One common misconception is that electronic devices are forever doomed once submerged in water. This is not automatically true as there are some instances when the device can still be salvaged. The following discussion tackles among others the situations wherein this can be possible as well as some strategies that can increase the probability for it to be so.
Before we proceed with the article, it should also be noted that when a flood strikes, it does not necessarily submerge everything in its path. We shall therefore likewise tackle every scenario that can befall electronic devices during a flood: from circuitry that is completely submerged to those that are way above the water level but are still affected by the high moisture content in the air.
Effect of water on electronic parts
Water alone, in pure form, cannot short-circuit electronic parts. However, in the real world, water is rarely found in “pure form”. Tap water, for example, contains lots of minerals. It is these minerals that can cause short circuiting. Aside from being able to cause short-circuit, the acidic impurities that water carries as well as its reactions to impurities that are already present on the surface of circuit boards can result in the corrosion of the metallic portions of the board.
Water is not only harmful to electronic parts when in liquid form. High levels of moisture in the air can hinder heat from leaving the surface of circuits. Furthermore, moisture and accumulated dust can combine to form catalysts for corrosion. Thus, you still have to be worried about your electronics equipment when a flood strikes even if they aren’t in direct contact with the water. Huge amounts of water vapor alone can be enough to do the device in.
Since an electronic board can have a lot of crevices, such a surface can be the perfect breeding ground for mold whenever the conditions are favorable. For molds, the requirement for having a favorable environment is not so high. All it needs is a high enough relative humidity. The presence of molds can cause the circuitry to short. It can also hamper the radiation of heat, causing the temperature of the board to rise to critical levels.
Response time is critical
As with most damages that are caused by water, it is important to respond to the problem as quickly as possible. This is because water does not require long periods of time before it switches into destructive mode. In fact many water damage restoration experts who specialize on electronic equipment treat the rate of corrosion before doing anything else. That is to say, the first thing they do is slow down the corrosion process.
The most crucial emergency response that should be implemented whenever electronics equipment gets wet is to switch off all of its power sources. It usually takes only a few seconds before the minerals in the water start short circuiting the equipment. Always remember that even if the water contains minerals, short circuiting cannot occur if the potential difference that can pull the minerals apart is not present. Subsequently, this potential difference can only be present if a source of power exists.
Some people, out of their anxiety, immediately switch on their devices such as cell phones or PDA’s when these get wet. This is largely due to the uncontrollable urge of wanting to know whether their device could still work or not. Here’s one sure answer: the moment they do this, it no longer will. Thus, if your device is switched off the moment it is submerged in water, don’t turn it on! That little action can spell the difference between a salvageable device and one fit for the trash bin.
In the case of a flood, water may contain more than just minerals. It may be mixed with all kinds of impurities. The initial goal must therefore be to clean the circuitry. This can be done with clean water and followed-up with isopropyl alcohol. The cleaning process has to be done quickly since the impurities plus the high moisture level can hasten the growth of molds.
In some cases, it is not enough to switch off a device to ensure that short circuiting does not happen. PC’s for example, have batteries that constantly provide power to an internal clock in order that the time and date is up-to-date. This current, albeit very low, is enough to cause galvanic or electrolytic corrosion. This is the same kind that you see around the terminals of a car battery. Once this happens, short circuiting can ensue.
Obviously, it is not enough to keep the surface of your device dry. Water is sure to have seeped into the little holes and lodged into the circuitry inside. It is therefore imperative to disassemble the device in order to ensure that every single component is exposed, as it will hasten the evaporation process.
An air drier blowing on the outside can only result in partial evaporation of the trapped water, which would simply re-condense if no escape route is found. If you have no idea how to go about with the disassembly process, it would be prudent to acquire the services of a qualified technician. The sooner this is done, the higher the likelihood of success in the salvage process.
Getting rid of a few parts to salvage the whole body
When water has stayed in a device for more than a few minutes, chances are, some of the parts would have been already damaged. However, this does not mean that the whole device is no longer salvageable. Majority of the parts might still be in running condition if assessed separately.
If it would be difficult to find a replacement for the whole circuit, it might be easier to just replace individual components. Some capacitors, resistors, and transistors are easy to find. Thus, if these common components are damaged, it might be better to replace them rather than spend a lot more to replace the whole circuit or device for that matter.
Ideal environment for restoration
Since humidity alone can cause corrosion, it is important that restoration efforts for electronic equipment are done in rooms with low humidity. In some cases, it is necessary to bring in dehumidifiers or air-conditioning units to control the temperature and humidity of the surroundings. Ideal relative humidity is pegged at no more than 45%.
In extreme cases, dehumidifiers called dessicants are employed. The name comes from the main component used for such devices, namely, dessicants. Dessicants are substances that have a high affinity for water vapor. As such, these types of dehumidifiers are capable of achieving the driest environment regardless of the temperature inside or outside your premises. In fact, for temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, only dessicant dehumidifiers are capable of removing moisture from the air.
Cleanliness is important
Remember that corrosion is one of the primary enemies of electronic circuits. Not only can it damage a component directly, it can also cause short circuits. Add some dust to moisture in the air, and voila, corrosion is sure to develop. Hence, while you work on bringing the relative humidity of the air down, you should also simultaneously make sure that the circuitry is free of dust. Canned air or a vacuum cleaner can do the trick by blowing/sucking the dust off.
Compressors are sometimes not recommended as they can introduce pressures that might be too high for the circuitry to withstand. In addition to that, compressors can also introduce moisture. There are however compressors that are equipped with water-oil separators, in which case these kinds of compressors can be used as well.
Start with the dustiest portions. For example, for a PC, you should start with the power supply since this is where dust accumulates the most. This is because air movement is most pronounced in this area due to the fans.
To remove grease, oil, and other contaminants, a recommended solution is the use of canned solvents, which are safe for both metal and plastic components. These are non-corrosive and non-conductive chemicals that don’t require rinsing once sprayed on an electronic circuit. Since dust easily collects on oily surfaces, spraying your circuit boards with this would bring down dust accumulation. You might have to remove the board before spraying to make sure you’ve sprayed the whole surface.
A flood can greatly affect electronic equipment whether or not it makes direct contact with them. For restoration to be possible, sometimes even however slim the chance, certain contingency plans have to be implemented once it is too late to evacuate all electronic equipment. It is however evident that one crucial factor is to make sure that all devices are rendered powerless. The presence of the slightest current can lead to the irreversible demise of the equipment. Nevertheless, following this crucial step does not in any way guarantee 100% probability of a successful restoration. It does however pave the way for the possibility of performing the contingency measures outlined above without turning the whole exercise into an automatic futile effort.