Whether you’re a bit of a parts hoarder or just trying to reuse old parts and keep them out of the dump, it’s easy to amass a pile of electronic components. Storing them is no good if they’re damaged when you go to use them, though; read on as we talk safe storage and how to keep your old HDD and friends alive.
Dear How-To Geek,
I definitely read your recent article about getting data off an old hard drive with interest as I have more than a few laying around. I have a related question to ask. How should I be storing these old hard drives? I don’t really have a good reason to get rid of them and, even though the data is backed up on them already, I like having them as a sort of “deep backup” in case I ever really need those old college papers or tax returns restored. I’m definitely guilty of just keeping them stacked up in a box in the back of the closet and it doesn’t take a computer engineer to know that’s a bad plan. What should I be doing?
Old HDD Hoarder
It always warms our geeky hearts when we come across people who are interested in best practices and how to protect data (no matter how old or redundant it might be). This is a useful question because not only do the general principles we’re about to outline apply to hard drives but also to other computer components like RAM, expansion cards, and motherboards.
There are three principle enemies of electronic components: static, moisture, and physical shock/damage. The easiest to avoid is physical shock and damage. Most people know to be cautious enough with their equipment to not store it haphazardly enough so that a nudge off a tall shelf sends the hard drive crashing to the floor (potentially, among many hazards, breaking off data/power connectors or damaging the delicate solder joints).
You also need to be concerned about smaller and less visible damage that may occur, too. Years of being stored bare in a box at the back of your closet can lead to (as the box is moved, jostled, etc.) the hard metal edges of one HDD’s casing rubbing against the much softer underbelly of another HDD (where the logic board resides). It would be a real bummer to lose an old hard drive over a tiny damaged trace in a logic board when the platters and internal mechanisms are still good. With that in mind, the very first order of business is storing HDDs and other components so they can’t fall, bump into each other, or otherwise suffer a perfectly avoidable death-by-physics.
While a tumble off a poorly organized bookshelf is definitely the louder and more theatrical way for a hard drive to go, the silent killer is static discharge. Electronic components are enormously sensitive to static discharge and one errant zap (even if it isn’t felt or seen) from a finger tip can be the kiss of death to a component. The dryer the locale you live in, the bigger the concern (many an unsuspecting component has perished in the bitter cold and dry 15% humidity of a Northern winter). In addition to protecting the hard drive from bumps and bruises, you also want to provide protection against static discharge.
Finally, you want to keep all your hard drives and bits ‘n pieces of computers dry. Compared to the risk of falling or getting zapped, moisture damage ranks pretty low on the list of potential risks (parts definitely die more often from plummets and zappy fingers than from slow corrosion in ultra-humid climates). Still, given how easy it is to keep a box, drawer, or cabinet full of parts nice and dry, there’s no reason not to.
Now that we’ve identified the three hazards your deep-storage parts might face, what’s the easiest way to mitigate them? We can look at how manufacturers ship those very parts to store (and directly to us) to see what we need to do. No company could afford to deal with the piles of RMA’d components that would result from poor packaging practices, so they employ best practices in order to get those parts safely to you.
When you unpack your typical hard drive, it has protections against all three of the hazards outlined above. The hard drive is cradled in some sort of protective foam, card board, or plastic shell (or all of the above) to prevent impact damage. The drive is wrapped in an anti-static bag to protect it from shocks. Finally, somewhere in the box is a little packet of desiccants (typically little silica beads in a perforated bag) to absorb any moisture and keep the container dry during shipment. Padded, electrically protected, and dry is the name of the game.
If you’re only storing a few components, and you saved the packaging they came in, it’s easy enough to just put them right back in. Here are two hard drives from around our office packed back in the protective gear they came in:
The hard drive on the left is wrapped back up in its electrostatic bag and the one on the right is in an electrostatic clamshell: a nicer option that offers both shock protection and a little more physical protection than a simple bag.
Most other electronic components ship in similar wrapping. RAM and processors typically come in little plastic clamshells. Motherboards and video cards come in electrostatic bags protected by padding and a box.
Even if you don’t have the originally packaging, you can hope on eBay or Amazon and pick up the right stuff for a few bucks. Here you can buy hard drive size bags, 25 for $12. Want to wrap up a motherboard or video card? Fourteen bucks will get you 10 large component bags. If you like your stuff well organized and labeled, you can even get sturdy little HDD cases that look a whole lot like old VHS tape cases from a forget movie rental shop, complete with label space.
Once your components are wrapped or encased in their anti-static material, placed carefully into a box or cabinet where they’re protected against slamming against each other by some appropriate barrier or padding, you can finish off the trifecta of best practice storage methods by tossing a silica pack in the storage container. Even a cheap $7 model, like this one here, will last you forever, as you can reactivate it every few years by drying it out in the oven.
Have a pressing tech question? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it.