Technology. Love it or hate it, most of us can’t live without it. Try as we might to be careful with our hardware, accidents happen. Liquids spill and seep into places they shouldn’t, laptops take an unexpected nosedive to the floor. Sometimes acting quickly can save the day. Here, expert advice on what to do when bad things happen to good computers. 

The dreaded spill

As the owner of Digital Remedy Repair, a chain of computer repair shops in South Carolina and Louisiana, Alex Mouravskiy deals with the aftermath of spills everyday. “Water alone won’t usually damage electronics, but highly corrosive beverages like wine, juice or coffee leave behind a sticky residue that must be cleaned,” he says. “You run into problems if the liquid meets an electrical current and creates a short circuit. The short can mean death to electrical devices and it speeds up the process of corrosion which can further damage components.”

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The 911-fix for spills: The most important thing to do following a spill of any kind is to shut everything down and disconnect all power sources — including removing the battery, if possible. (Note: this task is more difficult if the laptop is an Apple product because a special five-point screw driver is needed to access the battery). Unplug the mouse and any cables. Remove any flash drives and DVDs, too

Next, open your laptop as far as it will go, and gently turn it on its side to let the liquid run out. Wipe the outside of the machine dry with an absorbent towel, then allow the computer to dry out completely. Experts say people often underestimate the length of time required to fully dry out a laptop. “Attempting to turn on your laptop before it’s completely dry is usually a fatal mistake or one that will require a costly repair,” Mouravskiy says. “Accept that a spill will likely put your computer out of commission for a few days.” Play it safe, and don’t even attempt to turn on your computer for three days.

Some experts recommend the rice trick. This involves burying the machine in a plastic bag filled with rice. The idea is that the rice will help absorb the water. Mouravskiy says that while rice can be a good short-term solution, rice is not a magic cure-all. “Rice won’t really help with water trapped underneath chips or small components. The biggest problem with this remedy is that people put too much faith in it and try turning on their device too early in the drying process.” Remember the three-day rule. “The little packets of silica gel that you can get at a shoe store work much better than rice.”

Unless the spill was caused by clean water, there will be residue left behind that needs to be removed. If you’re brave enough to attempt the clean up yourself (realizing that you could risk further damage to the computer), you’ll need to carefully open up the laptop, find the extent of the spill and remove the residue.

“Gently scrub the internal components with distilled water or rubbing alcohol and a soft-bristled toothbrush,” Mouravskiy advises. “Rubbing alcohol is great because it dries quickly at room temperature and won’t compound the problem.”

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The dreaded drop

Laptop drops cause different problems, some of which may not be obvious right away. Consequences may include a cracked screen, broken circuit boards, battery damage and damage to the hard drive. A cracked screen will obviously need replacing, but the other problems may take a while — even a year or two — to reveal themselves. “Your computer may appear to be working fine, but the drop may have exacerbated its demise,” Mouravskiy admits.

The 911-fix for drops: If the computer is still running after a fall, back up your data right away in case there was damage that isn’t immediately apparent but might cause issues later. Mourvaskiy says it’s important to listen carefully as you power up your device. A damaged hard drive will make clicking sounds, or sound like it’s spinning very loudly.

“If you hear any of that, turn it off and bring it to a repair shop as soon as possible. Using a damaged hard drive can actually cause the drive to fail completely,” he explains.

Unfortunately, if the computer won’t start up following a drop, your only recourse is to have it repaired or replaced.

The dangers of DIY repair

Not all experts agree with the do-it-yourself approach to computer repair. In spite of numerous how-to videos available on YouTube that demonstrate how to take apart a laptop following a near drowning, Michael B. Spring, associate professor of information, science and telecommunications at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks it’s best to leave this delicate work to professionals. “Computer repairs can be expensive, but laptops have become so complex that today I won’t turn a screw on any machine — even though I’ve spent a significant part of my life monkeying around with personal computers.” 

Mouravskiy says many of the videos are accurate — but he agrees that even though self-repair can often be successful, there are risks involved, namely:

  • Videos over simplify the process. “Videos tend to make the repairs look easier than they are, partly because the device is often prepped prior to recording by loosening screws, adhesives and other stubborn parts,” Mouravskiy says. “Still, if a home viewer is very careful, detailed oriented enough to follow the instructions perfectly and has the right tools, he or she can often perform the repair.
  • You create more damage. “About 20 percent of the repairs we perform on devices are the result of people trying to fix it themselves. Honestly, those are always the hardest repairs, and the ones with the lowest probability of success because trying — and failing — often leads to a much bigger problem,” he says. “In repair circles, there’s an expression that gets bantered around: ‘I had a problem, so I watched a YouTube video and now I have two problems.’”

Before attempting a DIY repair, consider the cost of the computer. “An inexpensive device may not survive a drop or a spill, so you may not have much to lose,” says Mouravskiy, adding that the average repair costs $175 to $200. (Apple products typically cost more.)

Spring recommends insuring expensive laptops, but points out that many insurance options won’t cover damage from liquids. Plus, most laptops have built-in liquid-damage sensors, so it’s no use pretending the problem wasn’t caused by a spill. “Even so, for a $2,000 laptop than can last several years, I’d say it’s worth spending the extra money on insurance coverage.”

Head off a data-loss disaster

Considering how dependent many people are on the info stored on their computers, Spring finds it astonishing how lazy we are about backing up data. “People want automatic solutions, yet we aren’t vigilant about performing back ups,”

says the professor, who keeps five copies of his data stored on multiple external drives. “Storage space is relatively inexpensive today, so there’s no excuse and the process is fairly quick.”

Mouravskiy recommends using two backup systems — a local one on some type of external hard drive and a cloud-based service (because he’s found that people are terrible at remembering to perform manual backups), such as Google Drive, Dropbox and a new service called Backblaze.

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Ann Matturro Gault’s Macbook Air was recently damaged by an accidental water spill. Miraculously, she didn’t lose any information but the repair cost $690.

Ann Matturro Gault is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national magazines and many websites. She lives with her four kids, dog, cat and spouse in New Jersey.