There are few things that can compare with the sinking feeling you get when you go to turn your computer on and it quickly dies a moment later due to hardware problems. With that issue in mind, today’s SuperUser Q&A post has the answer to a stressed-out reader’s question.

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 Baris Usakli wants to know if a short circuit could damage a hard disk drive:

Everything was working fine until one day when my computer would shut down a split second after the power button was pressed. All the fans would start spinning and the lights would come on, but then everything would go dark half a second later. After this happened, pressing the power button had no effect. The only way to get my computer started again was to unplug the power cord, then plug it back in.

I suspected the power supply was the cause at first, so I bought another one, but I still faced the same issue. I unplugged everything and reseated the RAM/GPU and drives. After doing that, my computer booted and I thought I was good to go, but then I noticed my secondary hard disk drive was no longer working.

It was not visible in BIOS or Windows. I replaced the hard disk drive with another one, but after a while, the original issue came back. So I reseated everything again and was able to boot back up, but to my horror, the new hard disk drive was dead as well. At this point, I thought maybe something was shorting the system out, so I took everything out of the case including the motherboard. To my surprise, there was a loose screw stuck between the back of the motherboard and the case.

I removed the screw, put everything back together, and now the power down issue no longer occurs, but I am not 100 percent sure that the system is stable. Is it possible that a screw causing a short circuit can damage hard disk drives? My operating system’s drive is an SSD and it is running fine. The ones that “died” are regular 1 TB hard disk drives.

Can a short circuit damage a hard disk drive?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors David Schwartz, eckes, and gronostaj have the answer for us. First up, David Schwartz:

Yes, it is definitely possible. For example, the screw could short out the +5V line to the +12V line and fry the hard disk drive’s onboard controller.

Followed by the answer from eckes:

Yes, it can. A hard disk drive can fail indirectly. Hard disk drives that have been used for a long time tend to fail at the next reboot/startup (caused by a short circuit or normal power switch). Other possibilities are a surge from a wall socket or induction after a short circuit reached the hard disk drive’s electronics or controller. Note that there should be all kinds of fuses, diodes, capacitors, and shielding in place so that an electrical problem does not spread, but cheap hardware tends to be commonplace.

There is also the problem of (logically) corrupt sectors if the power fails while writing. This should also be covered by the hard disk drive, spinning just long enough to finish writing the data, but it may not succeed though. Such corruption might result in transient read errors, and it might require some disk repair work or special tools to refresh the sector(s) in question.

It is typically hard to know the exact reason, but a screw connecting the main board’s power lines with a grounded chassis (or with each other) does sound like a probable cause for a short circuit, which could cause damage to the hard disk drive (which it should not do).

I do want to add that your computer’s “symptoms” could also mean that the hard disk drive died, then short circuited the computer, or that the power supply unit was overloaded with the hard disk drive’s demand for power at startup.

With our final answer from gronostaj:

Yes! I have lost two hard disk drives due to a short circuit. It was quite spectacular. An integrated circuit at the bottom of one exploded, resulting in a loud bang, a little fireball, and a nice crater.

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: gronostaj (SuperUser)

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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