Getting a Free Tower or Desktop Computer, CRT Monitor, or Parts If You Have Some Tech Skills
If someone has trashed a desktop computer, tower computer, or CRT display, you may be having a good day. They often work. You fix them up and you not only can have a working system for some effort and little or no money, you might even make a small income by selling some of them.
This depends on local law as well as custom. Laws vary on whether you can pick up trash so you can recycle it. For example, in one locality it’s generally legal as long as you don’t use a motor vehicle (the motor vehicle can be seized). Maybe a shopping cart or hand truck is allowed. Check the laws first.
Where and When to Find Free Goodies
Large old office buildings without driveways had the best pickings where I lived. Office buildings have more computers per thousand square feet of floor space than do most factories or homes. While new office buildings, being prestigious, tend to have just one or two giant tenants each to fill all the floors, old office buildings tend to have many small tenants, and that makes a difference because giant tenants can usually afford to recycle old computers by gutting interiors and buying better parts or selling the outdated machines, while small tenants usually can’t afford to do much more than trash them. Driveways are usually off-limits to the public, so where there’s no driveway the trash more often goes to the sidewalk. And, of course, it’s more efficient to check one large office building than several small ones. Go on weekdays after , when businesses have closed for the day and already put out their trash, although maybe you need to go before anyone else goes plucking. Don’t wait till morning because the trash haulers will already have hauled. If someone official, or connected with the building or a trash hauler, tells you to leave, it’s likely a good idea to leave with what you already own, so keep your tools handy and easily portable in a second, even when the law is on your side. And trespassing is against the law, probably everywhere.
On most nights you won’t find anything, but sometimes you will.
One person made a living going through what stores discarded, often in original retail cartons, and selling it, although they made their income from a much larger variety of products than just computers. Some products had been returned by store customers; others were simply no longer being offered for sale inside. That person chose stores that had large inventories of electronics, such as high-tech stores and office supply stores, and stores that were either going out of business or were renovating their interiors and needed to clear their space. This was reported on a Wired magazine website.
Know something about computers before you scavenge. You should recognize various connectors, components, and shapes. Scott Mueller has written good books on this. If you don’t, you’ll wind up with lots of exotic equipment you probably can’t use, not to mention that a lot of it is heavy to carry and much of it won’t work unless repaired. Never mind that it’s free; you should be discerning. Don’t be in a rush, like your first find has to be made of gold. With a good eye and several trips collecting what you find, you should wind up with at least one working machine. It won’t be the latest model but it’ll likely be good enough, after you erase the hard drive thoroughly and install fresh software (a lot of top-notch software is free). Be a good neighbor and clean up where you scavenge. Thick gloves are helpful even in the summer when you’re carrying a heavy computer with sharp metal edges.
Repairs will be of the do-it-yourself persuasion and may take hours or days. If you’re going to pay a shop to do it, it probably makes more sense to buy a used computer you can test well enough before you buy. Keep in mind that doing your own repairs takes time for research, diagnosis, and doing them and you have to do it right, which means research and understanding why a step is part of the process are very helpful. One kind of repair, if done so it looks good but is actually wrong, can give you a fire. You also don’t want pets and toddlers moving cute green things around. You should know electrical safety. Some monitors, at least CRTs, have more voltage than did the chair at Sing Sing. A monitor you can plug into a wall to draw 120 volts can have 27,000 volts inside, and it stays high even when unplugged a long time. Your reaction will be heart-stopping. Permanently. When you die, you can’t complain.
Good books will keep you humming. If you try to get official manufacturers’ manuals and can’t find them, try the Wayback Machine at archive.org, especially if you first find the original URL where the manual used to be. You can often get specifications, a user guide, and a service and maintenance manual for a computer that way and at least specs for other kinds of hardware, like monitors and cards. It also helps to have spare parts that are known to be good, because swapping can help with diagnosis. Buy tools in advance, because running out the door at the last minute requires a fatter wallet. Tools should include an antistatic wriststrap and a multimeter. Screwdrivers with square shafts are more powerful than the same drivers with standard round shafts, although they cost a few dollars more, because with a square shaft you can loosen a really tight bolt or screw, including a rusted one, by adding a wrench or pliers to the shaft for leverage while you turn (but don’t do that to tighten anything or you may never get it out again). Most of these tools do not need fancy brand names.
If you’re prepared, you can start the hunt.
Thin screens or LCDs are likely broken.
CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors, the bulky type shaped like square funnels, although less common lately, come in a few sizes. Very big ones in the trash probably don’t work. But, in my experience, among medium-sized ones, about 12 to 20 inches diagonally across the glass, about half of them work. They wound up in the trash simply because new, usually bigger, ones got installed, probably. Don’t take one that looks like someone spilled soda on it or that has a major crack suggesting it fell quite a distance or if it’s been raining or snowing since it was put out. If you take one that got snowed or rained on, it might take a month to dry. Yes, a month. Coffee, soda, and whatnot can damage it permanently, possibly producing electrical shorts. Repairs are mostly out of the question, as the designs are proprietary. But cosmetic scratches are nothing to worry about. After all that, to use one you may need a software driver for your operating system to recognize that particular monitor; if you need one, hardware manufacturers, OS firms, and several independent websites offer drivers, often free (for the sake of quality, search them in that order).
Parts of all kinds are common. You can amass quite a few hard drives this way, as well as disc drives, child cards, power supplies, fans, and manuals. Not so much memory will be found, since many people know to keep it. Carry a couple of common screwdrivers, flat-bladed and cross-bladed (Phillips), and a bag that won’t tear easily even with a fairly heavy load, since cards often have relatively sharp corners.
When storing parts, keep anything with an exposed printed circuit board in its own wrapper, either a paper envelope or an antistatic plastic bag (not just any plastic bag). The idea is to avoid exposure to static electricity, which can damage the board.
If you have parts but not enough to build a complete computer and you’re getting impatient, you can buy a barebones computer. It’s incomplete and priced accordingly. You add what’s missing and start working. Or you stay patient and keep checking companies’ trash till you have everything you need for free.
If you are starting to accumulate too many parts, one way to be selective is to keep only those that conform to the ATX form factor or will work in computers that follow that specification. Parts made to the ATX spec tend to have lower prices than do parts made to other specs, because of the volume of manufacturing. However, beware, because for some years Dell was making system boards and power supply units (PSUs) that looked like they were ATX but which Dell did not say were, and a mismatch could cause a fire. The fire reportedly didn’t leave the computer but an internal fire is an awful risk to your life. Dell had designed those two parts so two wires were switched around. You’d be okay if both parts were Dell ATX look-alikes or both parts were really ATX, but one being ATX and the other part not being ATX could get you a fire. Dell stopped producing that design, but you may still run into old parts or old computers with that risk. Either match them properly or buy a special adapter to go between the power supply and the system board (motherboard).
Erase hard drives. The best way is to install them, with no other hard disk drives present, into a computer with a CD drive. If a hard drive is already in that computer and you don’t want to erase that one, not only should you disconnect the hard drive you want left alone, you should take it completely out of the computer, just to be sure. Otherwise, this procedure will erase it. Get DBAN (Darik’s Boot and Nuke) program (I use version 2.2.8 but a later version may be available) for free and download it onto a CD. DBAN is for serious erasure. It has its own operating system, so it will boot up. Run DBAN. You can be pretty sure no one’s going to get anything back after you’ve run that program. It can take a day or several days to run it, but you don’t have to do much. You set the settings; I prefer the options that give the most security. It starts and immediately estimates how long it will take. Look at the screen again in about half an hour and see the latest estimate for how long it will take. That last figure is likely nearly accurate. You can ignore the computer until around when it’s supposed to be done. You supply the AC electricity and it’ll do the rest.
Soapbox: Recent trends toward removing computers, monitors, circuit boards, and general electronics from trash and recyclables adds to making getting computers more expensive. There may be a trend toward compacting refuse where you might plow through it, and that makes it unavailable or useless. Many people with low incomes and few assets need access to computers of their own. The difference between a computer at $500 and one fixed up for $50 is enough to be worth encouraging. I’d rather that recyclables be available for plucking, perhaps at central locations run by trash-collecting agencies of local governments.
You can have a decent computer with almost nothing out of your coin pocket, and maybe no coin at all.