So you've soaked your phone: What should you do next?

So you've soaked your phone: What should you do next?

Summary: Can you rescue a wet phone by making it wetter? We dunked an HTC Desire to find out.

SHARE:

Water isn't good for gadgets, although not for the reason you probably think.

It's not the risk of shorting something out when you first get it wet. In fact, most phones, MP3 players and the like will carry on working after a brief dunking — at least for a while. Even if they're not waterproof, they're sealed enough that you have time to turn them off before the water seeps into anywhere it shouldn't.

The problem isn't the water as such. It's what's in the water — enough minerals and impurities to act as a conductor, making a connection between two components that aren't supposed to connect. And that can happen even after you've left your phone to dry out, if the minerals get deposited in the wrong place.

The usual advice to dry out a phone is to leave it in a bag of rice for a couple of days. Like the little packets of crystals you find in packaging, the rice absorbs the water and makes sure all the nooks and crannies inside the phone are dry. But that won't clean out any dirt that's got inside your phone and it won't get rid of any conducting deposits.

image2
Opening up the Riviveaphone pouch

Reviveaphone takes a very different approach; for a start, it involves getting your phone even wetter. It's a strong-smelling liquid that you soak your phone in, which seems odd when you want to dry it out. But it's isopropanol, which you might know as circuit cleaner if you've done much soldering. It smells like strong nail varnish remover or dry cleaning fluid; it evaporates quickly, and it should take mineral deposits with it, leaving a functioning phone.

I tested it by simulating the most common way phones get wet (dropping out of a pocket into a puddle or toilet); I dropped a working, running HTC Desire into a sink of water. I left it there long enough to exclaim "oh no, oops, oh dear" a couple of times and fished it out. (Reviveaphone's PR sent us a Nokia 100 to test the product with, but given how robust Nokia phones are it didn't seem a hard enough test — Nokia phones have worked after being retrieved from a couple of weeks sitting in storm drains and my Lumia 1020 has just wiped dry after I've used it to take photos in the rain.)

Following the instructions, I turned off the phone, took out the battery, SIM card and micro SD and put the phone and battery into the pouch. It took a few attempts to open the child-proof cap on the Revivaphone liquid (in reality, you would have to buy or at least find the box, so this time shouldn't be critical) and the warnings on the back about not spilling or inhaling it are disturbing. I poured the liquid into the pouch over the phone and battery; there is actually too much to fit with the phone and battery in so when I pressed the seal at the top together some isopropanol spilled out; it didn't burn or irritate my hands though.

With the pouch finally sealed (and my hands thoroughly washed) I waited the seven minutes and opened the pouch. That was also unexpectedly fiddly as the top of the pouch tore as I opened it. I took out the phone, put it in the supplied plastic tray to dry, poured out enough of the liquid that I could retrieve the battery and left that to dry, then turned on the cold tap and tipped the rest of the liquid down the sink. Don't be tempted to put your phone in the airing cupboard to dry out at this point; the packaging notes that the fumes could be flammable.

image3
Taking the phone out of the pouch

Twenty four hours later, I was ready to put the battery back in and try turning the phone on. Well, that was the plan, but the amount of liquid sloshing around inside the screen deterred me, so I balanced the phone at an angle in the tray to try and drain it and left it for another day. At this point the pattern of the tray was clearly visible on the base of the phone and it still had liquid on.

After another 24 hours, the result was much the same; the back of the phone was dry but it still showed the waffle pattern of the plastic tray and the fluid inside the screen was still visible. I waited another day but the liquid was still trapped in the screen and when I tried the battery in it, the phone didn't switch back on.

image1
Here's the phone drying out

Still, in theory, until more phones come pre-coated with waterproof nanocoatings, a kit like this is a good idea: the company says it has a 90 percent success rate. In practice, you'll want to save it for a phone that you've got too wet to try the rice trick on because it's not guaranteed to rescue your phone (and the money-back guarantee covers the £14.99 price of the kit rather than your phone).

Every dunking is different, as is every handset model, so Reviveaphone might keep your phone working — or it might not.

If you plan to take your phone somewhere damp (like the swimming pool or the edge of the bath so you can play music while you soak), pop it in a waterproof bag like a LokSak. Otherwise, it's safer not to keep your phone in a pocket that's likely to spill it down the loo or into a puddle.

Further reading

Topics: Hardware, Smartphones, Disaster Recovery

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

15 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • There's a flaw in those instructions

    First, isopropanol is really 100% isopropyl alcohol. This is sold in large bottles for circuit board and mechanism cleaning and used a lot restoring vintage electronics and recording devices. There is an additive to make it impossible to drink (but some alcoholics have). What is NOT in there is any extra water, unlike the 91% stuff sold at drugstores.

    The flaw in their instructions is that it has you dunk the phone in WET. A wet phone dunked in this will stay wet. The alcohol will evaporate MUCH faster than the water, so while it may carry off some of the contaminants, it will not help remove all the water from a device full of it.

    The trick may (and emphasize MAY) work better if you do the phone-in-the-bag-with-the-absorbant trick first to dry it out. Then do this to remove the contaminants. But to do that, you better be joined at the hip to that phone and be patient, because it will take you several days to get the phone back.

    And since there isn't much of a guarantee there, perhaps a cheaper thing to do is to order and have on hand one of the large bottles of the stuff you can get at an electronics supply house (her in the U.S., Parts Express is a good cheap source, along with places like Frys). A cellphone sized snap-lid tray can sub for the bag (like one of the plastic sandwich keepers0. Then just replicate the instructions. And as for drying, I would think standing up the phone on edge in a dish drainer or tray (similar to some of the ones they sell for vinyl record washing) would be better than letting it lie flat. And hope for the best.

    As for why you can dilute this and send it down the drain, it is basically alcohol and will dissipate back into the organic compounds it started from. Just don't drink it.

    And no idea if Everclear or vodka would work as a substitute. Works for tape machine cleaning!
    jwspicer
    • Well with 2 year's oem service center experience

      While i was at collage,

      The assumption that the water itself can do no ill, is, um, flawed. It all depends what gets wet. Water itself is enough to short out some of the circuits. The solids carried in the solution are often more corrosive and conductive, however what you find in exposed phone motherboards is that these solids tend to collect around the gold contacts - where ribbon cable go fo display, touch, soft buttons. This is because a form of electrolysis is literally plating the contacts.

      Having seen this buildup on smartphones and laptops, i'm unsure about the bold claims of this product. I think it will definitely work in some instances, but it would be fewer that you'd expect.

      As for the 'liquid in the screen' alcohol is actually far worse for the screen than water - alcohol is routinely ised to clean boards as others have said. However if it gets onto a screen backing, you're usually boned. It picks out the dyes and colorants and stains the backing material.

      It's worth having something like this on hand when it goes in the water, but insurance it is not
      MarknWill
      • True

        Water is itself one of the better solvents. It's especially good at dissolving ionic compounds, but it will even dissolve metals in very small amounts (enough to get the ions flowing); that's why iron and other metals corrode more easily when wet than when dry.
        John L. Ries
    • not correct

      It is 99.9% pure. Water mixes with Alcohol very well, so you dip it in enough alcohol to cover the phone the alcohol will end up maybe 90% pure both in the phone and the container you dip it in. Dump that alcohol start with fresh alcohol and do it again, then again and so on. After a few dips the water in the phone will be .1% and Alcohol 99.9%. That .1% water will evaporate as fast as the alcohol, and the contaminates will be carried away. I have done this twice with phones that went for a swim in the pool. Both were working fine in an hour. Oh pure water is an insulator, it is the impurities in it that alow it to conduct.
      earl harbeson
  • Vodka is at least 50% water, so no, it won't work!

    Everclear also has 10% to 20% water.
    You need the 100% (as close as you can get it) stuff!
    You need to FLUSH out the mineral deposits with this alcohol otherwise the evaporation will just leave the crusty stuff on (like water spots on glasses)!
    Yes, the instructions sound fishy!
    Electronic manufacturers use DISTILLED water to wash circuit boards clean since EPA won't allow the use of the old standby liquid freon!
    kd5auq
    • I think it depends on the vodka

      I'm not a drinker, but I seem to recall from the Guinness Book of World Records that some vodkas are nearly pure ethanol.

      On the whole, though, isopropanol or denatured ethanol would seem like the better (if only cheaper) approach.
      John L. Ries
      • vodka freezes

        I left a bottle of Stolichnaya in a freezer at an angle once; when it came out the vodka had frozen at that angle. You want something 100% proof - remove the ice and keep refreezing until it doesn't freeze and do not drink in case you have distilled methanol by accident.
        mary.branscombe
        • FYI 100 %

          is equal to 200 proof. It's hard to find 200 proof vodka.There is a 151 proof Bacardi rum.
          Orlbuckeye76
    • Isopropanol is a polar molecule

      That's why it's liquid instead of gaseous and also why it mixes so well with water (same is true of all light alcohols). Note that propane, with a very similar composition but non-polar, is a gas and isn't water soluble.

      So it does have some ability to dissolve ionic compounds for the same reasons water does.
      John L. Ries
      • The bad news is...

        ...Isopropanol is also an organic solvent, which means it can do bad things to organic materials, like plastics (which water won't damage).
        John L. Ries
  • Bad Idea

    You did what? You put a battery into a device that was still full of a highly flammable liquid? A liquid that burns hotter than gasoline. With a chance that you still had some of the fuel on your hands? What, exactly was the thought process here? I'm still not believing I just read this. Is this a joke? A battery in a fuel-soaked phone? And then you tried to turn it on? What? And this is something people should try at home? What? Did the lawyers really approve this article for publication?
    hill_ed
    • I think the idea would be....

      ...to wait until the device is dry. Fortunately, isopropanol (aka rubbing alcohol) dries very quickly.

      BTW, while I'm no expert on the subject, I am under the impression that gasoline burns considerably hotter than does alcohol, which is why it is customarily treated with much more care.
      John L. Ries
      • ...yes, but...

        Yes, you *should* wait until dry. But the author states there was still alcohol visible behind the screen. While ethanol burns cooler than gasoline, this is not true for the isopropyl used to dry the phone.

        Potential sources of spark do not mix well with a volatile fuel source.
        hill_ed
    • We followed the Revivaphone instructions

      When we review something like this, we follow the instructions for the kit precisely - even if they seem flawed - because that's what someone buying it will do. I did have a trained electrical engineer on tap (so to speak ;)
      mary.branscombe
  • Cheaper solution (pun intended)

    Why not use distilled water to actually rinse the phone throughly.
    It cannot harm your skin, so you can just flush and shake all the water off, rinse-and-repeat (again, pun intended)

    Pure distilled water is very cheap, you can get it from any car supply store ("battery water"?) and it will rinse off any water slouble contaminants the initial dip may have introduced inside the phone. Also it will not corrode the electrics during the short period your phone is wet.

    The only thing is to make sure the phone is completely dry before inserting the battery - any short circuits are bad news. However, this is not a problem: After vigorously shaking any excess water out, wiping any visible droplets, you can just dry the phone over any warm place like on top of your cabinet-enclosed refrigerator, above a warm (not hot) lamp, room heater - my favorite is my 5.1 amplifier producing gentle 50-60 C absolutely dry heat with steady air flow. Of course, a piece of plastic under the phone will keep any water dripping inside the amp.

    Tested with my daughters' phone - works.
    Toweri