The feeling of spilling a drink on your expensive laptop is so unique that Cindy Jacob can see it on your face before you even say a word.
Ms. Jacob, co-owner of the MacPros repair shop in Victoria, says the feeling is a mixture of sheepishness and helplessness – and it’s one she’s become increasingly familiar with since the start of the coronavirus lockdown.
“Right now we’re doing more liquid damage than anything, since about a week after everyone got sent home,” she said. The lockdown has doubled the frequency with which she has customers racing in with dripping laptops.
The reason for the sudden rise may be the environment itself: Homes are fraught with danger for electronics in a way offices are not.
“People are using their computers as food tables these days,” marvelled Ahmad Jabar, a tech at Apple Experts, a Calgary shop that has seen “unprecedented” demand for repairs lately.
In ad hoc home offices, laptops are precariously balanced on stacks of books next to a glass of wine for Zoom happy hours; cats are constantly on the prowl next to half-consumed coffees; and children – well, children are doing what they do best.
“The kids seem to be the big story,” Ms. Jacob said. Her partner, Jay Cissell, agrees. Even the computer sitting in front of him was the victim of a kid-related juice spill. “They’re trying to maintain their kids while they’re at work,” he said, and the result is the kind of chaos that laptops aren’t built to withstand.
When it comes to their destructive power, not all liquids are created equal. Water is the least dangerous. It doesn’t leave a sticky mess, and it doesn’t conduct electricity as well as liquids with more impurities, like coffee, tea or a whiskey sour, so it is less likely to short circuit the electronics within the computer. The presence of a liquid – any liquid – can also create a sort of “electrolysis” effect, causing corrosion.
On the other end of the spectrum is beer.
“I don’t know what’s in beer, or if it’s just because it foams,” Mr. Cissell says. But whatever it is, when laptops drink beer, “they don’t often do very well.”
Those alcohol-related spills seem to be increasing with more time spent at home. One customer has come in two different times for wine spills; another has returned enough times with rye and Coke spill damage to require three full computer replacements (although, not all of them during the coronavirus lockdown.)
I have a confession: my own interest in this story began with a spill in my home. The advice I gave then for dealing with the spill, without the information I’m about to share, was dead wrong.
First, and most importantly, rice is absolutely not helpful. Urban legends have proliferated around its helpfulness in pulling moisture out of electronics, and even today that advice shows up in Google search results, but the last thing you should do is put your computer in rice.
“If you put it in rice the chances of it recovering are pretty low,” Mr. Cissell says. The starch in rice combines with the liquid to make a paste “like a car battery,” he says, which spreads throughout the computer and wrecks everything it touches.
Turning the computer off and unplugging it is the first step once the problem starts. Next, disconnect the battery. That’s often easier said than done – with MacBooks, for instance, which have tiny screws that require specialized screwdrivers preventing any access – but by bringing it as soon as possible to a repair shop that can disconnect the battery, you can likely spare the laptop the worst damage.
In the meantime, don’t flip it upside down. When the liquid entered the computer, it likely only came into contact with the top side of the logic board, but flipping it over lets the liquid access the underside, too. Mr. Cissell recommends just tipping it back, into a V shape, so that the liquid can drain out the back.
Even once no more liquid is dripping out, though, don’t turn it on. Even if it appears to be working flawlessly, the remaining liquid could corrode the machine’s insides; the process could take weeks but the damage could get much more substantial over time.
It may be embarrassing, but bring it to a shop for a cleaning. Ms. Jacob says she’s gotten used to consoling the fretting owners.
“I have to tell them, don’t worry, you’re not the only one.”
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