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What do I do when I have spilled wine, coffee, soda on my Apple Macbook, Lenovo Thinkpad, Dell laptop or HP computer?

In this article, I will try to describe what happens when you have a spill.  How different models of laptops are better or worse for spills.  And what you should do if you have a spill.

What happens when you spill a liquid on your laptop depends on where you spill and what you spill.  The “better” liquids to spill on your laptop are water, coffee (black) or tea (without milk or sugar).  However people often spill wine, juice, beer, or coffee/tea with either cream or sugar on their laptop.  The second listing is drinks that have some type of sugar.  Orange juice in particular is very bad to spill on laptops.  Note that even water unless it is distilled will normally have minerals that can cause problems. When a liquid spills on a keyboard, it will normally drip down to the motherboard.  Sugars in the liquid will form “shorts” between voltages on the motherboard sometimes causing it not to work.  If allowed to remain, the liquid after it dries will start to corrode metal.

We get two types of phone calls about liquid spills:

1)      The first is a call within hours of the spill occurring

2)      The second is days, weeks or even months after the spill has occurred.

We did get a Macbook Pro recently that had “just a water spill” a few weeks earlier but it had stopped working.  When we opened it up, there was excessive mildew on every internal surface.  The corrosion that we found under the mildew was extreme and had attacked not just the motherboard but every cable, component, and connector in the laptop.  It was nearly the worst case of corrosion that we have ever seen.  So even a water spill can be a problem.  Apparently they had tried to “dry it out” by putting it in the back window of a hot car in the sun.

In addition to causing shorts on the motherboard, it can also cause shorts in connectors and mechanical switches.  The first component to fail many times is the keyboard itself. Below each key is an electrical contact, it will either potentially short “open” or “closed”.  Other components that can be affected are the power switch (power button) , the touch pad and the mouse buttons on some laptops.  The good news is that very rarely does a spill affect the hard drive (or SSD).  Therefore the data you have stored on your laptop is safe and can still be recovered even if the rest of your laptop is considered a total loss.  If you have to spill a liquid on a laptop,  the best one is the Lenovo Thinkpad T series.  Under the keyboard, the Thinkpads have a drainage system similar to a roof gutter.  Liquid is diverted away from the motherboard and out a drainage hole (actually most Thinkpads have two drainage holes) on the bottom of the laptop.  They even put a cute symbol on the hole of a keyboard and a drop of water.  In addition, the Thinkpad keyboards are somewhat sealed and can withstand liquid spills better than most keyboards.  Note that you can not submerge a Thinkpad or leave it under a lawn sprinkler but it is designed to divert up to 16 ounces of your favorite drink.

On most Windows based laptops, there are air vents on the bottom which allow some liquid to drain off. Unfortunately this is only after bathing your motherboard in that soda that you were going to drink to relieve your thirst.

The worst laptop to have a spill is an Apple Macbook or Macbook Pro.  The sleek design looks great but the base of the Macbook is basically a soup bowl when you have a spill.  Even turning it upside down allows copious amounts of liquid to remain inside.  I will talk specifically about Macbook care further down in this article.

What should you do when you spill something on/into your laptop?  First, turn off you laptop. Second, remove the battery – usually that is just pushing one or two slide latches and then popping it out.  Turn your laptop upside down to shake out the liquid and back several times. This is the minimum that should be done.  If this is all you plan to do, then leave the laptop turned off for two to three days.  Do not put it in rice, the refrigerator or in an especially warm place.  Place it right side up with the lid raised inside your home.  Leave it undisturbed for the two to three days.  At that point, you may want to use some isopropyl alcohol on a paper towel to clean any stickiness off the outside of your laptop.  Then put the battery back in and hope for the best.  If it does not work, see below.

If you are more adventuresome or have someone familiar with your laptop to help you (Absolute Computers comes to mind); after removing the battery, continue the dis-assembly process.  On most Windows machines, the keyboard is relatively simple to remove but it does vary by manufacturer and model.  On Macbooks, removing the keyboard requires removing everything from inside the laptop base first since it can only be removed from the back of the Macbook.  After removing the keyboard, disconnect it and clean it with isopropyl alcohol.  Take care not to damage the connector on the motherboard when disconnecting the keyboard.  At this point, you may be able to soak up some excess liquid into a paper towel.  If your laptop is a Thinkpad, you may want to pour some isopropyl alcohol down the “gutter system” , let that dry. If you are confident that the liquid was contained to the Thinkpad “gutter system”,  then reassemble the Thinkpad and proceed to test the functionality of your machine.  If not a Thinkpad, flip the laptop on it lid; remove the base from the rest of the laptop.  At this point, individual laptops vary quite abit so it is difficult to explain what to do for each individual model, but usually you can Google “how to disassemble “your laptop manufacturer / model” for individual instructions.  Keep track of each screw removed. Get a large sheet of paper;  write a description that will help you remember. Some folks draw a diagram or map of where each screw is located.

It is important that you maintain good ESD discipline when working with sensitive electronics.  Electrostatic discharge is that spark that you generate when walking across a carpet. Ideally you would do the disassembly on an ESD mat with an ESD strap on your wrist.  Both should be grounded (normally to a copper water pipe or some other electrical connection to ground).  If you don’t have the proper ESD equipment,  at a minimum work in a room with a solid floor covering – no carpet or rugs. Insure you are wearing leather soled shoes (barefoot is better), not something with rubber / plastic soles.  Touch a grounded surface before handing the internal elements of your laptop.  Finally try to not touch connectors, ends of cables or the motherboard surfaces.  Try to hold the motherboard by the edge of the board.

At this point, disconnect the time of day battery. It is a small watch battery that is used plugged via a short cable into the motherboard or may be located in a socket just for it. Once the laptop is entirely disassembled proceed to clean the motherboard in isopropyl alcohol. Use the isopropyl alcohol to clean connectors. You also want to clean any other surface that may have liquid residue such as the inside of the plastic base.   Your towel should be damp with the isopropyl alcohol but you do not want to bathe your motherboard or have enough that it puddles or runs across the board.  You want to dissolve and either wipe away or otherwise remove any residue left by the liquid.  In our shop, we use some special tools but you can use cotton balls, Q-Tips and paper towels soaked in isopropyl alcohol.  Note that some of the items that you will be handling are somewhat delicate so be careful not to damage anything.  In particular, cables and connectors are things to be careful around.  Your motherboard has surface mounted components. These range in size of small black squares with many pins or leads coming out from each of the four sides down to tiny little cubes that are soldered to the board at each end of the cube.  (The black squares are VLSI chips and the little cubes are discrete capacitors and resistors. )  You want to try to not allow any residue to go under these surface mounted components.  So if there is residue on the motherboard, you will want to try to “mop” it up with cotton balls or Q-Tips as opposed to trying to wash it off and allowing tiny particles to perhaps get trapped under the surface mounted components.

If the spill occurred more than a couple of weeks earlier, the residue may have caused corrosion to start to form.  Usually there is no cleaning method to remove the corrosion and you are looking at replacing that component.  That is why you do not want to wait more than a few days if you have a liquid spill and the computer is not working after the spill has occurred.

After cleaning the entire insides of the laptop, reassemble it in reverse order as the disassembly process.  This is when it is critical to remember where each screw goes.  We frequently see laptops where the customer attempted to take it apart and forgot to put back all the screws.  It is also important to use the correct screw in the correct location.  A too short screw will not accomplish the job that it is meant to perform.  A too long screw will push through the plastic and either cause damage to another component or you may have a screw tip sticking out of your laptop.  We have seen people come in after replacing the screws and have screw ends pushing through the plastic in four, six or sometimes even more locations.  In our shop, we never use power screwdrivers.  If you put the wrong screw into a hole, you can tell if you are turning it manually if there is a problem but not with a power screwdriver.

After reassembly, turn the laptop on and test all the components.  Do all the keys on the keyboard work? If not, does the keyboard function work correctly with an external keyboard?  If it works with an external keyboard, then the problem is most likely with the connector to the keyboard or the keyboard itself.  Keyboards are relatively inexpensive to replace.  Does the track pad and mouse buttons work?  Does the power button function correctly?  Does the laptop connect to wifi? Do all the ports on the laptop work correctly ie USB, DisplayPort, Ethernet, etc. .  We often see things like the LCD screen not working because the customer working on his own laptop forgot to plug back in the video cable or they pulled it off the LCD.  Does the time of day clock work correctly when the laptop is turned off and not plugged into an AC adapter? Does the battery discharge and charge as expected?  A failure of any of these items requires further trouble shooting to determine the exact cause of the problem.

With most laptops, if the spill was small or was only water or if you are a Thinkpad owner;  you can power the machine down, pull the battery and give it a couple of days to dry.  However for more extensive spills especially those containing sugars;  I recommend a disassembly and  a cleaning to be performed.

If you have a Macbook or Macbook Pro – I would almost always recommend a cleaning.  As stated before, Macbooks have a design that captures liquid spills inside the laptop and does not allow a significant portion to drain out.   We sometimes have folks that come in and say their computer has stopped working or some keys on the keyboard are not working.  We will ask if you had a liquid spill.  Be honest with your answer because it will allow us to give you the best service possible.  In the Apple Store, people will frequently come in with the complaint that the Macbook just quit working.  Upon disassembly, Apple will find the liquid spill indicator inside the laptop to have been activated.  This is a sticker that changes color when exposed to liquid.  Normally the folks in the Apple Store will encourage you to buy a new Macbook after spill damage has occurred.   We will work to clean and restore your Macbook to working order after a liquid spill has occurred.

As a side note, the liquid indicator inside a Macbook will sometimes permanently change color if the laptop is in a humid area.  For example, if you take a Macbook that has been outside on a hot humid North Carolina day and then bring it inside where the AC is doing a great job – the humid air trapped inside the laptop will rapidly cool and water condensation can form inside the Macbook.  If a drop of water lands on the liquid indicator, that is enough for it to change color.  The reason that I mention this is that the Apple Store will check this indicator when they do any hardware diagnostics. If the indicator has changed color, normally your warranty is void.  If the Apple Store says your MacBook is not worth repairing because of a liquid spill, give us a call. We have found cases where the problem is easy and low in cost to resolve.

Many people after reading the above ask if they can just bring their laptop to us.  Of course, that is one of the services we perform.  Here is what you can expect:

When you drop it off, tell us you had a liquid spill, when it occurred, what the liquid was , if you know roughly how much was spilled into the computer and if you tried using the laptop  – what functions do not work.  If it occurred in less than 12-16 hours before you are dropping it off with us – we may suggest an “expedite” so the cleaning can be done before the liquid has totally dried.  We will perform the diagnosis and call with our initial findings.  If the spill occurred more than a couple of weeks earlier, corrosion may have formed and components may need replaced.  Motherboard replacements including parts and labor can range from slightly over one hundred dollars to a thousand dollars.  Macbooks and gaming laptops such as Alienware have the highest motherboard prices typically.

We do reserve the right to refuse to work on certain laptops.  For example, laptops that contain urine or other bodily fluids will not be accepted.    Motherboards have sharp edges and small cuts can occur on our technicians’ fingers.  We do not want to expose our employees to disease.  In addition, we do not want to contaminate surfaces in which other customers’ computers may come in contact.  If you have a question on whether we will work on your machine, call us and discuss.

We do get asked if we work on computers (laptops and desktops) that have suffered water damage in fires or flooding from broken pipes.  This is something we encourage you to call us and discuss.  If the computer was subjected to water damage from firemen putting out a fire or a broken water pipe, we can usually help.  If the computer was flooded in “dirty water” or was subjected to a sewer line break, we reserve the right to refuse service. In addition, the “dirty water” and sewer accidents usually result in a rather severe corrosion to all the components in the computer.  If you have a “dirty water” or sewer accident and want just the data recovered off the hard drive.  Please give us a call.  If you can bring in your hard drive by itself and identify the liquid it was exposed to then we can attempt a data recovery.  Note that we can supply you an ESD bag for transport of your hard drive or drives to protect the sensitive electronics from ESD.   See this link for more on our data recovery http://absoluteraleigh.com/services/data_recovery/

When we call with a diagnosis, we will give you a quote.  For spills that occurred within the previous week, we will normally suggest a disassembly / cleaning and perhaps a keyboard replacement.  After the cleaning has been done, we will run the laptop for 12 to 24 hours before returning it to you.  We are testing it to determine if there are any sugars that may “short” out a function on the laptop.  When a voltage is present, it will cause sugars and some other materials to migrate and form a “short”.  If the laptop is still functional after this test, we feel reasonably confident that we have removed any damaging residue from your laptop.  We have found that any sugars that are going to migrate usually do so in less than 10 hours. We will give you an additional 7 calendar day window where if your laptop fails to function – we will refund to you the cost of the cleaning.  However the cost of any new components such as a keyboard will not be refunded.  The reason that sugars may still be present is if residue has been trapped under a surface mount component.   This explains why I stated above the need to “mop” up the residue rather than trying to rinse it off.

For most computers, we typically charge $60 to $120 for the disassembly, cleaning and reassembly of a computer.  In addition, there may be components that need replaced. As stated above, it is important that you give us as much information as possible about the spill; when it occurred, what the liquid was, where did the spill enter the laptop and anything else that you think may be important.  I will also stress that the sooner that we perform the cleaning after the spill occurred the higher the likelihood that we will be successful and that the cost of repair will be low.  Waiting an extra week may mean the difference between cleaning the motherboard and replacing it.

Finally, if the cost of repair is too high – for example, the motherboard, keyboard, touchpad all have corrosion and need replaced.  Your data will still normally be recoverable.  In over 98% of the liquid spills that we see, the data can be recovered from the hard drive.  Ask us to recover your data and we can copy it to another computer,  a USB flash drive or external hard drive.   See this link for more on data recovery   http://absoluteraleigh.com/services/data_recovery/

So remember if you have a liquid spill, give Absolute Computers a call. Located in Cary, North Carolina – we are convenient for folks in Angier,  Apex, Cary (of course), Chapel Hill, Clayton, Durham, Fuquay Varina, Garner, Knightdale, Holly Springs, Morrisville, Raleigh, Wake Forest and Zebulon. We have folks that drive here with their computers from Fayetteville, Rocky Mount, Sanford and Wilson. Finally we have people ship us their computers from across the US. We often get computers shipped to us from the west coast and most of the states between there and NC.