Miniguide: Liquids and Electronics

I’ve been enjoying hanging around at GetSatisfaction lately, and for some reason decided to research the issue of what to do when you spill liquids on your electronics. This isn’t the usual heady strategic stuff that I prefer to write, but odds are this is actually more useful. I haven’t really found a good general online guide for this, which is bizarre since this is really something that basically every modern adult should know. If you’re anything like me, then it’s not a question of if you’re going to spill something on your laptop or mobo, but when. I suspect if you know me and my blog you probably know this stuff, but odds are you have friends and family that don’t.

Well this advice may be too late, but this is an area that is broadly misunderstood, so this might be of general interest. I learned the bulk of this stuff years ago, but after freshening up with some online guides, here’s the dope on liquids and electronics:

Water per se doesn’t hurt electronics, nor in general do common liquids (coffee, beer, etc) with some notable exceptions (e.g. acidic soda).

It’s the residue once it’s dried that can cause problems (sugar, calcium, salt, etc), shorts caused by small amounts of liquid, and rust (which can occur quite quickly).

In general when you get any liquids on electronics, it’s important to *immediately* power down and unplug *all* power sources (including all internal batteries). Just pull the plug instantly and rip out any batteries. In this phase, fractions of seconds count. Don’t worry about saving the file you were working on, you have other priorities! So no soft shutdowns, please. Don’t think twice. Pull the plug. And pull any other cables that might feed power indirectly – like an external video cable to a separately powered monitor, or a USB cable to a separately powered hub. Pull it all. NOW!!

Once free of voltage, you can set about fixing your device, and now you’re in phase 2, where seconds no longer count but minutes do. And I can stop using exclamation marks.

If what you spilled contains sugar (coffee, tea, soda, wine, yogurt, etc) then first wash it (profusely) in running warm tap water. The more the better. Shake it dry as best you can. No point in using detergents unless there’s fat in the liquid, in which case just use gentle stuff, like ordinary liquid soap. This way, you will have washed the device free of most of what’s in the liquid besides H2O. Be generous, better to wash with lots of water for a long time. Remember, as long as you don’t have power sources, odds are that there’s nothing in the device that is hurt by the tap water.

Now you have a device that’s been soaked in water. At this point, you can let it dry and hope for the best. But tap water has impurities that will dry onto the circuit board and other components. To be safe, you move on to phase 3; as with phase 2, you want to do this as quickly as possible while the residue is still dissolved in the water droplets somewhere in the device.

The simplest next step is to simply wash everything in deionized or distilled water, and then just leave it out to dry. If you want to speed up the drying process, you can use pressurized air of some form (make sure everything is nicely grounded) or instead wash/clean with isopropyl alcohol. Or if you want to get sophisticated, try WD-40 or some other moisture displacer.

And try to dry it as much as possible before leaving it to dry, so to speak. If too much liquid is left inside nooks and crannies, you may get rust issues. Shaking and pressurized air works well (hairdryer will work but make sure things are grounded; be wary of static electricity, and skip the max heat setting since that might actually melt stuff if you’re overly zealous).

You’re probably better off taking the device apart for the above efforts, of course, but you often don’t need to; and if you’re unsure of how to take it apart, then you might be damaging the gear more than imperfect cleaning will. And if trying to take it apart will slow you down too much, again, that forces a tricky trade off.

If a liquid has been allowed to dry already, then you’re more likely to need to take the device into parts and use a q-tip and/or a toothbrush to get rid of residue and rust, applying isopropyl alcohol as cleaning agent. (If you chose stronger cleaning agents, make sure they’re actually intended for use with electronics.)

Btw if you have a battery-powered device that gets completely immersed in liquid (e.g. you drop your cell phone into a pool), remove the battery (if you can) while the device is still in the water! While it’s submerged, the water will provide a perfect short and protect any components. It’s the instant you take it out that problems begin.

And please, resist the urge to “test” the device to see “how much damage” the liquid has done. It’s the test that will do the damage! Make sure things are completely dry before assembling and adding electricity to the mix.

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