Tips For Salvaging Flooded Computer Gear

It’s been a shocking few weeks for our Aussie cousins in Queensland. I can’t begin to imagine the horror they’re going through. I start to wonder how I’d cope if my house were flooded to the rafters.

I know this: once I was certain family, neighbours and pets were safe, my mind would turn to my computer gear. What could I save? Here’s a few tips if you’re trying to salvage a drenched PC (or most electronics for that matter).

Rule Number One

Do not run power through anything when it is wet, damp, or in an unknown state. Unplug all power plugs and remove all batteries as soon as humanly possible.

Useful Gear

Before you start a salvage operation, here’s some stuff that might come in useful:

Basics:

  • A Phillips screwdriver.
  • Distilled and/or de-ionized water. In the worst case, clean tap or tank water is better than leaving things dirty.
  • A soft brush.
  • Clean hand towels or some other means to pat-dry components. Preferably lint-free.
  • A warm, dry place.

More advanced:

  • Isopropyl Alcohol (or a can of Contact Cleaner or similar)
  • De-oxidiser (like from Jaycar)
  • Compressed air

Things To Do

Summary: get stuff clean and dry as quickly as you can.

“Static” components like motherboards, video cards, etc.

  1. Pull everything apart. Even if you have no idea what you are doing, you’re pretty safe to just unscrew all the major components you can see and remove them one by one. Even if it’s a laptop computer, just open it up and start disassembling. Save all the screws. Worst case you can get an expert to re-assemble stuff later.
  2. Clean everything with clean water. I’m guessing your gear will be full of scum, grot, and all sorts of horrible stuff. Clean the chunks off, and gently brush any film or mud away as much as you can. Don’t be scared to immerse the components completely and douse them several times in clean water. Focus on getting plugs and contacts clean.
  3. Dry everything as thoroughly as you possibly can. Shake them, spray with compressed air, or douse in rubbing alcohol to “burn” the water off. You want that thing clean and sparkling like a dry glass fresh out of a dishwasher.
  4. Put it in a warm, dry place. Maybe the hot water cupboard, or out in the bright hot sun. Leave it for as long as you can to dry. Days if necessary.
  5. Re-inspect the component and look carefully to see if any corrosion is appearing on exposed metal (e.g. the contacts where other components plug in). Hit those spots with de-oxidiser if you can. If there isn’t tons of corrosion, there’s a good chance you’ve saved that component.

“Mechanical” components like fans, hard drives, DVD drives

  1. Give these items a brief surface clean and clean the plugs and connectors as much as you can. Don’t immerse them.
  2. DO NOT open up hard drives.
  3. DO open up DVD/CD drives and see if you can carefully clean the mechanism. In most cases these will be a lost cause, but it’s worth a crack.
  4. From there, go to step 3 for “static” components above.

“Special/Dangerous” components like power supplies

  1. If in doubt, don’t use it. The power supply in your PC is dangerous to both yourself and all your other components. If it were me, I’d replace the power supply. This is a lot cheaper than replacing the entire PC.

After a few days of drying, get a friendly geek to help you put everything back together, and test components one by one. If you’re lucky, depending on how long things have been under water, you should be able to save all the “static” components of your gear, and maybe a hard drive or two. It’s worth a crack: thirty minutes of work might save you thousands.

Fellow geeks: if you have any corrections or additional tips to help out flood victims, feel free to weigh in.

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4 Comments

  1. The Hard Drives are obviously the one thing which you should do your best to save – they are not completely sealed units, but the pressure differential may have been enough to keep any water from seeping in.

    Dry these for as long as you can stand being without your data and don’t forget that if the electronics *are* friend, it doesn’t mean the physical media is stuffed – often a computer forensics service will be able to replace the circuit board on your HDD with another and pull the data off.

    If you are going to start the drive up yourself, keep a hand on the power cable on the drive ready to do a quick yank and pray should any nasty grinding noises emanate from within… then find your piggy bank, because forensic recovery ain’t cheap (but money is replaceable, unlike your digital memories)

  2. Addendum to step 1: Unless you have a service manual with detailed assembly diagrams, it’s a good idea to take photos of each stage of disassembly when taking complex things apart.

    Trust an old mechanical engineer, it will save a lot of fiddling later. 😉

    Also, I like to set up trays on the workbench and lay out parts in the order they came off.

    Playful kittens and small children can foil this cunning plan very easily though.

    Oh yeah, an infallible rule is that once re-assembly is complete you will be left with an extra spring, a small screw and an unidentifiable brass widget left over.

    Ignore them, they have nothing to do with whatever you are working on.

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