Are External USB Hard-Drives at Risk from Internal Condensation?

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While most of us do not need to pack our external hard-drives with us everywhere we go, there are some people who may need to carry them wherever they travel. With that in mind, can noticeable differences in temperature have a negative impact on those hard-drives? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post has the answers to a worried reader’s questions.

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.

Photo courtesy of Gillware Data Recovery (YouTube).

The Question

SuperUser reader misha256 wants to know if external USB hard-drives are at risk from internal condensation:

Apparently, you can kill a USB hard-drive by moving it from a cold temperature environment to a warm one and powering it up (the killer being internal condensation).

How real is the risk? What kind of temperatures are we talking about? I do not want to waste time acclimatizing my hard-drive every day if it is not necessary. Are there technologies or solutions available to mitigate the risk?

Surprisingly, I have found nothing useful on the Internet that provides satisfactory answers to my questions.

Are external USB hard-drives at risk from internal condensation?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor harrymc has the answer for us:

Condensation is a real danger for hard-drives. You can see in a real-life YouTube demonstration by a data-recovery specialist what a hard-drive looks like when taken out of a freezer and briefly turned on (it is full of scratches):

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Such scratches could possibly damage the hard-drive to a point where even a data-recovery specialist would be unable to recover the data. A Control Data (later Seagate) factory packaging manual for hard-drives says:

  • If you have just received or removed this unit from a climate with temperatures at or below 50°F (10°C), do not open this container until the following conditions are met, otherwise condensation could occur and damage to the device and/or media may result. Place this package in the operating environment for the time duration according to the following temperature chart.

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It seems that dangerously low temperatures start when a computer is brought in from temperatures below 50°F (10°C) into a room-temperature area and it may need several hours for acclimatization. This long time is explained by the fact that in a mechanical hard-drive, the head is supported by airflow entering through special air-intakes. These intakes are heavily filtered against dust, but not against humidity. They are also small enough that it slows down the evaporation process of internal humidity.

You could possibly minimize the acclimatization time by wrapping the disk in watertight plastic while it is acclimatizing in order to reduce the humidity that would enter via the air-intakes. You should allow for some drying-off time after unwrapping the disk (for the humidity in the air already contained inside the disk).

This is not the only danger, as explained by data-recovery specialist ReWave Recovery:

  • A hard-drive is at risk for sudden temperature changes including overheating and condensation.
  • A sudden change in temperature that causes condensation inside the hard-drive can cause the material on the platter to evaporate which causes the read/write heads to stick to the platter and stop it from rotating.
  • Overheating can also be an issue. Overheating can cause the platters to expand which makes the read/write heads travel farther to read the data. The expansion of platters can cause friction which can lead to a head crash.

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

Akemi Iwaya is a devoted Mozilla Firefox user who enjoys working with multiple browsers and occasionally dabbling with Linux. She also loves reading fantasy and sci-fi stories as well as playing "old school" role-playing games. You can visit her on Twitter and .