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I Washed My USB Drive; What Are the Long-term Risks?


You’re sorting the laundry and your USB drive falls out of the pocket of your jeans. Assuming it still works, what are the real risks for a drive that survived a dunk in the washer and a trip through the dryer?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader 95156 wants to know what the long-term risks are for his freshly washed USB drive. He writes:

I accidentally left a USB flash drive in my clothes, which was then washed with my laundry. This was a colored load, hot water.

The drive survived just fine and was very clean. All data was still there, and I see no physical damage.

Am I risking any long-term data loss/drive damage due to this washing affair, or is there no additional risk now that I see the drive has not suffered any initial damage?

While it would be easy to assume you’re in the clear if the drive is still readable, things aren’t that simple.

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Paul explains the risks and how to minimize them:

Get rid of the water up as soon as possible, prevent metal corrosion.

The life span has likely been diminished. There are metal parts that if got wet may corrode over time, unless you are absolutely sure that you got rid of all the water that got into the USB drive.

Putting it in a bowl of uncooked rice overnight is often said to help. It is worth to take the increased risk as the cost of a new USB drive might not be worth it. In the comments iglvzx explains that this is dependent on where you live.

Absorbation of the water is important, heat must be avoided!

Jeff Atwood ♦ shares us two useful articles:

Digital Inspiration – How to Dry your Wet Cell Phone

First turn off the wet phone and then open the back lid to remove the battery and, if present, the SIM card. Use a towel or cotton tissues to dry the external (visible) portions of the phone as much as possible.

Next, the most important part, we need a way to absorb the water that may have entered inside the phone body. One popular option here s that you put the phone in a bowl of uncooked rice and seal the bowl with a plastic sheet. Rice being a natural desiccant should absorb the moisture out of your phone over the next 2-3 days and if you are lucky enough, the phone should start ringing again.

There are however some other alternatives to rice that could be way more efficient.

Put the phone inside a zip-lock plastic bag with silica gel packets, leave for 2-3 days and the packets will absorb all the moisture from the phone’s interiors. Silica gel is a better desiccant than rice and can be easily obtained from your local hardware / craft stores.

Popular Mechanics – How to Save Your Wet Cellphone: Tech Clinic

The first step: Immediately cut the power by removing the battery. I know it’s tempting, but resist the urge to power up your phone to see if it works–just turning it on can short out the circuits. If you have a GSM phone (the type used by AT&T and T-Mobile), you’ll want to remove the SIM card as well. Even if your phone turns out to be beyond repair, the SIM should retain a lot of its onboard information, such as the contacts in your phone book.

With the battery safely set aside, you now have one goal–dry your phone, and dry it fast. If you let the moisture evaporate naturally, the chance of corrosion damaging the phone’s innards increases. Instead, blow or suck the water out. But don’t use a hair dryer–its heat can fry your phone’s insides. Instead, opt for a can of compressed air, an air compressor set to a low psi or a vacuum cleaner (a wet/dry Shop-Vac would be perfect). The idea is to use air to push or pull moisture out through the same channels it entered.

Finally, use a desiccant to wick away any leftover moisture. The most convenient choice is uncooked rice. Just leave the phone (and its disconnected battery) submerged in a bowl of grains overnight. If you’re worried about rice dust getting inside your phone, you can instead use the packets of silica gel that often come stuffed in the pockets of new clothes. But acting fast is far more important than avoiding a little dust, so don’t waste time shopping if you don’t already have a drawer full of silica gel.

The most important thing to remember is to avoid heat. That means no hair dryers, ovens, microwaves or extended periods in direct sunlight. While heat will certainly evaporate the moisture, it could also warp components and melt adhesives. Those fragile glues are also why you’ll want to avoid dunking the phone in rubbing alcohol (an oft ­prescribed tip on the Web). Alcohol is a solvent and can dissolve the internal adhesives. (If you drop your phone in the toilet, it’s okay to wipe the outside with alcohol to disinfect it.)

One final, perhaps surprising, note: If your phone gets soaked in salt water, you should probably flush the whole thing in fresh water before it dries. When salt water evaporates, it leaves crystals that can damage a phone’s fragile components. Just be sure to remove the battery before flooding the device.

 


Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/9/13

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