There are two reasons one might want to know the answer to this question. Firstly because you are holding in your hand a dripping wet hard drive that is home to those holiday snaps or you are the curious type who wants to know the answer only to prove the theory…
A hard drive cannot survive being powered in water, though the data might be retrievable the hard drive’s circuit boards and motors will be fried. A hard drive could survive being submersed unpowered after being adequately dried but corrosion of the components could lead to defects and corruption of the data.
So the curious among you feel free to give it a go, for those of you looking at a dripping wet drive there is hope…
How does water affect a hard drive?
A hard drive is made of various components which can be summarised as the housing, the logic boards, the motors, armature, disks, and external connectors. So how are these things affected by water?
Apart from the disks and the housing all of the components are electrical. Electrics don’t work well with water because it is conductive (kind of, the minerals make it more so). Water can get everywhere and essentially creates electronic connections between any exposed parts of the circuitry resulting in short circuits that draw large amounts of current and damage and burn out the circuits.
Most of these parts are subject to corrosion. Corrosion is when a metal reacts with oxygen and creates new compounds on its surface. Aluminum reacts very fast to oxygen as does copper. (The statue of liberty is made from copper and when it was first erected it was copper in color, not the green we see today. ) The addition of water to these metals increases oxidization, not because of the water itself but because of the minerals and salts dissolved in it which create a liquid electrolyte that speeds up the process.
The corrosion can damage electrical components and make them less conductive, increasing resistance, and destroying circuitry. But also the corrosion makes new compounds that can get onto the disks. These particles are big enough to get caught between the head of the armature and the disk itself making it skip and scratch the disk, corrupting the data. Imagine putting sand on a vinyl record and trying to play it.
The disks in a hard drive are coated in a lubricating film. This reacts with the water and leaves the disk with spots of residue where the hydrophobic lubrication has moved away from the water droplets. Much like the effects of corrosion, this means the head doesn’t work properly and cant read/write to the disk. It can cause scratches and loss of data.
When water evaporates it also leaves behind minerals that cause the same problems as outlined above.
Can a Solid-state drive survive water?
A solid-state drive cannot survive being powered in water in much the same way as an HDD, you can take the advice in this article in the same way for an SSD as an HDD. Though the data is electrical, not mechanical in an SSD its chances of recovery remain the same.
How can you save a water-damaged hard drive?
So you spilled coffee on it or dropped it in the sink or like I did once you dropped it in a crocodile-infested river in Borneo….. The answer is the same, send it to a specialist.
Some hard drive recovery services recommend keeping the hard drive moist to avoid the build-up of mineral deposits as the hard drive dries out making the job of the recovery specialist that much easier. To do this rinse the drive with distilled water if possible, (if it is saltwater damage and you don’t have distilled water rinse with tap water to remove as much salt as possible.) then wrap it in a damp cloth and seal it in a sandwich bag.
In some instances, it may be preferable to dry the hard drive out quickly. As it was for me, I wasn’t able to carry a wet hard drive in a moist bag through customs on my way home so I dried it out.
I recommend rinsing it with distilled water as outlined above, the aim is to remove as many minerals as possible. Do this before putting it in an unsealed jar of rice in a warm place as quickly as possible. The rice will absorb the humidity as it evaporates and will help draw the moisture out of the drive. If it had a quick dip or only a splash to the outer case then this may well suffice but it is down to your own discretion.
I personally would not plug a drive in again. When this happened to me, I dried the drive out as best as I could and took it home where I sent it to a specialist to extract the data as quickly as possible. I got all of my data back.
The reason I would not plug the drive in again is that if there is still water residue inside then there is a good chance that it could short out and destroy the data and the computer it’s plugged into, It might even catch fire! (ARTICLE – can a hard drive catch fire)
Why isn’t the data destroyed by water?
The data stored on hard drives is actually stored on a magnetic film that coats the disk known as a platter. The film has lots of tiny magnetic particles that can be magnetically polarized in a sequence that can then be interpreted as binary. Binary is the base code for almost all computing and is simply a string of either 1’s or 0’s. For example, number 1 in binary looks like this 00110001.
The water itself doesn’t do anything to polarize the magnetic state of the particles so even though the drive might not work there is a good chance the data is retrievable.
Why aren’t drives waterproof?
Some of them are. When it comes to electrical engineering there are always payoffs to consider. These considerations to the design of a device can quite often come down to probability and the mitigation of risk.
It is not likely an internal hard drive in a computer or server is going to come into contact with water. It is likely to encounter a lot of heat though. So it stands to reason that cooling the hard drive would take priority over waterproofing it. That is why circuitry is often exposed on hard drives and why it is always recommended to ensure good airflow across your drives. While water can’t change the polarization of the disk, heat can. This is why it is even worth the risk in some cases to actually water cool computers.
There are other use cases where waterproofing a drive to some extent makes sense and is implemented in the design. You will often see photographers and travelers with little orange bricks that resemble a life raft more than a hard drive. These rugged drives are designed to take a beating out in the field where heat is less of a problem.
A hard drive can’t survive water but your data can. If you have a soaking wet hard drive, then all is not lost. Your data can likely be recovered by a professional. Don’t plug it in, dry it out and send it off for the best chance at data recovery and sooner than later to avoid the chance of corrosion making things harder.
And I’ve said it a million times… BACK UP YOUR DATA!