Quote of the Day

Monday, February 24, 2014

What To Do With Wet Electronics

Alan growled as he started down the basement stairs and found the light switch didn't work. There was no way to replace it without fishing through the semi-darkness below and finding a new bulb. As he stepped off the bottom step onto the floor, an icy cold sensation entrapped his foot sending chills up his spine. Then the other foot landed with a splash and the shock of the cold water grabbing him above the ankles made him shiver. "Courtney," he screamed to his wife, "bring me a flashlight! And hurry."

In the eerie glow of the flashlight, standing safely on the bottom step, Alan and Courtney surveyed the damage to the family room. A large piece of drywall had fallen from the ceiling above the computer desk. Water sprayed from a broken pipe and cascaded down the monitor, printer, and computer into 6 inches of water on the floor. What a mess.

After the water was turn off and drained from the floor, Alan approached the computer. All of his records from his home-based business, decades of family photos, and years of genealogical research were stored in that plastic case. Without that information, continuing his work and family would be a nightmare. He had to know if it still worked.

He turned on the monitor and pushed the button on the computer. Nothing happened. No lights, no sound, . . . no hope.

So, what do you do when your electronics get wet?

First, we must define electronics as any item that has an electrical cord or a battery. The list is daunting, but it includes:

Stereos, cell phones, and sensors;
Tablets, TV's, and toasters;
Coffee makers, clocks, and computers.
First step:  Do not turn it on or plug it in.
Unfortunately, our immediate response is to see if our phone still works. We plug it in or turn it on and thereby cause most of the damage. Older electrical appliances like a toaster, lamp or vacuum can have power applied to them with minimal damage, although they often will not work while wet. But items with circuit boards, which includes any "smart" appliance, most adjustable gadgets and all equipment with a display screen, can be permanently damaged if they are turned on while still wet.

Here is the reason why.

Electricity is used to power electronics. Electricity travels very quickly through conductive materials like copper, aluminum or water. When there is enough water in a device to span one or more wires or conductors carrying power, the electricity jumps between them, causing a short and often burning up a component. In older items that have larger insulated wires, the terminals are far enough apart that they need to be submerged in water to cause a short. Since they have no small transistors, resistors or capacitors to burn out, they often just blow the breaker in the electrical panel of the home.

Circuit boards, on the other hand, are specifically designed to have many conductors in a very small space. They are packed with transistors, resistors and capacitors that control and define the flow of electricity. Chips and processors for computers, phones and watches can have hundreds of feet of uninsulated wire in an area smaller than your fingernail. A single drop of water can span dozens of wires and cause enough electrical shorts to completely destroy the unit.

Second step: Dry it out completely.
Professional electronics recovery laboratories have dedicated drying rooms that heat the temperature up as high as 140 degrees F. Dehumidifiers and exhaust fans pull any moisture from the air creating an environment dryer than the Mojave Desert. Electronic devices are dis-assembled, batteries removed and left in the drying chamber until completely dry, usually as little as 24 - 48 hours. Most computers, laptops, and printers, etc., have small batteries on the mother board in addition to the operating battery and/or power supply. These need to come out too as they can cause corrosion to their contacts through electrolysis.

Sometimes in the case of fires or mud, parts are first washed and rinsed with de-ionized water, then dried thoroughly in the chamber.

Some sources on the internet suggest placing wet electronics in a bowl of uncooked rice. This works because the desiccant properties of dry rice suck the moisture out of the phone. It works better if you remove the cover and battery, then bury all the parts in the rice.

Hair dryers could work if you didn't get the item too hot thereby damaging additional components and you could hold it there for 24-48 hours. Most hair dryers will over-heat and turn off in about 15 minutes, but if they didn't, the rest of us have other things to do today and tomorrow.

I have cell phones, digital thermometers, and watches that I have dried completely at home. Open them up, remove the battery and set them over a heat register in the winter or on a window sill on the south side of your house where the sun shines in most of the day. The display screen on my digital cooking thermometer was half full of water after it fell into the sink, but 24 hours on the window sill, it was dry and worked perfectly.

Third step: Re-assemble and see if it works.
Most of the time, electronic gadgets, dried properly, will work just fine, especially if they were turned off when they became wet. If not, then you will feel justified to pay for a replacement.

I once did a fire where the family had boat-loads of special collectables worth tens of thousands of dollars. With three-quarters of the house completely destroyed, it was impossible to reconstruct even part of the list of damaged items. Then the mother remembered that she had gone through the house with her son's digital camera a week before the fire and photographed all her collections.

We found the camera in the basement bedroom submerged in 6 inches of dirty, sooty water. We took the SD card out, cleaned in off, dried it and recovered all the photos. We could have saved the camera too, but the expense would have been greater than cost of a new camera.

So, to review.

What do you do when your electronics get wet?
First step:  Do not turn it on or plug it in, make sure it is off.
Second step: Open it up, remove any batteries, and dry it out completely.
Third step: Re-assemble the appliance and see if it works. 

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