Consumer Wise: How to save a wet computer

By Angie Moreschi, Consumer Wise Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 03, 2017, 6:22 AM EDT

It’s happened to many of us. You’re working on your computer and all of a sudden you knock over a glass of water, a cup of coffee or even a glass of wine!

“Total panic!” is how Anthony Massey described his reaction when he knocked over a cup of coffee right onto his laptop.

His business partner Lauren Miller says she, too, has spilled coffee on her computer.

“I was in shock,” she said. “I really just kind of sat there and thought, ‘I did not just do that.’”

There’s nothing quite like the panic of spilling liquid on your computer, but what you do next can make all the difference in whether you can save it and reduce the likelihood of permanent damage.

Quick Action

First, don’t panic, but you do have to take quick action.

“Immediately, shut it off, pull the battery and unplug everything — no printers, no USB hubs, anything pushing power needs to be removed. That’s the best chance of reducing damage,” Jacob Lott, owner of Computer Doctors explained.

Also, turn the computer upside down to get out any excess liquid, and dry it off with an absorbent lint-free cloth.

Worst Thing to Do

The worst thing you can do if your computer gets wet is trying to turn it back on right away to see if it still works.

“Once you turn it on, if there’s any kind of water or liquid still in your device, electricity will pass through the circuit and fry your device,” Lott cautioned. “That is everyone’s first instinct, but it causes all the problems. It needs to remain off to improve the likelihood of it surviving.”

Drying Out

The computer should remain off until it is completely dry, which can take weeks. There are several things you can do to help the drying process.

“If there’s a warm room, like a server room, where there are fans, that can help,” Lott said.

While fans can help, he does not recommend using a hair dryer.

Using Rice

Another thing you can do is put your device in rice, which is very absorbent and can help draw out any excess liquid. But you also have to be careful if you do that.

“Putting it in rice does help, but make sure you change out the rice everyday; because, if not, the water and rice will cause it to get moldy,” Lott explained. “And mold going through your computer is just as bad as water and electricity.”

Residue and Corrosion

Letting your laptop dry out naturally also risks that residue or corrosion will be left behind on the inside, which can also fry your computer.

Your best chance to save your device is taking it apart to allow it to dry and then cleaning it with isopropyl alcohol.

“Scrub all the contacts and everything with isopropyl alcohol — 91-percent.” Lott said.

If you don’t know how to do that yourself, a repair shop generally charges about $100 to take it apart and scrub it clean.

Worst Liquids to Spill

The type of liquid you spill can make the problem worse. Water is the easiest to deal with, but sticky liquids like soda, coffee or wine make it harder and increase the potential for harm.

“Wine and soda are probably the two worst, just because they’re super sticky and they tend to stick to things and cause corrosion a lot more,” Lott said.

If you spill something other than water on your laptop, it’s very important to have it scrubbed with isopropyl alcohol.

Saving Your Data

Spilling liquid on your computer does not mean your data is compromised. That’s one thing you don’t need to worry about.

“Their data — the hard drive, if hermetically sealed — no water is going to damage it. Your data is always salvageable,” Lott reassured.

That was welcome news for Massey.

“I’m happy to hear that. You just told me something good,” Massey said with a big smile.