It’s common knowledge that water does bad things to electronics, but there are still a few things you may not know about how exactly water can damage electronic components and what you can do if you ever accidentally take your devices for a swim.

What’s Happening Exactly?

Let’s use your smartphone as an example for how water damage occurs, and let’s say that you accidentally drop it into a puddle of water and it ends up damaging the device, leading to malfunction and, eventually, total failure. How exactly did the water do all that damage?

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Interestingly enough, it’s actually not the water itself doing the damage, but rather the microscopic impurities and ions in the water. These ions can link together to form a chain of sorts, and if lucky enough, both ends of that chain can make a connection between two different contact points within the phone. If the phone is turned on, this will send electricity to where it’s not supposed to go, creating a short and causing damage to the device.

Pure H20 Isn’t Actually That Conductive

Water itself isn’t necessarily an enemy to electronics. It’s not like pouring water on a piece of paper and now all of a sudden that piece of paper is completely ruined. It’s a bit different with electronics.

Technically, you could turn off your phone, soak it in water, let it dry completely, turn your phone back on, and it would still perform like nothing happened (other than the water detection markers turning red). I wouldn’t recommend doing this as an experiment, but it would technically work. It’s basically what happens when you accidentally wash your USB flash drives in the clothes washer, but they still end up working just fine.

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As stated earlier, it’s actually the ions from dissolved salts in the water that act as conductors, rather than the water itself. To prove that, another experiment that you probably shouldn’t do would be to take distilled water (which is 100% pure H20 without any impurities or ions) and dump it on your phone while it’s turned on. Theoretically, nothing bad would happen, as there are no ions to create a path for electricity and cause a short circuit.

A safer experiment that you can do, though, is to take a water leak detection sensor and place it in distilled water—it shouldn’t go off. However, if you place it in regular tap water where ions are present, the sensor would then trip and sound. This won’t work with every water leak sensor, though, as some are specially-designed to detect even distilled water. And this is because distilled water isn’t entirely non-conductive, but its conductivity is so low that the likelihood of it carrying electricity isn’t very high in most situations.

Look Out for Water Corrosion, Though

Even if your phone or other electronic device has experienced an unexpected swim and still works, you’re not completely in the clear just yet, as water corrosion can also cause damage to electronics.

It’s perhaps the silent killer, because even if your phone still works after being exposed to water, the corrosion that starts to occur afterward on the inside can also do its own damage.

Corrosion is nothing more than the result of a chemical reaction between the metal on a circuit board and whatever it comes into contact with—in this case, water and its minerals and impurities. A great example of corrosion that you’re probably dealing with right now on your car is rust—the metal combines with water and oxygen to form iron oxide, which slowly turns your car’s strong steel frame into a flaky and dusty powder.

Something similar happens to the circuits inside your phone after being exposed to water, but it’s mostly just flaky crud that can easily be cleaned up for the most part.

How to Save Your Phone From Water Damage

The very first thing you need to do after your phone takes a swim is to completely shut it down as quickly as possible to prevent it short circuiting. Many users will panic and attempt to get it turned on and working again, but that’s the exact opposite of what you should do.

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After that, remove anything from the phone that can be removed, like the case, sim card tray, the battery cover, and the battery (if possible). This can allow trapped water to escape and make the drying process a bit easier.

From there, do whatever you have to do to get as much water out as possible—blow into it, shake it all around, anything. Your best option, though, is to disassemble your phone if you can. That way, you’ll have an easier time drying it completely, as well as an opportunity to clean the inside with some isopropyl alcohol in order to wash off all of the minerals and impurities left behind that could cause corrosion.

Oh, and don’t bother with rice. It doesn’t work. After all, if rice absorbed water that well, you should be able to “cook” it just by leaving it out on a humid day.

Image by AlexandrBognat/Shutterstock

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Craig Lloyd is a smarthome expert with nearly ten years of professional writing experience. His work has been published by iFixit, Lifehacker, Digital Trends, Slashgear, and GottaBeMobile.
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