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.”

32 thoughts on “Salvage Techniques for Wet Electronics”

  1. Hey Andy, what happened to posting unedited Sun-Times columns here on the blog? Here I was, not reading your columns at suntimes.com and expecting to see them here, when I realized that I haven’t gotten my long-form Ihnatko fix in a while… (well, longer-form-than-blog-posts, anyway)

  2. I was listening to Dorset Perception (Shpongle) in the spa-tub when a newly purchased plant came crashing down from a shelf above. Needless to say about a gallon and a half of water, I, and my week-old Nokia N800 all jumped during the alternation. The plant, myself, the water and the tablet eventually reconvened inside the hot tub.

    Approximately 400 milliseconds went by as my brain processed the situation when muscle-memory and instinct took over, nearly throwing the Nokia as far away from the evil, electron-hating water as I could, but alas, I had the prescience to flick open the rear cover and rap the device on the floor hoping to a) pop the Li-Ion battery out and b) disperse all of the water that infiltrated the safety of aluminum and plastic, not to mention the all-important touch screen.

    I believe that removing the battery as immediately as I could saved the darn thing. Popping the two SD cards out at the same probably didn’t hurt either but the reports of flash card hardiness lead me to think otherwise.

    Both the tablet and I sat on bathroom floor, naked and vulnerable as I pondered what to do next. Naturally, I chose to climb back into the tub and let the soothing bubbles do their job leaving the injured bit of kit on the floor.

    The Frankentablet (as I call it) is alive and quite well as I had placed every waterlogged piece inside the bypass duct of the humidifier in my heating system for one day. Granted, this will only work for someone who has a forced-air HVAC system but it works a treat. Heat comes on 4-7 times per hour and the bypass but dissipates some of the the 120-or-so degree heat generated by the furnace.

    Just watch out for any pointy sheet-metal screws inside the ductwork.

  3. This might be a bit off topic but the nice thing about buying new electronics is they have a warranty. You are buying something that has moving parts or electricity going to it so it has the potential of breaking, there is nothing you can do but replace it, that does not mean the company that made the product sucks, it means the individual item sucked!

  4. Years ago, while working for another company, I was sent to inspect some government surplus electronic equipment. While touring the storage/repair facility, I was introduced to a commerical dishwashing machine… what we called a “Clipper” when I served KP duty in the service… that was used to wash down and clean oscilloscopes and other electronic equipment.

    It made sense to me after the operation was explained. Tektronix o’scopes in those days had about a gazillion vacuum tubes, all connected together with little component thingys (capacitors, resistors, inductors, etc.) solder-mounted on and between ceramic terminal strips with metal inserts. Not just any solder was used: it had to be a high-temperature silver-based alloy. Tektronix even included a little spool, about the size of a pocket dental floss container, mounted inside the chassis for repair work. These components collected dust and dirt, that in turn absorbed moisture from the air, becoming conductors of sorts, and wreaking havoc on the normal operation of the circuitry.

    Anyway, as any service tech knows, o’scopes and television sets are dust magnets. So, before any work was done on this stuff, all the vacuum tubes were removed and the tube locations recorded so they could be put back in the same exact sockets. The bare chassis was then sent through the “Clipper” for a good wash, rinse, and dry cycle.

    I don’t know for sure, but I assume they used de-ionized hot water for the rinse. Ordinary hot air was used to blow-dry the hot, wet, chassis. The whole thing took about an hour to cycle through, and then each chassis came out looking like it just came off the assembly line at the factory.

    So, if you CAN get your precious electronic thingamabob apart, exposing ALL the internal works, a trip through the dishwasher on a full wash, rinse, and dry cycle COULD revive it. Or maybe not… liquid crystal displays don’t seem to care much for water… and this is 2008, not 1970, so things might have changed some, electronically.

  5. I used to drop my cell phone into water… And then I panic and try to turn it on…
    I should just read this blog first…LOL…
    Thanks for your tip anyway…

  6. Vodka isn’t close enough to pure alcohol. Buy the real stuff. Or try another solvent like acetone.

  7. While John is correct about Vodka not being pure ethanol (% ethanol = proof/2; e.g. 80 proof = 40% ethanol by volume), my guess is that any solvent other than water is probably a bad idea. Even though they evaporate more readily than water (and don’t corrode metals either), solvents like ethanol, acetone, isopropyl alcohol and others may end up seriously harming the non-metal parts found in most electronic gagets. Many plastics, adhesives, and other organic polymer materials now commonly found in electronics could possibly warp, swell, degrade or get completely dissolved if exposed to organic solvents.

    Better to stick with plain (preferably distilled or deionized) water.

  8. Moisture and humidity are the enemy of any electronic device that has been “drowned” or dropped in liquid, because it causes oxidation of the metal components inside, especially if the unit is powered up as the electricity also “galvanises” the oxidation process.

    If a pet urinates on any gadget or it gets dropped or carried into the ocean, or falls in an undesirable liquid, the first action should be to remove the power source and all batteries. Also DO NOT press the power up button to see if the device still functions in the event that it got wet when powered off.

    Instead the procedure is to immediately clean any salt water, dirty liquids or pet pee out of the device, with distilled, purified or soda water. Do not use tap water as the chlorine in it is an oxidiser and this will cause more possible damage down the track.

    Next carefully shake as much excess liquid (which should only be clean water now) out of the device and dry it with a soft cloth so that the exterior is also dry.

    Finally to rapidly, AND MORE EFFECTIVELY THAN ANY OTHER METHOD DISCUSSED HERE, remove all the remaining moisture and humidity that would otherwise cause oxidation and damage to the internal components of your ipod, phone, video or still camera, or any other expensive, delicate electronic device, grab a vacuum cleaner (or a “Hoover” if you are from the UK) that has a hose attachment and patiently suck out the remaining dampness from the previously wet device using the vacuum cleaner.

    Using common sense, pay particular attention to all the slots, sockets, battery storage areas and openings in the device as these areas will allow the suction of the vacuum cleaner to draw air and moisture from deeper inside the wet device.

    The amount of humidity and dampness involved in this procedure should not represent a hazard to the vacuum cleaner.

    Be patient and spend at least 20 – 30 minutes using this technique to dry the device thoroughly, changing the placement of the hose nozzle every minute or so to ensure that you get at the location of all the internal cavities. Do not rush this procedure, there are no shortcuts.

    Never, as most people choose to do, dry any water damaged electronic device using heat such as with a hair dryer or placement of the device in hot sun or in a warm oven. This process will cause the internal moisture to turn to humidity that will lodge itself deeper into the internal components and this will ultimately cause more harm and ongoing oxidation. Therefore what may seem like a successful repair can often develop faults weeks or months later, related to the oxidation that you will have encouraged.

    Next, clean and dry any previously removed batteries and reinstall them into the now dried device and power the device up, if it powers up and all the functions are OK then you have just saved your product’s life and all it cost you was some patience and electricity to run the vacuum cleaner for 30 minutes.

    Remember that time is also your biggest enemy when needing to dry the moisture from the wet device, leaving it in a bag of any “drying” agent for several days is a luxury that will not arrest the oxidation that began immediately the unit got wet, a vacuum cleaner will arrest this oxidation process immediately when you use it to very effectively dry out the internal aspect of the device ASAP. As we all know “rust never sleeps”.

    The technique above helped me to recover many expensive items throughout a 30 year career as a Computer Engineer and in the early days something as simple as a keyboard or mouse cost thousands of dollars, therefore I can recommend this procedure as more effective than any other.

  9. Just wanted to say thanks for the great tip. My iPod touch went for a complete wash and spin this past weekend. I was sure that it would be about as useful as wet toast after it came out of the washing machine. I tried the dry rice burial and it came back working perfectly. (also, it’s now very clean). This was a great help

  10. I also have this experience when my cellphone fell into the washing machine with water..
    I got it up quickly then open it remove the battery so it will not going spark inside..
    After that I got it dry with electric fan for 1 day and it works again..

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  12. I was curius since I am a starving college student who happened to wash his Itouch, I don’t have any rice on hand, but
    I do have a large supply of dried noodles (Ramen). If i buried my Ipod in the would i have the same effect as rice?

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