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The popular rice myth, and why it doesn’t work

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What to do after your device gets wet, and how to prevent it in the first place.

Cell phones have revolutionized the world, and have also become an essential part of our everyday lives. Most of us invest a lot into mobile devices to be able to connect to the world around us, so it can cause a lot of panic should your phone get wet from a rainy day, a dip in a pool, or even steam from the shower.

Liquid damage in electronics is a bit like pancake batter spilled on the kitchen counter – as it happens in the morning it is easy to clean and wipe off, but coming back to it later that night is a completely different story. The same thing happens when your mobile device encounters water or other types of liquid. Water can destroy a device very quickly, sometimes damaging important components the moment liquids touches them. A couple ways to assess potential water damage are:

Type of liquid
While any type of liquid exposure has a chance to ‘water damage’ your device, liquids containing more minerals may increase the severity of said damage. Water, for instance, is a solvent to many organic and inorganic materials, thus containing numerous minerals (tap water, salt water, et cetera). More minerals could mean more corrosive damage, which could lower the success rate of repairing the device or recovering the data.

Time of exposure
Any amount of time your device is exposed to liquid may affect the damage to components on your device’s logic board. While less time exposed to a liquid may increase the chance of salvaging the device, there genuinely is no guarantee and water damage tends to be random in its destruction. The more exposed your device is to liquids, the more complex the damage can be in terms of corrosion.

Manufacturer warranties don’t tend to cover water damage, and while handset protection (insurance) will replace the device for a deductible, you’re also replacing everything on the device. That leaves many users desperate for ways to fix their wet device as soon as possible so they may retain all their data.

There are many suggestions about how to ‘fix’ a water damaged phone yourself, with the most popular one dictating that you should submerge your device in a Ziploc bag of uncooked rice to dry it out. Unfortunately, this is a myth. The idea is that the uncooked rice will absorb the moisture from the phone, which it may on the outside – however, putting a water damaged device in a bag of rice is not a promising idea for a couple of reasons.

Despite the common myth, uncooked rice will not help your mobile device. Water damaged devices sometimes turn on after water exposure, regardless of whether it was put in rice or not. This is more related to luck, and while there is enough logic in the ‘rice myth’ to be believable (“rice absorbs moisture”) – it simply isn’t a valid way to salvage your device. Rice will not absorb all the moisture and water from the device as it cannot reach inside the device and scrub corrosion from the logic board. Instead, rice grains and particles may get lodged into the 3.5mm jack and charging port of the device, causing further harm in the long run.

So, if rice doesn’t work, what should you do if your device is exposed to water?

1. Do not charge your device! Electricity and water do not like each other, so any chance you had of your device powering on may dissipate if the device is plugged in before the moisture inside the device dries completely.

2. If the device is powered on, turn it off. This is may help prevent a short circuit. If possible, remove the battery! Just simply trying to prevent irreversible damage to waterlogged components by limiting electricity exposure.

3. Remove the SIM and/or SD card – these may still be usable, depending on what got wet.

4. If exposed to salt water, it is advised to clean your device as much as possible. After following the steps above, the best solution is to soak your mobile device in 91-99% isopropyl alcohol. Alcohol is non-conductive, and often dries quicker than most other liquids. By doing so, you’re trying to displace the water, although it may not successfully scrub corrosion off the logic board.

5. Try to dry the device as best as you can! Use a towel (cloth or paper), but do not use a vacuum or other appliance which may melt or warp the device.

6. Seek a professional’s help! This should be step one, but some of the prerequisite steps may help in preventing additional damage until your device can be evaluated by a technician who is trained in handling water damaged devices.

Prevention

Preventing your device from encountering liquids is going to be the most effective way of making sure it doesn’t get water damaged. While that may seem like an obvious answer to a trick question, sometimes taking measures in your day-to-day life may not be enough as accidents tend to happen. Sure, you can limit exposure by not taking your phone into the bathroom when you shower, or leaving it in a safe, dry place when going for a swim. These all help, but the most significant advantage one can have to save against most accidents will be “life-proofing”.

“Life-proofing” can come in two forms: by purchasing a water, dust, or shock resistant case for your device, or purchasing a device itself that is water, dust, or shock resistant. The best way to gauge this is by using the ‘IP Code’, otherwise known as “Ingress Protection”. The IP Code uses a two-digit number to indicate the level of protection a device or case has against certain hazards.

First digit (0-6, solid particle protection): level of protection that the enclosure provides against access to hazardous parts (i.e., electrical conductors, moving parts) and the ingress of solid foreign objects. A rating of 0 offers no protection, while a rating of 6 offers no ingress of dust; complete protection against contact.

Second digit (0-9, liquid ingress protection): level of protection that the enclosure provides against harmful ingress of water. 1 through 6 offers protection against types of contacts with water (dripping vs splashing vs water jets), while 7-8 offers protection with immersion. A device or case would be tested for each separately, indicating an IP rating of IPx6/IPx7 if it is both resistant against immersion and being sprayed with a water jet.

For mobile devices and so-called ‘lifeproof’ cases, the ideal IP rating would be IP68 – with the ‘6’ indicating an airtight vacuum against dust and the ‘8’ indicating resistance to water submersion up to 30 minutes and in 2-3 meters of water. Add this with a durable, shock absorbent case and your device will be protected from most things life can throw your way.

Keep in mind the use of the word “resistant”, however. Most of these will protect your device, but only to a certain degree. It is still important for you to be aware of your surroundings, and should something happen to your device – you want to act quickly to avoid any further issues. Just remember, if you spill pancake batter on the counter, it is best to clean it off right then and there rather than wait for it to become a bigger problem later in the day.

 

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