Facebook and French fries, Doritos and downloads? Just like with television, the compulsion to eat and compute simultaneously is inescapable in our culture. Computers are the windows to our work, our friends, and our entertainment. We spend great swaths of time with them at our sides, frequently near meals. So it’s only natural that we reach for a soda or candy bar while at the keyboard. They even have a term for this phenomenon: the “PC Dinner.” But food and electronics are NEVER a good combination, because no matter how careful you are, the food will always win. If you are lucky, your 32 oz Big Gulp will only reach your mouse and keyboard when you knock it over. If you are not lucky and are using a laptop, the consequences of spillage are much, much more severe. There are some stories of success at washing keyboards in the dishwasher, but you can’t do that with a motherboard. Despite what others may say about “safe eating strategies”, my advice is to keep the food at the kitchen table. You need to give your eyes and wrists a break anyway.

3. Ignore software updates. Mortality rate: 70%

Flash player nagging you about an update, but your videos on YouTube still play fine? Windows wants you to stop what you’re doing so it can download a fix? iTunes stops your enjoyment of your music to tell you there’s a point revision out? Most people treat these messages as gentle suggestions for later leisure time instead of the urgent, red-letter warnings that they are. There’s a reason they bothered to update the software – you aren’t safe without it! Nothing smells quite so attractive to spyware, hackers, and botnets as the sweet aroma of a system that isn’t updated. It’s called a Honeypot, people. Just like keeping your nails trimmed and getting your oil changed, make updating your system a recurring ritual – or suffer the consequences.

2. Overclocking. Mortality rate: 65%

Who doesn’t like getting something for nothing? I mean, if you can squeeze a little more mileage out of your computer by running it out of factory spec, why wouldn’t you? Overclocking used to be more difficult, but now almost every motherboard comes with software that allows you to easily overclock your CPU, GPU, and memory. And yes, the software warns you that overclocking your machine can damage it or shorten its lifespan, but that’s just required legal disclaimers, right?

Here’s the thing with overclocking – your CPU or GPU might very well be able to run out of spec for an extended period of time, but can your power supply and your motherboard? When you make demands on the processors, they draw more current. More current creates more heat. Power supplies have to provide current within a very narrow range for processors to function correctly. If the power supply can’t provide enough current, the system hangs. When you’re lucky enough to have a power supply that provides too much current because it is overtaxed and overheated, you get fried components.

1. Filesharing. Mortality rate: 50%

Ah, the allure of torrents and all the free stuff that comes with them. Whether you’re downloading appz, warez, movies, ebooks, music, or pics, your chances of downloading more than you bargained for are about 50/50. Even if your download doesn’t contain a payload, the site you visited to get the torrent almost certainly has some nasties lurking in its code. Banners, pop-ups, Trojans, and a whole host of other problems can be yours, just for visiting a torrent site. Keeping your antivirus up to date and using a filter like PeerBlock can only delay the inevitable infection. How do you think the torrent sites stay in business? Most reputable advertisers won’t touch them. The advertisers that are left are NOT your friends.

So take care of your computer, and just maybe it’ll last you longer than the first three seasons of The Walking Dead.

Got any more tips on what not to do with your machine?