How to Protect Hard Drives Against Cold Weather Hazards

A friend of mine has been posting frequent updates via email from a remote research station in Antarctica. (That's his dive buddy in the photo below.) Even though it's sunny and warm where I'm writing this, cold weather is on the way, and it got me thinking about the computer equipment that isn't sitting cozily in offices but is out in the field in places like Antarctica, riding back and forth from home to office in cars, or being shipped in unpressurized cargo cabins in airplanes.

I've seen the gear Antarctic researchers don to stay warm, I grew up on the East Coast (and have dived in cold water), and I saw the movie "A Christmas Story." I know we humans don't do well unless we take precautions to protect ourselves from extreme temperatures. What about the gear we now haul with us just about everywhere? Should I buy a down coat for my laptop and wool gloves for my terabyte portable drive?

"I think it is safe to say that most people don't think about this at all," says Chris Bross, senior enterprise recovery engineer at DriveSavers. Bross was pleased I asked because cold weather can be a serious hazard for hard drives -- whether they are in a computer or not. "In the hard drive industry, though, we are hyper-aware of this."

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"A hard drive can exist perfectly well in extremely cold temperatures in a nonoperational state," he says. "The issue is when it is made operational -- or spun up. The real problems we see in data recovery is the lack of awareness people have when it comes to taking a storage device that has been in an extremely cold environment and plugging it in and firing it up. That is where the window of failure opportunity exists."

How bad can that failure be?

"It can result in a catastrophic head crash," warns Bross. "You are dealing with very tight tolerances in a hard drive, and a drive that is very cold can go through some -- even very small -- contraction of components."

At these very tight tolerances, even a tiny contraction of materials can be a disaster. "If that cold drive is spun up, contact can occur between the heads and platter," says Bross.

You will know this has happened when you hear a clicking or crashing drive. This is a complete disaster for the hard drive. Bross thinks it likely that a hard drive still under warranty would be covered in the event of this sort of crash. But of course, the data on it would probably be lost and you can avoid the hassle with a few precautions.

Prevention is simply a matter of patience. An outfit like DriveSavers systematically takes temperature readings in a clean room whenever a drive comes in. A drive isn't fired up until it is measured at ambient temperature.

But in a home or office environment, you have to wing it. If you have no idea where that drive has been -- say, a new shipment of hard drives just arrived and you are eager to install them -- Bross thinks it would be wise to wait overnight before spinning the drives or turning on the computer if the drive is already installed. In fact, hard drives that are installed in computers are harder to judge, since the machine offers some insulation for the drive. This means the drive might take longer to get very cold. It would also take longer to return to room temperature. At the very least, you should use caution. If your laptop is cold to the touch, wait for it to warm up before you start it up.

I asked the team in Antarctica if they had advice for handling electronic gear. What not to do? Lessons learned? They are pretty busy underwater -- where there is no Internet access -- but I heard from diver Henry Kaiser, who offered the photo (above) on what not to do with a camera.

"One of the tenders dropped a camera into the dive hole," he says. "I saw it falling through the water column. So we took some pix of it, down at 70 feet." It's a sure bet that land camera won't turn on now.

He also offered a wise suggestion. "Don't lick the antenna." Good advice -- apparently he saw "A Christmas Story," too.

(Note: Links in this piece are provided for your entertainment, but some have audio and video. Enjoy.)

Got gripes or questions? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "How to protect hard drives against cold weather hazards," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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