How Often Should You Replace Your Thermal Paste?

Applying Thermal Paste to CPU

Whether you’re building a new computer or have been using your computer for many years; you’re probably wondering, how often you should replace your thermal paste, or if you should even replace it at all.

If you’re in this situation don’t worry because we have the answer for you.

Thermal paste should last around 5-6 years without any problems. If your computer starts to black screen or overheat; this could mean it’s time to replace your thermal paste. If your CPU is consistently above 80 degrees C, and your cooling system is working fine this could be a sign that your thermal paste isn’t performing, and could mean you need to replace it.

You should always check other parts in your system first if your computer is overheating or black screening before you replace your thermal paste. If your CPU is constantly overheating it could be due to a poor cooling system such as poor airflow or lack of airflow in the computer.

However, if you have a fully functional cooling system it might be time to re-apply your thermal paste.

How Does Thermal Paste Work?

Thermal paste works by covering microscopic imperfections on the surface of both the cooler and the CPU. Even though these metal surfaces look smooth to the naked eye, they actually have microscopic imperfections that let air flow between the CPU and cooler which is not good.

This is where thermal paste comes into play.

Thermal paste isn’t a liquid but isn’t completely solid either. This lets the thermal paste cover the microscopic scratches that are engraved on the metal of your CPU and cooler. When the cooler and CPU are pressed together the thermal paste fills these cracks and hardens making a very smooth connection that doesn’t let any air through.

The reason why thermal paste works so well to keep your CPU cool is that heat doesn’t travel through the air very well, so when the connection between your CPU and cooler is exposed to air (even through microscopic imperfections), then the heat can’t transfer as well to the CPU cooler keeping the CPU exposed to more heat and potentially making your computer overheat.

Thermal paste allows for a smooth transfer of heat from the CPU to the CPU cooler keeping your CPU cool and preventing your computer from overheating.

How Much Thermal Paste Should You Apply?

Thermal paste being spread

Typically, your thermal paste application should be the size of a pea, or grain of rice. This should be enough to cover the surface area of your CPU and should keep your CPU cool, and should prevent you from wasting extra thermal paste for no reason.

Even though this is typically the most common way to apply thermal paste there are actually many different patterns and techniques for applying thermal paste to your CPU that people swear by.

What Are The Different Patterns For Applying Thermal Paste?

The base for applying thermal paste is about the size of a grain of rice or pea, but there are many more ways of applying thermal paste to your CPU and cooler; so I made a list.

  • Size of a pea or grain of rice
  • Thin line through the middle
  • Three thin horizontal lines
  • Thick Line through the middle
  • X shape
  • manually spread

Choosing any one of these patterns or using other techniques not mentioned here will typically not affect CPU temperature that much, so it’s pretty much a personal preference from here.

Although, you should still keep in mind that some techniques may require you to use more thermal paste than others, and some won’t cover the full spread of the CPU’s surface area.

Even then, if you have an unlimited supply of thermal paste, applying more isn’t always better because applying a bigger clump can be more susceptible to air bubbles, which in return will hurt the heat transfer between the CPU and the cooler.

Does Thermal Paste Expire?

The short answer is yes; thermal paste does expire. The shelf life of thermal paste can last anywhere between 2-5 years depending on the manufacturer and the ingredients used to make the paste, grease, or compound.

applying a lot of thermal paste to cpu during installation

This means that thermal paste usually lasts long enough for you to use it on two CPU upgrades before it goes bad.

Therefore, you should try to stay away from big thermal paste packages, or syringes because it will expire before you use it all. That is unless you’re deciding to build multiple rigs, or you’re the type of person to buy a new CPU every time one comes out.

You should also keep in mind that it is also good to have some extra thermal paste to spare just in case you upgrade a new cooler/heatsink, or you run into some problems and need to take your rig apart for some reason.

How to Tell if Your Thermal Paste is Expired

If you haven’t used your thermal paste for a couple of years then you should always check to see if it’s expired before applying it to your CPU and heatsink.

That’s because if you apply thermal paste to your computer when it’s expired it will probably cause your CPU to start overheating and you will start to have problems with your computer and even permanent damage.

There are a few tell-tale signs that show if your thermal compound is expired. The things to look out for are clear liquid coming out if it’s flaky, chunky, or dry.

Depending on how your thermal paste looks when it’s expired there can still be a possibility that it will still be usable.

If the thermal paste comes out very clumpy, flaky, or chunky, you should throw out that thermal paste immediately because it is expired, gross, and unusable.

On the other hand, if the thermal paste comes out dry, clear, or liquidy there is still a possibility that the thermal paste is still effective.

If the thermal paste is dry it could mean that the syringe or package wasn’t sealed properly and the paste under the dried layer could still be usable. This can be easily fixed but cutting under the dry layer to let the still good layer free. The only problem with this is that you will have a harder time sealing the package again when you are done using it.

If the thermal paste is clear or liquidy you should start by squeezing as much thermal paste out as possible until the paste turns back to its original color. However, if you keep squeezing the paste out and it’s still not changing color or it stays liquidy, then it’s probably time to throw it out and get a new one.

Are There Thermal Paste Alternatives?

There are no real alternatives to thermal paste however, there are different types of thermal paste that you can use, so if the price of thermal paste seems a bit too expensive for you, then you’re out of luck.

When people talk about thermal paste a few different names might pop up, such as; thermal compound, and thermal grease, these are just different types of thermal paste and these names are usually interchangeable with each other.

So no, things like toothpaste and peanut butter cannot be properly used as thermal paste alternatives if you were wondering, and if you do happen to use those then you’re in for a very messy and hot gaming experience.

Do You Need to Re-Apply Thermal Paste to Your GPU?

If you are using a stock GPU and cooling then there is usually no reason for you to re-apply the thermal paste to your GPU, and the base thermal paste should last your whole GPU’s lifetime.

Then again there is a possibility where you might have to replace it if you find that your GPU is overheating or running weirdly.

Another reason you might have to re-apply more thermal paste to your GPU is you’re deciding to switch to liquid cooling in which case you have to take the whole GPU apart and replace the fans with the liquid heatsink, where changing the thermal paste is only part of the process.

Lucas Coulson

I first got into building my own computer when I was around 12 or 13. The first computer I had ever built didn't work. So I kept researching to figure what I did wrong. I really enjoyed researching, learning, and building computers, so I decided to turn it into an online business, and here I am.

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