How-To: Care and Maintenance of your SBC
by Daniel Franklin (ameriDroid Customer Support Technician)
Single Board Computers (SBCs) have a unique appearance, and all of that exposed circuitry and Printed Circuit Board (PCB) can be fun to look at. However, that exposed circuitry can make the proper handling and maintenance of these boards tricky. We would like to offer some tips for those unsure of how to best care for their SBC.
1. Avoid electrical shock damage at all costs. This can kill your little SBC faster than you can say reboot. It doesn’t have to be a lightning strike; As with all exposed computer circuitry, just the static electricity stored in your body can be more than enough to corrupt eMMCs, and fry circuits, transistors and capacitors. Here are some ways to prevent shock to your board:
- Always use a properly rated power supply appropriate to your SBC. When in doubt, use ones recommended by the manufacturer.
- If possible, use an ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) wrist strap that is properly grounded when touching any of your SBC's electronic components.
- If an ESD strap is unavailable, properly ground yourself before you touch any of your SBC's electronic components, by touching an unpainted metal surface first.
- Store your SBC in a case designed for your SBC.
- Keep away from other exposed electronics or devices that might discharge electricity.
- Avoid unintentional contact with your board's GPIO pins, especially between power 3.3V and 5V pins and ground pins between 3.3V and 5V.
2. Protect your SBC from dust and other external pollutants. Dust can be made up of all sorts of materials. Some of these materials can be conductive, and can short out your board by bridging electrical components and circuitry. A little dust in the air is OK, but when it starts to pile up on an exposed SBC, then you may begin to have issues. Here’s what we suggest:
- Again, storing your SBC in an improved case/enclosure of some sort can save you and you wallet a lot of anguish and regret.
- Using compressed air to blow the dust off of an SBC is an effective way to remove most of the dust that has accumulated (make sure you power off your SBC before any cleaning).
- For USB connectors, the terminals can be cleaned by applying a small amount of 99% rubbing alcohol to a cotton swab, and gently swabbing the contacts inside the sockets (again, make sure SBC is off first).
- Be careful with food, drinks and other foreign substances that are subject to spill near your SBC (I know, this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised what people do sometimes).
3. Keep an eye on your SBC’s CPU temperature. Just like any other computer, SBC CPUs and components can get really hot, especially when performing under load. There are a range of proactive cooling solutions available, here are some that we recommend:
- Purchase a heat sink for your SBC if it is compatible. Heat sinks can be invaluable in conducting heat from your SBC and dispersing it through the metal and into the air. There are even heat sink cases available that turn the entire enclosure into a big heat sink.
- Cool your SBC with a fan. Most SBCs have some sort of fan solution that has been developed for them. A fan can really help cool your entire SBC, not just a part of it, and combined with a heat sink, can bulletproof your board against thermal damage. This can be especially important if your SBC is stored in a case with restricted airflow.
- Make sure that the case lets the air in. For those cases that do have a restricted airflow, modifications can often be made to accommodate a heat sink, fan or both. Fresh air is your SBC's friend!
4. Don’t hesitate to read. The included Quick Start Guide (if included by your SBC's manufacturer) and the Internet are your friends, and contain a lot of answers to common problems, as well as helpful suggestions and ideas. If you are unsure about a procedure, fix or tinkering idea you are exploring, we recommend that you take the appropriate steps to find out for sure. Take the time to obtain a GPIO pinout diagram and confirm functionality before you go haphazardly connecting jumper wires, etc. [Editor's note: At least SBCs don't generally cost $3000+, like the computer that I fried in the 1990's while trying to do something that could easily be performed by an SBC today.] The last thing you want is to damage your board or corrupt your software while trying to realize your idea. One of the great things about open source computing is that there are a lot of developers out there that are happy to provide advice and guidance when it comes to modifying and customizing your SBC setup.
- Visit the relevant forums for the board that you are using. These are often administered, frequented and monitored by professionals with experience in engineering, coding, and software development. Reddit and GitHub can also be good resources, among others.
- Wiki pages exist for many SBCs available on the market, and these can provide an easily navigable source of relevant information about a specific product, all condensed and compiled in encyclopedic format.
- Don’t be afraid to email the manufacturer or distributor, as they will probably be the most knowledgeable regarding your board or accessories. If they don’t know the answer, chances are they can point you in the direction of someone who does. One of the things that makes ameriDroid so popular is our commitment to supporting our customers and helping them obtain solutions.
- Search engines are incredible tools. If worst comes to worst, be prepared to spend some time researching the issue. Sometimes it can take a little work, but usually the answer you are looking for is out there, waiting to be found.
As long as you follow these suggestions and exercise a little common sense, you should be using your SBC for a long while, barring any unexpected mishaps. Just remember: A bit of prevention equals a byte of cure.