Sandy's Wrath: How To Recover Water Damaged Hardware

With billions of dollars of property damage already incurred from Sandy this week, it's a sure bet that there's going to be a lot of electronics included in that tally. If you're one of the unlucky owners of some gear that's been hit by water damage from the storm, don't despair yet. You may be able to get your stuff back online… but it takes serious effort and a lot of patience.

Power Down

This may seem a gimme, but it's very important that you turn off the power to your devices. If there's been water damage, it's not only dangerous to your device to send energy flowing across possibly compromised circuit boards and drives, but also potentially dangerous to yourself. Unplug everything that's plugged, even if you think there's no water damage to that specific device. If your home has a just a couple of inches of water on the floor, there could still be moisture gathering and condensing inside the case.

If your home is flooded, be very careful getting to the main circuit breaker panel. If there's any water near the box, wait for the power company to come out and kill the power from the outside. Saving your devices isn't worth electrocuting yourself.

For smaller devices, remove the battery if you can.

Regardless of the device, follow this one big rule: no matter how tempting it is to turn the device on to see if it's still working, do not do it. Just one power activation is enough to completely short out the device (if it's not already). Do not do turn on the device until you have tried all of the possible steps to get it dried out.

Wring It Out

First, move the device to somewhere dry. You'll need to do that, no matter what path you take to recover the device.

After making sure the more important aspects of your life are in order, there are two main ways to get your device fixed. If you're not insured and don't want to replace it or even if you are insured, you may need to recover files that are stored locally on the device.

First, you can contact a professional restoration service. Check your local listings and be sure they are qualified to handle electronics. Depending on the level of damage, you might also want to find a drive-restoration service that can specifically go in and dig out the files from a damaged hard drive.

If you think you can handle it, you can try to dry out the device yourself. I would not recommend this for sealed Apple laptops and desktops… your best bet is letting them get mostly dry and bringing them into an AppleCare specialist for final opening and cleaning.

If you have a damaged PC desktop computer, open the case and let it air out. The same for a laptop, though that may be trickier depending on the model. Drying alone won't be enough, because as water evaporates, it's going to leave behind residue from salts or whatever else was in the water. That residue is enough to damage your machine when you try to power it on again.

Obtain a commercial cleaning solvent designed for circuit work and gently brush out the innards of your machine using the solvent with a soft toothbrush (one you never plan to use again). Get a can of compressed air and use that to blow out water, debris and residue, too. This will take a lot of time, so be patient.

After you are as sure as you can be that everything is dried and cleaned, put the device back together, plug it in and power it on. If things work, great. Immediately back up the data on the device and either use it or replace it as you originally intended to do.

If the drying process was not successful, chances are something else went wrong - perhaps corrosion set in faster than you could recover the device. At this point, data recovery may be your best option. This is something that should be left to the pros, recommends John Christopher, a recovery engineer from DriveSavers.

"Do not attempt recovery of your data personally by using any type of diagnostic or repair tools. Doing so may cause further damage or permanent data loss," Christopher urged. "Remember, the first recovery attempt is the most successful. Play it safe and send hardware to a professional."

[Update]

One thing to be careful about in any disaster recovery situation is the skill set of the vendor you're using. Like roofers descending on a town after a big storm, already a number of recovery companies are starting to advertise their post-Sandy services. A discount is one thing, but watch out for the companies that are out to just make a fast buck. It's your data we're talking about.

Saving A Bricked Phone

If your phone has been dunked in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean that suddenly entered your front yard, or some similar mishap, a simpler solution may be at hand. First, don't turn the phone on. Not even once.

Open the case (if you can) and remove the battery. Then get a big plastic container full of raw rice, and completely bury your phone in it, sealing the lid of the container. Leave it there for a couple of days at least. The rice acts as a natural desiccant and pulls moisture naturally from the phone's innards. You may also want to blow compressed air into the phone's ports a bit during the process to help the process along.

Once you remove the phone from the rice, charge it and and see if it works. This method worked for me after a recent camping trip accident where Android met creek.

Preparing For The Next Time

Whether you escaped the fury of Sandy or not, it's critical to keep computing devices and their data backed up. Cloud services are a goodway to accomplish this, since on-site backups can become damaged in the same disaster that affects the device itself.

Ultimately you will have to decide the best recovery method for your particular situation, but if this week reminds us of anything, its the importance of being prepared. Disaster is never that far away.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.