Computer repair question of the week: How to save a laptop from water damage

This week’s computer repair post was prompted by a guy who came into our Hillsborough computer store earlier this week. He had spilled his coffee over his older Dell laptop and wanted to know if we could save it. This seems to happen a lot, especially if you work or study at home. So how can you save a laptop from water damage?

The first thing to realize is that if you spill liquid onto any electronic device and is goes fizzle and pop, it is likely too late. While we can sometimes resurrect devices that have shorted out due to liquid ingress, it is far from guaranteed. However, we will always try our best.

Act fast

If you accidentally spill liquid over anything electronic or electrical, you need to move quickly. Turn it off as quickly as you can and remove all power to it. Remove the battery or the mains plug quickly. If you can remove voltage from the device, chances are that we can prevent a short and thereby save the device. You have to be fast though as the minute liquid hit electronics it is usually game over.

If you don’t move quickly enough, the liquid can cause the device to short out. Depending on where this short circuit occurs, we can sometimes save it and sometimes not. For example, if the liquid gets underneath a laptop into the battery contacts, we can often change the battery and clean the contacts. If that liquid goes further, we can often do nothing about it.

How to save a laptop from water damage:

  • Power it fully off, fast.
  • Remove the battery if you can.
  • Remove the mains lead if in use.
  • Remove any peripherals, SD cards or USB drives.

Dealing with water damage

If you managed to turn the device off before it shorts out, there is hope but it takes patience. Your first task is to remove as much of the liquid as possible. If liquid entered a laptop through the keyboard, turn it upside down and leave for a couple hours to drain and dry. If water got in through the bottom, remove the liquid and allow it to drain right way up.

Essentially, what you want to do is align the device so the liquid flows out without hitting any more of the electronic parts.

You now have two options. You can strip the laptop down to speed up the drying process or you can leave it alone for 72 hours or more to dry by itself.

Stripping down

If you choose to strip the laptop down, you will need a Philips screwdriver, a dry work surface and some patience. It will also help to have a receptacle ready for you to store the screws from the laptop as they are tiny.

  1. Remove the battery if it unclips from the external chassis.
  2. Remove the bottom cover of the laptop. This is usually secured by 6-8 tiny Philips screws.
  3. Remove the battery if it is an internal one. Clean the contacts of both the battery and the laptop. Look for black marks that could indicate a short circuit.
  4. Follow your laptop’s user manual to remove the hard drive or SSD.
  5. Remove the RAM.
  6. Remove the keyboard if that is where the liquid entered. The exact method of doing this differs by manufacturer but is often possible through more Philips screws inside the chassis and prizing gently apart.

When you remove each component it is important to visually inspect it for damage including burn marks. Then place it on a dry surface somewhere safe to dry. Depending on where you live and how warm or cold it is, give each component a few hours to dry completely.

Do not be tempted to place components next to a heater or fire. Electronics do not like heat either and you could easily do more harm than good.


Once all components have had a chance to dry fully, you can begin rebuilding the laptop. Just reverse the process above but don’t apply power to the laptop or clip the battery in until you are ready.

Inspect all components for black scorch marks before replacing them. If any components show signs of damage, don’t use them. That may be the part that shorted out. Replace them if you can or use an alternative if you have a spare laptop or can borrow one from a buddy.

Be patient

If you don’t want to strip your laptop down, that’s fine. You can either bring it over to Dave’s Computers and we can do it for you or you can leave it for 72 hours or so to dry naturally. As above, don’t be tempted to put the laptop next to a heat source to speed up drying.

If you’re in a hurry, you can put the laptop on a baking tray filled with dry rice or you can use those little packets of silica gel that are often included with shoes or PC components. Both attract and absorb moisture so would work well here. Just make sure no rice finds its way into the vents!

However you decide to proceed, the longer you leave the laptop to dry naturally, the better.

Powering up

Once you are satisfied that all components are completely dry you can think about powering up. Attach the battery and press that power button. If you’re lucky and got to the device before it shorted out, it should boot as normal.

If it doesn’t boot at all, try plugging in the mains adapter and powering on. If that doesn’t work, remove the battery altogether, reattach mains power and try again. If there is no life, there is no hope. It means something vital was shorted out and you will unfortunately need to replace the laptop.

If there are signs of life but the laptop won’t boot, it could be faulty RAM or hard drive. Much depends on the message you see on screen. Try different memory or alternative hard drive/SSD if you can and retest.

If you can power off fast enough, you can save a laptop from water damage. If you get stuck, or would prefer us to do the work for you, we would be happy to. Just bring it along to our Hillsborough computer store and we will try our best!

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