Do Modems Go Bad?

How to tell when your modem needs to be replaced

Modems go bad just like other electronic devices, but how are you supposed to tell when yours is on the way out the door? Modems don't have any moving or mechanical parts to wear out, but they eventually go bad due to failed electronic components. Also, modems can become obsolete as new technologies are introduced, so you may need to replace your modem even if it still technically works.

Why Do Modems Go Bad?

Modems fail for a variety of reasons, but the biggest contributing factor is heat. Like all electronic devices, modems generate heat when in use. Since modems are typically left on all the time, they never get a chance to cool off and are generally just hot all the time. This is complicated by the fact that most modems rely on passive cooling, and lower end modems tend to lack effective passive cooling designs.

Some modems have effective heat sinks, a lot of modems include big vents, and some even employ active cooling methods like fans, but heat is still the main contributing factor to modems going bad. You can help mitigate this factor by cleaning dust from your modem on a regular basis, and placing it in a well ventilated area, but heat will always contribute to the eventual failure of a modem.

Modems can also go bad due to the failure of internal components, like popped capacitors. Heat buildup, exacerbated by dust, isn’t good for electronics, but these components have a chance of failing simply due to age even if the heat problem is mitigated. For example, the lifespan of electrolytic capacitors can vary from 1,000 to 10,000 hours or more, but time adds up fast in a device like a modem that’s never turned off.

In addition to going bad due to heat or component failures, modems also become obsolete over time. As new technologies and standards are introduced, every modem eventually becomes outdated, and you need to upgrade if you want the best possible speed and connection quality.

How to Tell If a Modem Is Going Bad

Modems often fail silently, in that a modem can work perfectly fine right up to the moment where it doesn’t work at all. For example, there usually isn’t much of a warning when an internal component suddenly fails. Other components can fail and cause obvious symptoms to hint that the modem is going bad, but that isn’t always the case.

Here are some telltale signs that a modem is going bad or has failed, including brief explanations:

  • You need to reset the modem frequently: Contact your ISP, because there’s a chance there may be noise on the line. If there isn’t, the modem probably needs to be replaced.
  • Your modem won’t connect to the internet: If your modem powers up but gets stuck connecting to the internet, check to make sure your cable or phone line connections are secure, and try different outlets if possible. There may be a problem with your ISP, or the modem may need to be replaced.
  • Internet speed is slow or inconsistent: Your ISP may have switched to a new standard, there may be noise on the line, or you might just need to replace the modem.
  • Internet connection drops out: Check with your ISP for outages, and check the connections inside your house. The modem might be bad, but it could be a problem with your wiring or your ISP.
  • Lights on the modem are the wrong color or aren’t lit up: Check with the manufacturer of your modem for troubleshooting information. The modem may be bad, or the change in lights could indicate something else.
  • The modem won’t turn on: Try unplugging the modem and plugging it back in. If that doesn’t work, try plugging it into a different outlet. If the modem has a reset button, push it. If it still won’t turn on, the modem probably needs to be replaced.

How to Help Your Modem Last Longer

Since most modem failures are due to heat, there are a number of things you can do to help your modem last longer. Every modem fails eventually, and while there isn’t anything you can do to prevent your modem from becoming obsolete on a technological level, you can keep your modem up and running longer if you work on keeping it cool.

Here’s how to keep your modem from going bad:

  • Install your modem in a well-ventilated area: About putting your modem in an enclosed space, and make sure there’s plenty of room for air flow. If possible, avoid putting other hot electronics right next to the modem. Consider moving your modem to another room if you find a better place for it.
  • Use a surge protector: Plug your modem into a surge protector instead of directly into the power outlet. Voltage spikes, like those caused by nearby lightning strikes, can destroy a modem (and many electronics) immediately.
  • Consider using a UPS: If you can afford it, consider using an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) instead of a basic surge protector. This will keep the modem up and running if the power goes out, and it also protects the modem from voltage spikes.
  • Clean the modem regularly: Use canned air or an air compressor to blow dust from the modem. Dust buildup results in additional heat, which reduces the lifespan of a modem.

Connecting your modem’s data line to a surge protector or UPS can help protect it from voltage surges due to lightning strikes, but it may also introduce an unacceptable level of noise and reduce both your internet connection speeds.

How Often Should You Replace Your Modem?

In general, you can expect to replace your modem every two years at a minimum, and at least once every ten years. If you go more than about four to seven years, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with outdated technology and won’t be able to enjoy the fastest possible speeds and highest quality connection available.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When do cable modems go bad? cable modem could need replacing every four to seven years based on changing Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) standards. Replacing your modem when you see the first signs of sluggish internet speeds or new features are released can ensure you get the fastest, most reliable connection possible.
  • Is it bad to turn off modems and routers when not in use? Not necessarily, if done infrequently. Turning off your home network when you don't need it can be beneficial in numerous ways. If you're on vacation, this step can save on power bills and act as a convenient security measure. Shutting down and unplugging network devices when bad weather is heading to your area can also help prevent damage from power surges.
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