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What to do when you’ve spilled liquid into your laptop

What to do when you’ve spilled liquid into your laptop

Imagine this – you’ve just spent hours working on that report which you’re about to submit after many late nights. You brew some tea to prepare for the final stretch. You close your eyes for a moment and feel smug about finally mastering work/life balance and the fact that you’re ahead of your deadline and then it happens. Your husband/wife/cat/dog/gerbil/errant child/your own clumsy appendages have knocked the mug over and deposited its entire messy contents into your laptop. Your face sinks with the gravity of what has just occurred. Panic ensues.

You thought it would never happen to you but the truth is that it can happen to anyone – it’s happened to me twice in my life, and as recently as last year. And evidently it also happens to many parents in Tufnell Park; I get the ‘can you fix my laptop, I accidentally spilled tea into it’ call once a month on average. It’s no longer a question of preventing or minimising the risks; it’s about preparing for the inevitable and doing the right things before you call your local IT repair person. So here’s a short 5-step how-to guide on what to do in those panicking moments immediately following your accident.

1) Power down

As soon as you’ve realised the mistake, act as quickly as possible. Shut down, disconnect the power, remove cables and give the laptop a wipe down with a dry cloth. At all costs, do not give into the temptation to switch on for at least 24-48 hours or until you are confident the laptop has fully dried. Powering on the laptop whilst there is residual liquid inside can cause electrical shorts resulting in damage that cannot be repaired.

2) Remove as many parts as possible

Try to take out as many laptops components as possible starting with the battery – liquid can often pool underneath components and cause unfixable corrosion after a few hours. If your battery is not easy to remove (as it is on modern MacBooks), I highly recommend locating a small glasses-type screwdriver to remove the bottom plate and then remove the battery. Try to remove other parts such as hard drives, RAM, the keyboard, etc. if you can.

3) Drying and cleaning

Once the inside of the laptop is exposed, use a clean cloth or thick kitchen towel to mop up as much liquid as possible inside the laptop. Use cottons buds to get into difficult to reach parts. You can use a hairdryer, but make sure not to blow liquid deeper inside, and use a cool setting to prevent damage. Laying a laptop on top of rice in a sealed bag can also work in extreme circumstances, but make sure that rice does not enter any vents or areas inside the laptop otherwise this will cause a lot of problems later.

4) Prognosis

Unfortunately you will need to accept that you probably won’t get your laptop to work exactly the way it did pre-spillage. If more than a thimbleful of liquid has seeped through the laptop, then it is very unlikely that you’ll get away without some reduced functionality. In the best-case scenario, liquids will leave behind reside which can interfere with how specific keys work or how the trackpad works (most often in the clicking mechanism). In the worst-case, water will damage the motherboard/logic board (a very costly part), meaning that the laptop cannot be switched on. Make peace with the likelihood of having a slightly damaged laptop, and count yourself very lucky if you can get it back to switch on at all.

5) Data backup

Hard drives are hardy but they can easily be damaged by water. That being said, if you remove your hard drive and dry it immediately, your data is likely to be safe and can be made accessible through an external hard drive enclosure.

Prepare for the inevitable

The moral of this story is that you should be backing up as much as possible, and there really is no excuse not to do it anymore. A 500GB backup drive can be bought for less than £40. Apple supply their own wireless backup package (Time Capsule). There are low-cost solutions that automatically backup your entire computer to the cloud (CrashPlan/Carbonite/Backblaze). And you should be syncing your current documents to the cloud (Dropbox/SkyDrive) so that they can be accessed on any device. And you should definitely be keeping your thousands of family photographs and videos backed up on the cloud (Picasa Web Albums/Google+ Auto Backup). After all, it does not hurt to keep things backed up in multiple places, especially for data that is precious and irreplaceable.

If you have experienced a recent liquid accident and would like to ask a question, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll happily provide advice.


Andrew grew up in Shropshire, and has lived in London for over 10 years when he began his studies at King's College London. He provides full time IT support and web design services. More →


Tsai Law LTD
Tavistock Terrace
N19 4BZ
Phone: 07714 524 635
Email: info@andrewtsai.co.uk

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