Coffee, shakes, water, beer—none of them are good for your laptop. But there is something worse: the way most people react to having spilled liquid into their computer.
We’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers over the years about liquid damage, ranging from typical coffee/tea/beer spills to an entire gallon of milk (real) to … a cat directly urinating on the keyboard (actual customer question, August 2018). We’ve seen an uptick in questions and visits to liquid-related pages and guides since people started working from home under coronavirus quarantine. People, it seems, are working on laptops more, are a bit more cavalier with their drinks, and are possibly working at the same crowded table where they put their mail or chop onions.
So here’s an all-in-one guide on what to do if you spill on on your laptop. These steps are also what you would do if you fully submerge your laptop (stupid faulty bath tray!), except in that case, you must assume the worst when it comes to how much you need to clean or dry. It’s also similar to what you should do if you spill on your phone, tablet, or a similar device. It will just be trickier to open and clean those devices. Let’s dive in.
The goal of this guide is two-fold. We’re trying to prevent the liquid, or particles and sediments in the liquid, from bridging an electrical connection where one should not exist, that will damage components inside (i.e. a “short” or “short circuit”). We’re also trying to prevent the liquid from corroding circuits and metal elements inside the laptop. This is why we need to turn it off, unplug it, and disconnect the battery. With power and heat flowing through a device with water or sediment inside—or even just a battery being present to potentially keep power flowing—the chances of something vital being shorted or corroded are much higher.
Step 1: Don’t Panic and Don’t Listen to Anybody Who Mentions Rice
The liquid landing on your laptop was an accident. Your frantic scramble to test if it still works, turn it back on, or get the liquid out without turning it off is on you. Your main job when there’s liquid all over your laptop is to turn it off and get it dry. Everything else you do is just giving the liquid time to do damage.
Most importantly, don’t try to use rice to “draw out the moisture.” It doesn’t work, at all. You’re giving water more time to corrode your laptop, and you’re probably getting rice inside your laptop or under your keys.
Step 2: Be Safe, Unplug It, Turn It Off
If you’re standing in water or soaking wet yourself, the device is submerged, or you see any signs of heat, smoke, bulging, bubbling, or anything else that mentally screams “Get Away”—get away. Turn the power off to the device at a circuit breaker instead of reaching for the cord or trying to press the power key. If you see, smell, or hear any signs that the battery is reacting to the water damage, don’t touch it. Get an ABC or BC fire extinguisher ready (lithium-ion battery fires are technically a “B” fire)
Otherwise, your goal is to unplug your laptop, then turn it off fast. Don’t bother heading to the Windows/Apple/Chrome menu and choosing Shutdown or Power Off—every second counts here. Hold down the power button until the device turns off. If the screen or lights on the laptop can’t prove that it’s off, usually holding it for 5-10 seconds should do it.
Step 3: Get the Liquid Out
Let’s do some triage. Grab a paper towel or clean rag or towel and mop up whatever liquid is present on the surface of the device, and visible just beneath the keys. Take care not to move liquid around inside, or push it deeper into the device. Also be sure not to press the power button and turn it on again!
Now turn the laptop upside down, above some paper towels or absorbent towel. Get as much liquid out as you can, especially if you’re not able to open it in the next step. Tilt the laptop from side to side a little to let it run out, but don’t flip it back over and let it travel around the logic board or battery near the bottom.
Step 4, If Possible: Open It Up and Dry It More
If you can remove the bottom of your laptop, or even just open up a battery/memory/hard drive compartment with a switch on the bottom, do that. Not to brag, but we’ve been taking apart laptops and disconnecting the batteries as the first step since way before everyone was dropping iced coffee on their quarantine workstations. Search out your model, be it a PC, Mac, or Chromebook, and choose a battery replacement guide, or another guide that gets the laptop open.
If you’re not keen on opening up your laptop, and you sense liquid got deep into it, you should skip to Step 6, Option 2: Seeking out a local repair shop to help.
Here’s the trick with most MacBooks out there: the screws on the bottom are pentalobe screws. Specifically, they are P5 screws. They’re intentionally uncommon. We sell pentalobe driver bits in our Essential Electronics Kit, our Mako Driver Kit, and by themselves (though the kits will ensure you don’t run into this problem with other devices, too). Having them on-hand for your MacBook is a good idea. If you really want to get your MacBook open to dry it out and disconnect the battery, you don’t have pentalobe drivers handy, and you’ve got little left to lose, you can try:
- The tip of a pocket or kitchen knife
- A properly sized flathead, or a flathead you don’t mind filing down to size
- If you have an old clear Bic pen, an exceptionally clever pen-case-melting maneuver
Be warned, though, that the pentalobe screws on Macs are very easy to strip. Order some replacement MacBook screws (assuming the device survives) and some drivers while you’re at it!
Step 5: Disconnect and Inspect the Battery
If it was a lot of liquid that dropped into your laptop, carefully inspect the battery inside. As stated in our wet-device cleaning guide:
If your device has been submerged it is likely that you will need a new battery. Lithium and other types of rechargeable batteries do not tolerate submersion well. Again, any sign of bubbling, bulging, melting, or discoloration on the battery indicates that it is toast. Dispose of it only at a battery recycling facility.
As with laptop cases, battery-replacement guides are kind of our thing here at iFixit. Search for your device and look for a battery replacement guide. If the battery looks okay, disconnect it while you do other cleaning. If anything looks dicey at all, ditch it.
If you believe you’ve gotten most of the liquid out, and the liquid you spilled wasn’t exceptionally acidic (cola, lemon juice) or basic (soapy water), as detailed at the bottom of our water damage guide, you might be okay to wait a while before trying to turn it on again. Waiting a full 24 hours is best, if you can swing it. If you’re unsure, or the liquid you spilled is far from neutral, it’s time to get in deeper.
Step 6, Option 1: Clean the Board Yourself
If you’ve got the laptop open and the battery disconnected, you may as well go just one level deeper: look for corrosion and clean it. Circuit boards are orderly affairs, with everything placed just so; anything that looks like a wily liquid blob, or menacing discoloration is likely the result of the liquid. Our water damage guide has detailed steps, but if you’re reading this in a hurry, the summary below should suffice.
Grab a toothbrush (thank goodness for dentist freebies) and some isopropyl alcohol, at least 90 percent strength. As iFixit’s Kay-Kay Clapp told the New York Times‘ (and also kinda-iFixit’s!) Whitson Gordon:
… scrub away any residue you can find on the components. “Use caution as you clean to avoid damaging or accidentally knocking off small board components,” she advises. “Pay close attention to the connectors and ends of ribbon cables to prevent corrosion of their contact surfaces.” Once the board is clean and dry, you can check the cable ends for signs of corrosion, then reassemble everything and turn it on.
Step 6, Option 2: Bring it to a Repair Shop
If you don’t want to open up and clean the components of your laptop, get a hold of a nearby repair shop as fast as you can. Seek out a shop that repairs laptops, offers water damage service, and agrees to look at your laptop, before you waste time driving there to find out.
Repair shops have quite a few advantages over you. They generally know what water damage looks like on a laptop. They have more cleaning tools available to them then alcohol and a toothbrush, sometimes including ultrasonic cleaners. And should something look unsalvageable, they can tell you whether they can get a replacement for it, and whether it’s worth it.
Step 7: Turn It On Again
This is the tricky part, where you need to observe and guess. Turn your device on after you’ve done everything you can to dry it out, and potentially clean any corrosion inside. Look for any signs of glitches or failure. The most likely things to fail are the battery (see Step 5), the screen or the cable connecting the screen, and then a distinct part of the logic board.
We exist to hear stories about miraculous water-damage rescues. Tell us your best, and worst, liquid damage stories in the comments, or let us know your tale of victory or woe on social. We’re @ifixit on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and elsewhere.