Having spare computer cables on hand is always a good idea, but what do you do when you have suddenly inherited a very large collection of cables that need cleaning? Can you safely clean them using a dishwasher? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post has the answers to a curious, cable-rich 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.
SuperUser reader user58446 wants to know if it is safe to clean computer cables in a dishwasher:
A large quantity of assorted computer cables has recently come into my possession. The collection includes almost every type of computer-related cable you could want (video, USB, Ethernet, printer, audio and speaker, SATA, power, etc.). I am focusing on just the passive cables here, nothing with active electronics or things like power bricks. They became dirty while in storage and need to be cleaned.
Most of us have probably heard about washing a keyboard in a dishwasher and I find myself wondering if the same method can be applied to dirty cables. My assumption is that because the older PS2 keyboards used in those dishwashing experiments have their own cables attached, what would be the difference between those cables and the ones I have?
Some of the possible concerns I can envision with using a dishwasher to clean these cables are:
- The construction of these cables could be different from a keyboard cable and the materials/fastenings might not hold up to dishwasher cleaning.
- The water temperature in a dishwasher might be too hot for the materials used in some kinds of cables.
- Immersing some kinds of cables in water might be bad for them, so some might be cleanable in a dishwasher and some not.
My assumption is that if all kinds of cables cannot be safely cleaned in this way, cables fall into just a few broad categories that drive what would be dishwasher-safe.
- Washability: What characteristics (i.e. type of construction or type of use) would differentiate computer-related cables that should not be cleaned in a dishwasher from those that can be, and why?
- Scope Of Risk: If a computer cable is put in a dishwasher and is adversely affected in a way that is not externally visible (so it would be used rather than discarded), would it only be the cable itself that was affected or are there any kinds of computer cables where the kinds of adverse effects from dishwasher cleaning could damage the equipment it is plugged into?
Is it safe to clean computer cables in a dishwasher?
SuperUser contributor fixer1234 has the answer for us:
People do all kinds of things that are not a good idea. If you read the answers on your linked question, you will see that some people managed to get away with it and some did not.
Personally, I would not use a dishwasher at all for cables or other electrical/electronic components. The detergent requires very hot water to thoroughly dissolve and rinse, and can leave residue. It also tends to be a little corrosive. The plastic will not melt at dishwasher temperatures (unless a cable falls near the drying element), but it can leach out some of the plasticizer and make the plastic more brittle.
If you are going to use a dishwasher, I would limit it to molded cables like power cables or speaker cables where there are just a few wires, the wires are heavy, you are dealing with low frequencies, and/or the molded connectors hermetically seal the ends.
Where you have openings into the connector or cable, water and detergent is likely to wick in and will be difficult to remove. Capillary action can pull liquid into nooks and crannies, and into the cable, where evaporation can take ages. Using heat to dry it out may even make it worse because the cable can act like a heat pipe; the evaporated water spreads as a vapor to other areas, so you can end up spreading it more than getting rid of it.
In any kind of cable, residual water can, over time, cause the conductors to become brittle and more prone to breakage (through oxidation and chemical/electro-chemical reactions mentioned in the answers by txtechhelp, Nick T, and Tonny). The thinner the wires in the cable are, the less metal they have and the more susceptible they are.
Different Types of Cables
If water gets into low frequency cables, it can shorten the service life of the cable, but it probably will not significantly change the cable’s performance. Cables used for high-speed data communication are a different matter; the water itself can be an immediate problem because these cables are not just wires and connectors. Their performance relies on electrical characteristics of the cable design. Water can affect those characteristics and degrade performance.
What you are trying to get rid of is external. The cables should still be internally good. If you get water inside, you may create issues you do not currently have. A better solution is to just hand clean the cables externally by wiping them with a rag and some isopropyl alcohol.
The risks relate primarily to the performance or service life of the cable. The only risk of damage I can envision to something other than the cable would be getting water inside the plug of a power cord. You could potentially get leakage currents that could corrode the wires or cause other problems beyond the cable itself.
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.
Image Credit: Cory Doctorow (Flickr)
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