Salvage Techniques for Wet Electronics

An edited version of this column was originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times.

It’s all those little bits of good luck that eventually bite you in the butt. You hit nothing but green lights all the way from your house to the post office. The candy machine in the breakroom gives you twice as many Zagnut bars as you paid for. Not ten minutes after you learn of the existence of the awesome vintage California Originals ceramic Chewbacca tankard, you spot a fresh listing for it on eBay for a laughably-low Buy It Now price.

Life is good. Until Karma goes through its receipts and is alarmed by all of this deficit spending. That’s when you find yourself looking down into a toilet bowl and thinking to yourself “That’s really a terrible place for a $400 smartphone to be.”

No sense beating yourself up over it. Really. But if the events of the preceding 30 seconds are any indication, you certainly don’t have any good luck coming to you. So if you want to avoid having to buy a brand new phone (or iPod, or camera, or…), you need to choose your next actions carefully.

Over the years, I’ve come across loads of urban legends about how to rescue wet electronics, but I’ve never come across anyone who’s actually used any of these techniques successfully. So I made a call to the good folks at T-Mobile, who sent over a half-dozen identical new phones. They aren’t iPhones by any stretch, but these Samsung handsets are thoroughly modern devices with color screens and Internet and multimedia features.

And then I proceeded to do awful things to each of them. Starting with loading them up in a pair of cargo shorts and running through the washing machine for a full cycle.

(As an internationally-beloved technology columnist, I’m well-paid. But if I’m going to spend a day working with Toilet Phones, I’m going to have to get Mossberg bucks.)

Before I get into the techniques and how well they worked, there are a few basics. First, you need to get the device out of the wet as soon as possible. Most personal electronics are designed to put up with some moisture and it’s possible that a quick hand will pull your iPod Nano out of that puddle before Murphy’s Law is even aware that it fell out of your arm case.

Secondly: do not, do not, do not power up the device until it’s bone-dry. Pull the battery immediately if you can. As often as not, damage only occurs when the electrons inside your battery are free to choose their own path through the device’s delicate circuitry, instead of sticking to the safe trails that have been laid down by the manufacturer.

You should also disassemble the phone as far as you can: keep the battery cover off, remove the SIM card and all memory cards…you might even choose to remove screws and get your device naked.

Yes, that voids your warranty. But your device has been pretty thoroughly voided as it is. Besides, if it’s a phone, that ship has already sailed: there’s a white paper dot inside the device that turned red upon exposure to moisture. It’s insurance against customers coming back to the store with a phone that reeks of mackerel, and insisting “I dunno…it just stopped working all of a sudden.”

Finally, you want to make sure that moisture is your only problem. If you’ve dropped it in…let’s just say “something other than clean water,” you’ll have to throw caution to the wind and give it a rinse in the clean stuff. Distilled water if possible, bottled or tap water if that’s the only source of hydrogen and oxygen atoms available.

It’s particularly important if your precious has landed in salt water. Salt water is to electronics as holy water is to a vampire. It causes immediate corrosion and you need to address that as soon as possible. After fishing an iPod from the surf I’d think nothing of sloshing it around the leftover water in my ice chest for a minute or two. It’s probably dead already; this way, at least there’s a marginal chance of salvation.

Okay. Enough…let’s abuse some hardware.

First Test: Do nothing.

The first phone was set aside as a control group. I just left it out and let it dry. No muss. No fuss. No success.

Well, all right: it powered back up and the screen worked and you could make and answer calls. But the keypad was messed up and you could only call it a useful phone if you don’t know anybody with a 3, 4, 7 or 9 in their phone numbers or a…look, why don’t you work out which letters of the alphabet you lose when those keys are disabled.

Second Test: Run it through the dishwasher.

And that would certainly seem counter-productive, wouldn’t it? Unless of course you wanted to make sure that you’d truly driven a stake through the heart of your old Treo so that your boss okays the purchase of a new Blackberry or iPhone.

Okay, but what if you just ran the machine on the “dry” cycle? If it can leave my “Space: 1999″ Thermos bone-dry, it ought to do the same trick for a phone.

Result: Another mixed bag. The phone lit up, but you couldn’t call it a working thing.

Third Test: Bury it in rice.
The next one was buried in dry white rice and left to contemplate its lot in life for a full 24 hours. The hope here is that the rice will act as a natural desiccant, drawing the moisture out of the device.

Result: Success! The sound was a little muffled, but the phone was 100% functional after I blew the bits of carbohydrates out of it. I’d still be in the market for a new phone, but there wouldn’t be any sense of urgency about it.

One important tip — seal the phone and the rice in an airtight container, like a Ziploc baggie or a Tupperware container. You want the rice to suck the moisture out of the phone. If you leave it in an open container, it’ll be drawing moisture from the entire room, which will limit its effectiveness.

Fourth Test: Bury it in kitty litter.

So we know that burying it in a desiccant works. What if we use stuff that’s specifically designed to trap moisture, as opposed to using a medium that’s designed to accompany a pad thai?

Yes, kitty litter. And not just any kind: the crystal type, made from 100% silica. That’s the same ingredient in those little white desiccant packets (“DO NOT EAT”) that come tucked inside a new coat or an electronic device.

A sack of Fresh Step Crystals was duly purchased and the burial commenced under the same parameters as the rice. And the results were even better: the phone was as good as new without any audio problems.

Fifth Test: Vodka.

And then it was time to move on to hard alcohol. I’m not sure if this urban legend was inspired by “Mythbusters”‘ fascination with various ways to abuse vodka, but the thinking goes like this: if you marinate the device in vodka, all of the water inside the thing will be displaced by alcohol. And alcohol evaporates much more quickly and cleanly than water…so that has to be good, right?

This ranks up there with all kinds of Great Ideas inspired by a 100-proof beverage. Like “if I drive fast enough, it’ll press down on the tires and I’ll totally clear the bottom of the bridge” or “I’ll get these limes cut a million times faster if I just hold them up to the blades on this blender” or “you can’t possibly get pregnant if you time your moves to the bassline of REM’s ‘Shaking Through’.”

I dropped the phone in a cocktail shaker filled with alcohol and agitated for a couple of minutes. Then I left the phone out to air-dry for 24 hours.

Yup: it was dead. Of all the methods I tried, this was the only phone which wouldn’t even power up. Just like your Uncle Lyle, electronic devices do not become more vibrant and personable after being marinated in hard liquor.

Final Test: The Dry & Store.

This last idea was given to me by a friend of mine, who has a deaf child. Hearing aids are complicated electronic devices that routinely get wet with daily wear. So there’s actually a gizmo that’s specifically designed to dry these things out overnight: the Dry & Store (available from www.dryandstore.com).

I got a hold of the “Global” model. It’s about the size of an index-card box (note to readers born after 1990: about half a Wii) and costs $100. It certainly seems like a winner: you drop the device inside this box and a combination of desiccant packs and forced hot air does its magic for eight hours.

Another success. The phone worked perfectly, and the box even managed to eliminate the little beads of moisture trapped between the screen and its protective window. I did have to remove the UV disinfecting bulb from the lid of the device to make the phone fit inside, but otherwise all was skittles and beer.

I’d also hazard a guess that the Dry & Store would do a much better job on a more complex device (like a Treo with its million buttons, or a hard drive-based music player) than the kitty litter. You won’t have to blow crystal chunks out of the device before putting the battery back in, either.

The Dry & Store is the king of underwater salvage. If you’re in a job or a lifestyle where electronics keep getting wet, having one of these $100 devices on hand is a terrific idea. Otherwise, you’ll have to count on being able to find an audiologist in the area who can sell you one before your dripping phone finally gets sick of waiting and goes ahead and dies.

I am informed, however, that audiologists are kind, warm-hearted souls and if Google Maps locates one nearby, they might let your phone take a spin in one of their drying machines overnight.

The most practical solution for a wet phone is the kitty litter or white rice treatment. You want to get the patient into treatment as soon as possible, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll have all the ingredients you need right there at the scene of the crime. Even if you don’t, you can get ‘em for less than ten bucks at any all-night drugstore and start the healing process right there in the parking lot.

Actually, your <i>very</i> best solution would be to button your shirt pocket before using the bathroom. But if we as a species were capable of such careful, reasonable thought, we wouldn’t be desperately burying our phones in vodka and kitty litter, would we?

After The Show

I don’t know if “Goodest Of The Good Sports” even parses as English, but that’s the best way to describe T-Mobile. When I ask a company to lend me some hardware for a column or something, there’s always a bit of a back-and-forth about the terms. How long do I need it, do I require one fresh from the factory or can they just send me one from the usual press loaner pool…that sort of thing.

Suffice to say that “I want to destroy $600 worth of your products” isn’t usually part of the conversation. The phrase does pop to mind after I’ve spent a week trying and failing to get a “zero-configuration” network device working, but it’s never expressed explicitly.

This was indeed a lesson in the power of television. I’d tried to do this topic earlier in the year (before I had some good contacts at T-Mobile) but after three major portable music player and two phone makers turned me down, I (regretfully) put the idea aside.

Then I started contributing to the CBS Early Show. The suffix “…and I’ll be doing this on live network television” has an intoxicating effect.

Yes indeed, I demonstrated all of these techniques on CBS. Here’s the segment, via the magic of YouTube:

I do intend to return to this subject sometime next year. After the column and the segment went out, I received a bunch of new home remedies: use a hairdryer, pop it in the toaster oven, give it a ride in a lab-grade vacuum-chamber…suffice to say that when I have another half-dozen winners, I’ll be calling T-Mobile again.That’s their reward for letting me destroy their phones. Clearly I’m using the word “reward” in the same sense as the Vietnam draft system was known as a “lottery.”