How to Survive the Worst PC Disasters

Problem: Your camera, cell phone, laptop, or keyboard just got doused with water--or worse.

Likely Cause: This is one you can't blame on Microsoft.

The Fix: Water and electronics don't mix, but a little spill doesn't necessarily mean your gear is ruined. To be honest, the odds aren't great for your gadget's full recovery--but with care, you might be able to revive your hardware.

In Video: How to Salvage a Wet Gadget

First, if the device is still on, turn it off immediately and remove any batteries, CDs, SIM cards, memory cards, and the like. For a notebook, remove any modular components like PC Cards and removable optical drives. Dry off any visible liquid with a towel. Depending on how comfortable you are with the process, disassemble the device as much as possible and as quickly as possible to improve your chances of recovering it. This is essential if you can actually hear trapped liquid sloshing around inside.

Your goal is to get the device completely dry, inside and out, as rapidly as you can. There are many ways of doing this, so from the following bag of tricks try whatever is convenient and appropriate for you. Remember that all of these "cures" can cause more damage than they repair. Luck is a major factor here.

  1. Desiccants will absorb moisture. Put the device in a sealed bag with a few silica gel packets. Only brand-new packets will work--old ones will have long ago absorbed their limit in moisture. The same trick can work with regular uncooked white rice and even salt; just make sure not to get any grains inside the device. (Try wrapping your gadget in tissue paper.)
  2. Heat can evaporate water. Put the device on the dashboard of your car for an afternoon (just make sure that it doesn't get hotter than about 150 degrees). If you're brave, you can try putting the device in a 150-degree oven for an hour. Keeping your cell phone in your front pants pocket all day also might warm it enough, as might a hair dryer (don't set it on high, though). Make sure the battery is removed if you try any of these tricks.
  3. Alcohol attracts water. Again, this is not a trick for the faint of heart, but you can dunk a wet gadget completely in a container full of alcohol (use 99 percent rubbing alcohol, not the standard 70 percent), which will bind to the water and pour out or evaporate. Make sure you do this quickly, as alcohol can damage some kinds of plastics.
  4. If the device has (or is) a keyboard, put it upside down for a spell to give the liquid a chance to drain out.
  5. If you managed to get something sticky (like soda) in your notebook or cell phone, it will probably need to be cleaned after it dries. That means opening the affected device and swabbing it with a Q-Tip dipped in 99 percent rubbing alcohol--otherwise the electronics are likely to short-circuit from the goo trapped inside.

How to Avoid It Next Time: Unless you drink from a sippy cup, avoiding spills is hard to do. Some gadgets have waterproofing technologies available: Spill-proof keyboards (or plastic covers) are now commonplace, and underwater camera housings can help if you're shooting pics near the beach or on a boat. If you're going to be near water, even just storing your cell phone or iPod in a plastic bag can save lots of headache later (see "Five Ways to Safeguard Your Digital Camera" for more on keeping your camera safe from the elements).

You can see some of these tips illustrated in our online video, "Disaster! How to Salvage a Wet Gadget."

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