How often should diskette drives be cleaned? A survey of manufacturers, computer dealers and service technicians yielded conflicting suggestions.
The advice seems to fall into two camps. The people who build and install the disk drives said cleaning is rarely necessary, and some of them emphatically warned that the drives can be seriously damaged by the inexpensive cleaning kits sold in most stores.
On the other hand, some of the people who sell the computers and the disk drive cleaning kits recoiled at the thought of letting even a week go by without swabbing the decks.
Although fancy cleaning kits can cost as much as $50, the most popular versions cost about $10 and consist of a slightly abrasive floppy disk cleaning pad and perhaps a vial of alcohol.
Why would one need a disk drive cleaner in the first place? Floppy disks inevitably introduce tiny bits of grit into the drive unit, either through hitchhiking dust particles or as loose flecks of the magnetic material that holds data on the diskette. If this debris builds up significantly, it can harm or even ruin other diskettes.
But how long does it take for a significant risk to develop? According to a representative in the service department of one of the large retail computer franchises in Manhattan, users should clean their drives “at least” once a week. This was echoed at a several other retail computer dealerships.
Such advice makes computer manufacturers howl “fatal error.” “Perhaps once every six months,” a technical adviser at Kaypro allowed, “but you wouldn’t want to clean it much more than that. Some kit disk cleaners on the market are mildly corrosive and if used frequently might harm the disks.”
A spokesman at Apple said the company does not recommend the cleaning kits at all. “Users who try the store-bought cleaners could end up messing up the drives more than fixing them,” he said. “If there’s a problem, take the drive to an authorized dealer.”
Even Verbatim of Sunnyvale, Calif., which makes Datalife, one of the most popular kits, says cleaning the drives daily is silly unless “hundreds or thousands” of diskettes are run in and out regularly. For the average home or office user, a Verbatim technician said, once every month or two would suffice. He denied that his company’s kit would harm disk drives unless it was used improperly. Verbatim engineers ran a cleaning disk nonstop for two days—the average use is a few seconds—and there was no measurable wear, he said.
Obviously there is a disagreement, but the weight of the evidence certainly goes against frequent cleaning, say, more than once every few months. If the drive has been functioning well, the adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” would seem sensible. If the drive is not functioning well, it probably requires the services of a qualified repair technician.
A recommended course of action would be to invest the cost of one of the cleaning kits in Henry F. Beechhold’s The Plain English Repair and Maintenance Guide for Home Computers (Simon & Schuster, $14.95). Mr. Beechhold gives clear and well-illustrated instructions on how to properly clean a disk drive in just a few minutes and for just a few cents worth of materials.