Cut Your Dirty Canned Air Habit with These Three Alternatives

Cut Your Dirty Canned Air Habit with These Three Alternatives

Canned air, or gas duster, is what you probably reach for when there’s hard-to-reach gunk inside your gear. It’s easy to find at big-box stores or online, it’s relatively cheap (if you don’t think about paying for air), and it moves dust. It seems like the right tool for the job. But you shouldn’t use it.

Allow me to suggest some alternatives to canned air, which, for starters, is not canned air, but compressed refrigerant. Whatever you call it, spray dusters are bad for the environment, less agile than hand tools, and deadly if abused.

I’ll warn you up front: The alternatives to gas dusters are not as convenient as buying a cheap, disposable product. But neither are ceramic dishes and reusable totes instead of styrofoam and plastic grocery bags. And you can kick your habit at a few different price points and commitment levels.

Why You Should Ditch Canned Air

Spraying gas duster inside a desktop PC case.
Iimage by Drb400atx/Wikimedia

Take a look at the contents of a can of common gas duster, like Dust Off.  At best, there’s difluoroethane inside. While not an ozone-depleting gas, difluoroethane is a greenhouse gas. It has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 140, according to the EPA, meaning one pound of difluoroethane is the equivalent of 140 pounds of carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming. Cans containing tetrafluoroethane are far worse, with a GWP of 1,300, and lasting 14 years in the environment. If you’re using canned air with butane inside, that’s both an environmental nightmare and highly flammable, so please dispose of that responsibly.

Canned air works through a useful, and honestly fascinating quirk of thermodynamics, explained in a quick video by Minute Physics. As noted in that explanation, spraying a gas duster any way but straightforward and upright can result in dispensing the liquids inside—I’ve done this nearly every time I’ve used it. The liquids will rapidly cool anything they land on. If it touches your skin, you can get frostbite. The can itself very rapidly cools, such that you can receive cold burns on your hand from holding it too long. Some gas used in canned air is highly flammable.

Having read far too many posts about using canned air to clean electronics, it seems like spraying freezing-cold refrigerants on a circuit board likely won’t short the components, because it evaporates so quickly and is not full of circuit-shorting impurities like water. So to be fair, all you have to worry about is global warming, frostbite, fire hazards, and its deadly properties as an abused inhalant.

You know you’re in a dark place when you find a Snopes post that checks out trueCanned air may be abused by up to 10 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. But even one huffing session with canned air can lead to death, and 100-200 people die each year from inhalant abuse. Inhaled dusting gases displace oxygen in the lungs, remove carbon dioxide from the blood, and can cause heart irregularities or failure, even after one session.

Your Non-Canned Alternatives: Easy, Medium, and Intense

So you’ve arrived at the idea that shipping yourself compressed refrigerants is not a sustainable practice. Great! Now it’s time to figure out some other way to get dust and grime out of your electronics or other devices. We have a few suggestions.

ESD brush

Easy: something very cheap or already owned. Isopropyl alcohol, a compressor, an ESD-safe brush: all this from just one StackExchange thread. Unless it’s a device where literally nothing can reach the dust except air, you don’t have to pretend you work in a clean room on archaeology finds. A small brush or not-too-pointy stick can suffice. If you can open a device and get a non-static cloth in there, you’ll probably get a better clean than peppering it with air bursts, anyways.

Dust blower, the inexpensive kind

Medium: dust blower. It’s a little bulb that you squeeze to create a gust of air. It’s essential for maintaining camera equipment, because canned air is a big no-no for delicate lenses and moving parts. But it’s generally useful for cleaning dust out of little nooks with light to medium air pressure. The “economy” dust blower we sell will do the job. The “Pro” rocket blower upgrade is what I bought for my first DSLR. It’s easier to store upright, it can poke into some deeper spaces, and it is fun as heck to keep on your desk.

Hurricane canless air system

Intense: Hurricane Canless Air. If you go through a lot of canned air, or need a lot of force, a Hurricane system will give you a nearly infinite amount of 240-mile-per-hour portable wind. It’s essentially a small turbine charged with a wall plug. It comes with a number of attachments, including an ESD brush-tipped tube. It’s not quiet, as you’ll see by checking out video reviews. But it is a reusable, non-gaseous, impossible-to-abuse air system that won’t freeze you or the items you’re cleaning.

Any route you take is better than using compressed, abuse-friendly refrigerants, shipped across the country for you. There may be some applications where compressed cleaner is the only thing that will do the job, but probably not in your home or workplace. Let’s all try doing without.