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Spilled water on your laptop? Here’s how to fix it

If you’ve just spilled a liquid on your best laptop, time is of the essence. You absolutely must turn your computer off immediately and unplug it if it’s plugged in. If you have a removable battery, remove it immediately. Go ahead and press that Power button until your machine shuts down. Do that now! Every second is vital in this situation.

OK, are you back with us? Here’s a more in-depth guide for how to handle this emergency.

In case of a wet laptop emergency

Spilled liquid on laptop

Step 1: Remove all easily detachable components. Unplug your mouse and any cables, and remove any flash drives and DVDs. Leave your laptop bare.

Step 2: Dry the outside of your machine. Open your laptop as far as it goes, hold it upside down to let any accumulated liquid drain out, and use a towel or a lint-free, absorbent fabric to wipe wet surfaces until they’re dry. Do not try to dry the computer with forced hot air from a heat gun or hair dryer.

Step 3: At this point, we recommend that you take advantage of the warranty if it’s still applicable, or take your machine to a repair shop. If your brand has a designated repair store (like Apple), give them a call or bring it in. Otherwise, look for local repair stores that specialize in your laptop brand.

The type of liquid that was spilled matters: Water is the least acidic, while sugary and alcoholic liquids are both more conductive and more corrosive, and they can quickly cause permanent damage. Either way, the goal is to mitigate their effects as much as possible by drying the computer immediately. If you don’t want to have a professional take a look at it for you, though, there are more steps you can take to try and dry your machine out. However, it should be noted that neither Digital Trends nor the author is responsible for any damage caused to your PC from taking it apart.

Break it down

While the process of opening up and removing components from earlier laptops was easy, that’s not the case with modern-day laptops. We don’t recommend trying to take anything apart unless you have an older laptop model that’s not mainly glued together. That said, here are some steps you can attempt if your laptop allows it.

Step 1: If you haven’t already, and your laptop allows it, remove the battery. Battery removal is typically accomplished by pressing a switch or button on the underside of your computer.

Step 2: If you’re concerned about liquid leaking through to the whole system — to components like your memory and storage drive — you can remove those, too. On some laptops, you’ll find panels that allow for their removal on the underside. In most cases, however, you’ll need to use a Phillips or Torx screwdriver to remove them. For the memory, press the side clips to eject each stick. With the solid-state drive or hard drive, you’ll likely need to undo more screws to free it from the frame. Be sure to carefully detach it from the power and data connection ports or cables.

Step 3: Examine each component you’ve removed to check for any sign of wetness or corrosion. Any wet parts should be dried, but if the liquid is anything other than water, wipe it off using a clean toothbrush dipped in 99% isopropyl alcohol — this will dissolve gunk without causing damage and evaporate without leaving a residue.

Step 4: Once everything is clean and examined, and you’re sure you’ve brushed away any signs of corrosion, leave everything alone to air-dry for two to three days in a warm, dry area. A fan will hasten the drying process. Do not use a hair dryer, as this could cause static problems. Once you’ve picked your machine apart and given the components time to dry, you can follow the instructions in reverse to put your laptop back together and see if it works.

Hopefully, all will be well, but if not, take it to a repair center.

If your laptop cannot be taken apart

MacBook Air 2020 ports
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

What if you have a Surface Book 3, MacBook, or any other laptop that you cannot take apart or even remove the battery from? This situation drastically reduces your options, so you’ll have to take it to a repair center ASAP.

Between the time that liquid spilled on your keyboard and the time that you take it to the store, here’s what you can do: Hold your machine upside down and use a towel to wipe dry any visible wetness. Then, lay it down on a dry surface, and give your laptop as much ventilation as possible — it may not help much, but it’s better than nothing while you wait for a repair appointment.

Some people recommend putting your laptop in a big bag of rice, but that popular piece of advice has many substantial problems. First, a hygroscopic material like rice isn’t nearly as useful when dealing with liquids that have sugars, alcohols, or other substances besides water. Second, rice doesn’t efficiently absorb moisture trapped deep in your laptop, where problems are caused (remember, most damage from spills happens in the first several seconds after the accident). Third, almost all rice has lots of microscopic flakes of debris that can get inside your laptop and create even more issues.

If you absolutely cannot go to a repair store, then you must let your laptop ventilate and dry out for at least a day or two before you try turning it back on yourself. If you attempt to power up your PC too soon after a spill, you’re inviting disaster — doing so can cause a massive short and ruin your computer.

Waterproofing options

To safeguard your laptop in the future, we recommend investing in a KeyCover silicone keyboard cover. Or, you can get a full shell for the top and bottom of your laptop, if you prefer. You can also carry your laptop around in a great laptop bag. Be careful not to cover any ventilation holes, however, and use scissors to cut the skin to ensure that your ventilation holes are left free.

Perhaps you work in an environment where spills and moisture problems are frequent and harder to avoid. In this case, you may want to look for a ruggedized laptop that includes a sealed keyboard and additional features for more robust protection, like one of Dell’s Latitude Rugged Laptops.

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