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Computers help us with so many aspects of our lives today, and some of us might not realize that we’re surrounded by them. There are simple computers in various electronics that we might use, but we also have powerful, complex ones running things like our smartphones, tablets, televisions, e-readers, and traditional desktops or laptops.
With so much going on under the hoods that we can’t see, we may not realize just how hard our devices work for us. When they need to run resource-intensive programs, particularly for a long time, they start to heat up. Because heat and electronics don’t mix with each other well, computers need a way to keep cool.
Components like fans help with this, but the machines also need a medium that can help with the transfer of heat away from parts like the central processor. Thermal pads are one such option, and they work in conjunction with heatsinks to fill in gaps that could cause heat retention.
Some computer users have several questions about the nature of thermal pads, and we will try to answer them here. People may notice that some of these pads appear to be sticky, leave a filmy residue behind, or other physical things that might cause issues over time. We will address these things, and we’ll also cover whether the pads dry out, melt, or are things you can stack or compress in some way.
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Technically, thermal pads aren’t usually sticky if you’re just dealing with the base items themselves, but some versions can have sticky elements that manufacturers add to them.
A typical pad will sit between the surfaces of the heatsink and the unit that needs to stay cool.
In most cases, you’ll find these pads alongside either the central processing unit or the graphics processing unit. For either one, you shouldn’t notice that the pads feel sticky on their own.
However, you may find some thermal pads that come with adhesives or tapes that can help you secure the items in place when you’re working inside your computer.
Even if your pad does not come with any way to attach it more firmly between the heatsink and another component, you can get tape or other adhesive materials to do this job.
In fact, it is relatively common for tech and computer hobbyists to recommend this step as a way to add some extra security to your thermal pad placement. With all of this said, there is still at least one exception for users to consider.
You can get adhesive thermal pads that are supposed to be sticky enough to hold themselves in place firmly once you install them. These pads are a different type from the ones that we mention above, but we would still recommend that you get some extra tape or adhesive to go with your pads, even if the ones you buy are supposed to come with their own sticky surfaces.
Our reason for this is that even sticky thermal pads don’t tend to be very adhesive on their own. While the quality can vary depending on which brand or model of pad you buy, the overall grip strength of pads such as these doesn’t seem to be strong enough to cement them in place between the computer’s parts. To mitigate this issue, it is a good idea for you to plan to have some tape or other material on hand to help the pads stay where they are.
Yes, thermal pads can leave a residue behind them over time. There may be a couple of reasons for this.
First, some manufacturers apply an oil-like coating to some of their pads. It is possible that they do this to keep some of the smaller parts lubricated, but this oily coating can confuse newcomers who are just taking apart their computers and replacing things for the first time.
Fortunately, you should be able to wipe this kind of coating off the surface of the pad easily with a soft, clean cloth. Even if you find that this oil seems like it leaked through to the other side of the component itself, don’t worry. The coating can travel through microscopic holes and reach the other side, but it is not as heavy or aggressive as it might seem to be at first glance.
The other reason that a thermal pad might leave some kind of residue has to do with its composition. Many pads have a base of silicone. If you installed your thermal pad a long time ago, the silicone molecules might drain out a bit over the course of many cycles of constant heating and cooling.
It is important to remember that the silicone isn’t melting, however. The pad will already contain molecules of liquid silicone when you get it. Over a long enough time, some of these molecules can drain their residue out and leave it behind on the board.
Any residue that the thermal pad may leave in its wake should be non-corrosive, meaning that it should pose no danger to your computer’s parts. However, you may still want to remove it. If so, you can try soaking the pad for a bit and scraping off the residue. It may be possible to wipe up the residue with a cloth, too.
Although this isn’t strictly a necessary step, this cleaning could be important to the general health of the pad. If the oils or residues leak out too much, they could make it harder for the pads to maintain good contact with the components. When this happens, the pads may lose some of the effectiveness they have when it comes to keeping things cool.
Yes, it is possible for thermal pads to dry out over a long time. Again, after many cycles of taking on heat to keep components cool, some of the softer, more viscous materials in the pad could dry out. When this happens, the pads can also get harder than they were when you bought them.
This is not necessarily unusual, and all thermal compounds you’ll find on the market have some kind of shelf life. If your pad does dry out, it might be a good idea to replace it.
It is also true that some developers make their pads to be harder than others by default. Even so, it should take several years for a new pad to feel dry. If you are having problems with pads seeming to dry out far too quickly, their quality may not be very good.
In a way, thermal pads can melt. However, this topic relates to what we mentioned earlier about the silicone base. The compositions of most thermal pads are supposed to allow them to “melt” once they heat up to normal operating temperatures.
When this happens, you get the seeping effect that we went over earlier. While the compounds in thermal pads should not hurt your boards, it is still a good idea to replace them in order to minimize the risk of problems with the mounting surface happening in the future.
Yes, you can stack thermal pads on top of one another. Whether you should do this can depend on how you want the pads to do their job. Typically, stacking pads atop one another can lead to a slight degradation in their performance levels overall.
However, it is also important to use the correct thickness when it comes to making contact between the heatsink and the components of the computer that the sink needs to cool.
For this reason, it might be preferable to you to stack more than one pad to achieve the thickness or height that you need. If the thickness is off, the padding might not be able to seat itself correctly. This can lead to gaps that cause overheating.
Thermal pads need at least some compression. How much compression a particular pad might need can vary. However, some percentage of compression can help the pad achieve what the manufacturer might call its true thermal conductivity rating that you will see on the package.
While thermal conductivity is an important aspect of any pad, its relative hardness, compression testing, and differences in structure can also help you determine how effective yours might be.
If you apply too much compression to a pad, it can break things on the components that the pad is trying to cool. However, pads do soften over time, and that means that they need some compressive force pressing down on them in order to help them keep parts in your computer cool.
It is possible for you to replace an old pad with paste. However, in order to do this correctly, you’ll need to use the appropriate kind of paste. There are regular thermal pastes that manufacturers create for various applications, but these kinds are not necessarily the best ones to act as successors to worn out thermal pads.
This is because regular thermal pastes should be very viscous in order to cover small gaps. If you want to replace a worn thermal pad with paste instead, you need a solution that is quite gummy.
Instead of covering small gaps, you want this kind of paste to handle big gaps. You also want the paste to have high levels of thermal conductivity.
Thermal pads, just like pastes, are good for keeping certain components in computers cool when things start to heat up. Most pads shouldn’t be sticky by themselves, but you can use some adhesives to help with that.
Furthermore, manufacturers make pads in ways that keep them quite robust over long periods, but you may need to replace pads that dry out after a few years. If you would prefer to go with thermal paste, make sure that you choose one that the developers rate specifically for cases where you would use it instead of an old pad.