Can a hard drive catch fire?

You may be looking at a charred hard drive and wondering how did this happen? 

Could the hard drive itself of caught on fire?

While it is highly unlikely that a hard drive will ever catch on fire by itself it is possible and has been known to happen. Though most hard drives have very few combustible components, where there is electricity there is always a risk of fire. 

Read on to find out probable causes and how to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

7 reasons your hard drive might have caught on fire.

 Short of holding a magnifying glass to it, there is only one way for a hard drive to catch fire, an electrical fault. However, there are several reasons that an electrical fault might occur. 

1. Manufacturers defect.

If there is no external sign of ignition and the power terminals of the drive are free from damage then there is a chance that a manufacturer’s defect could be the cause.

It is not uncommon for manufacturers to recall products due to unforeseen safety or technical issues. Check with the manufacturer or store where you brought the hard drive to see if any recalls have been issued for your particular hard drive and to inform them of the defect you have found. 

2. Faulty Power supply unit (PSU).

The  PSU of the computer is designed to take the power from the mains and to distribute it across the computer’s components as required. Hard drives run on a regulated voltage (How much you ask? Click here) so for this to be the cause there would need to be a spike in current or a prolonged increased current to overload the hard drive.

Modern PSU’s are unlikely to cause these problems but are always worth investigating and upgrading so as to protect other hard drives and other computer parts.

3. External damage.

Dropping a hard drive, stepping on it, using it to prop up a desk etc… any external impact or deformation that might cause internal damage that could lead to short circuits (shorts) could cause a hard drive to catch fire. Shorts are when the electrical current traveling through a circuit gets redirected and essentially changes the circuit into something potentially devastating. A minor short might do little else than break the circuit causing the circuit to stop functioning, but a major short could circulate current through a component generating a lot of heat until the component burns out. The best case is a puff of smoke and the cost of hard drive recovery, the worst case is a hard drive on fire. 

4. Water Damage.

As anyone who has had the misfortune to drop a phone down the toilet knows, submersed electrical circuits die quickly in water. A submerged harddrive would short immediately upon receiving power and likely trip every breaker in your house. But a small amount of water could cause a small enough short to create an electrical fault capable of causing components to burn. If you think your hard drive has come into contact with liquid then it should not be plugged in.  

5. Power Surge.

Power surges are huge volumes of current sent through the mains supply. There are strict regulations about the installation of breakers to protect electrical equipment and prevent fire in the west but in other parts of the world, breakers are often overlooked. 

I have learned the hard way about how much damage a power surge can do to a hard drive and now on professional photoshoots in places where the power isn’t as stable as at home, I pack a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to protect my equipment from surges. 

6. Heat. 

It sounds obvious, but sometimes the obvious causes are the easiest to overlook. sufficient lack of cooling or a hard drive under a stack of paperwork could generate a lot of heat. This will only cause the hard drive to shut down especially in more modern computers and hard drives, but given the perfect cocktail of circumstances could result in fire. which brings us to the no.7

7. A combination of the above

The perfect storm! Individually the reasons outlined above are unlikely to do anything more than stop your hard drive functioning but in combination, they could cause serious damage to a hard drive or any computer or device it is connected to and as stated earlier, when there is electricity there is a risk of fire. 

 What could actually burn in a hard drive?

Hard drives consist of several components made from various materials. The short answer is that any part of the hard drive that requires voltage or is conductive could generate heat with an electrical current sufficient enough to cause components with lower ignition temperatures to combust.

To expand on that, All hard drives have a logic board and some form of memory storage. HDD’s use a spinning disk to store data on, that is usually made of glass or aluminum that has an armature with a read/write head to read the data like a miniature record player, and these require extra boards and controllers. They contain plastics, metals, compounds, and resins all of which have their own ability to ignite.

A short might cause the electrical current to generate enough heat in a metal component that it begins to surpass the ignition temperature ( the temperature at which a fuel will ignite) of other components within close enough proximity. For example, the epoxy used in circuit boards, or the plastic coating on wires. Usually, this is short-lived but the rules apply forthwith and if you have something nearby that is more combustible it is likely to do just that.  

Prevention.

If you put a poll out to ask how many IT technicians had heard of a hard drive catching fire I would expect to see the number somewhere around 1 in a thousand even hearing of it. It is extremely rare. The best way to prevent it from happening is to think about how you would protect the data.

As outlined above any cause of fire is almost only going to be an electrical fault so there is only one way to completely protect a hard drive from fire and that is to never plug it in! Ok ok, that is not realistic, but if you can see damage to a hard drive or find yourself in a country with unstable power you may want to take precautions.

If the hard drive looks in such a state that you would question whether it would even operate then don’t plug it in, send it to a specialist to recover the data and run diagnostics on the hard drive.

If you have dropped it and it doesn’t look too damaged plug it in externally if possible and ideally into a laptop running on the battery as the voltages will be a lot lower and there will be no risk of a surge. Some drives are designed to take a beating (top 10 most rugged hard drives) some are not, refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines before trying anything.

Data recovery from a fire-damaged hard drive.

If it’s too late and you find yourself looking at a charred hard drive, unfortunately, there are very few options available to you. Even if the logic board was the only piece affected smoke particles can get under the read/write head and severely damage the disk before it comes to a stop. Plugging it in will only make things worse and unless you have some very specialist tools there is nothing we would recommend trying. In reality you are left with only 2 options, chalk it up to a loss and move on or send it out to a specialist and hope for the best. 

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, and again, and again….. BACKUP!!!!!