Rice to know

Sunday Tribune

Water. We can’t survive without it for more than a few days. But if water is life to us, it’s death to our precious electronic gadgets, especially cellphones.

Drop your phone in the loo or even keep it too close to your body on a muggy summer’s day and you can find yourself with an expensive paperweight. The manufacturers call this “liquid” or “water” damage and specifically exclude it from their warranties. Many insurers won’t pay out for it either.

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Believe it or not, burying your drowned cellphone in a bag of rice may just bring it back to life.Ever wonder how a cellphone technician can tell at a glance that its liquid damaged? Many phones have a little sticker that turns red or purple when the phone has been exposed to water.

My first encounter with the phenomenon was in the late 1990s when cellphones were still designed to make phone calls rather than play games or music and their batteries lasted a week on a single charge.

I dropped mine – a tiny Ericsson with one of those oh-so-cool flip out keypad covers – into the Durban harbour as I stepped off a boat from a lunchtime booze cruise. When I tried to claim from my insurer I was told: “We don’t cover water damage.”

Fast forward 15 or so years to my latest encounter. A family member, who shall remain nameless to spare them further embarrassment, cleverly decided to pop their BlackBerry into an insulated cooler bag, along with a bottle of iced water. It was only in there for half an hour, but it was enough time for the condensation to kill the phone.

Or so it seemed. Before I chucked it out, I did a bit of research and discovered that there are some clever tricks you can use, if you’re lucky, to bring a drowned phone back from the dead.

First, here’s what the experts say you should not do. Don’t put it in the oven, even on low. The heat will almost certainly finish the job the water started. Ditto with a hair dryer. Even if it’s set to cold, the dryer will just blow the moisture deeper into your phone’s delicate innards.

Here’s what you should do. First and most importantly, take the battery out. It’s often the electrical short circuit caused by highly conductive water coming into contact with the battery that’s the culprit, rather than the water itself. If the phone’s plugged into an external charger or another device, remove it immediately.

Take out the SIM and any removable memory cards. If you can’t resuscitate your phone, you should at least be able to salvage some data from them.

Now shake out as much water from the phone as you can and wipe it down with paper towels. Finish the job with a vacuum cleaner if you have one handy.

I’m going to ask you to bear with me for the next step because it seems a bit loopy at first glance. Put the disassembled phone into a bag of uncooked rice, making sure it’s completely buried in the rice.

Leave it in there for at least 24 hours. Theory is that the dry rice absorbs all the moisture trapped in the phone.

Yes, I was sceptical too. Especially when I took the phone out, not one, but two days later, reassembled it and it was still dead. I chucked it back into the bag of rice and forgot about it for another week and a half.

When I remembered to take another look, it wasn’t with any real hope. So it was with genuine amazement that this time the phone chirped to life and started loading the BlackBerry menu… only to die again. But after an overnight charge it was back in action and, several days later now, is still seemingly as good as new.

If the rice method offends your geek sensibilities, a modern substitute that I’m told works just as well is to put the phone into a zip-seal bag with plenty of silica packs – those little pouches they put into bottles of pills to keep them dry and warn you not to eat.

Call me insensitive, but if you’ve got enough of them readily at hand in your home to bury a phone in, you’ve probably got bigger worries than your gadget’s health.

If the phone’s been submerged in salt water, a successful revival using rice or silica could be short lived as corrosion sets in and destroys the phone’s metal bits.

Do you best to prevent this by wiping as much of the insides as you can reach with a cotton bud dipped in alcohol – the surgical kind, not beer, although unflavoured vodka would probably do the trick.

Some have gone so far as to dip the entire phone in spirits, which apparently displaces all water. I wouldn’t advise it as alcohol can dissolve adhesives in the phone’s electronic circuits. But if all other methods fail, I suppose you’ve got nothing to lose.

But whether you choose to dab or submerge, be sure not to put the battery back until you’ve given the alcohol plenty of time to evaporate. Unless, that is, you want to test out your insurers policy on fire damage.

Got a favourite trick you’ve used to revive a gizmo you’d thought was a goner? Tweet me @alanqcooper or post it on

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