How to Clean Up Laptop Spills

by Josh Fredman
Protect your laptop from accidental exposure to liquids. Keep your beverages safely apart from the computer.

Protect your laptop from accidental exposure to liquids. Keep your beverages safely apart from the computer.

Laptops tend to be pretty resilient to indirect spills. If you spill something on the table where the laptop sits, its little feet will get wet but nothing more. Direct spills, however, pose a critical threat. They can destroy your computer almost instantaneously. The most frustrating part is that if any damage does occur it will happen almost immediately after the spill, and your cleanup won’t matter. The cleanup only prevents future damage from occurring. Yet you have to do the cleanup, and until you clean the computer you won’t know whether your efforts were in vain.

Turn off the computer immediately as the spill occurs. Press and hold the power button to bypass the normal shutdown process, and cut power as soon as possible. Normally you should avoid these kinds of emergency shutdowns, because they can cause damage of their own, but from your computer’s point of view a liquid spill is a life-or-death situation.

Make a mental note of where the spill occurred, and how much liquid spilled.

Remove the battery from your laptop immediately after shutting off the main power, and unplug all devices and peripherals. You’ll have to turn the computer upside down to reach the battery. Leave it upside down afterwards, and set it on a flat, dry surface — preferably a desk or a table. If necessary, put some towels under the computer to catch any of the liquid and avoid damaging the table.

Let the computer sit there for at least a couple of days, and up to a week if you can bear the wait. Don’t jostle it. Any free liquid inside has to evaporate before you carry out the cleanup, or else you could end up causing even more damage.

Gather some rubbing alcohol in a small bowl and get a clean, dry, abrasive washcloth. You might also want to get some cotton swabs and paper towels. Paper products such as these can damage electronic components, but if used carefully they can complement the washcloth, which will have trouble reaching tight areas.

Research online, using another computer, for instructions on how to disassemble your computer. Enter the exact model name and number to help find the most pertinent search results. Many people have never opened a laptop before and may not know how to properly handle components without causing even more damage. If you can’t find instructions and don’t know how to properly take apart the computer yourself, you will have to take the computer into a repair shop. Note that opening the computer will void most warranties.

Get a screwdriver that will fit your laptop’s screws, and take the laptop apart according to the instructions. If you can’t find instructions you will have to wing it. Remove screws and store them in a bowl where they won’t get lost. Remove components in the appropriate order. The hard drive and DVD drive usually come off first. Next comes the components that aren’t meant to be disassembled by the consumer. You will need to disconnect everything that holds the motherboard onto the computer case, including the keyboard. Below the keyboard you should find the top motherboard layer.

Ground your hands by using a wrist grounder or touching a grounded metal object, and carefully inspect everything you can see using your eyes, fingers and, in the event of liquids such as juice or milk that leave a smell, your nose. If you’re lucky, the keyboard will have caught most or all of the spill. The keyboard can’t be cleaned by most home users. If any of the buttons have become sluggish or sticky because of the spill then you’ll have to order a new keyboard.

Look up the exact keyboard model number, and search online for a replacement. For a high-impact component like a keyboard, consider buying a completely new unit instead of a refurbished one.

Dampen the cloth with alcohol and carefully clean any areas with residual stickiness from the spill. This won’t be an issue if you spilled plain water, but anything else will have left a residue. Use delicate, circular rubbing motions. For tight areas, dab the edge of a paper towel with alcohol and use a dabbing motion to apply the alcohol. Pay special attention to the areas that you noted were in the vicinity of the original spill.

Let the computer sit for a minute or two, and repeat the cleaning process. Continue this until all traces of stickiness are gone.

Make a note of anywhere that seems as though additional liquid might have spilled below the top layer of the motherboard. If you even suspect it, you’ll have to open the rest of the computer up and perform the same cleaning motions.

Let the computer dry for a couple of hours, or longer if you spilled drops of alcohol anywhere.

Take this opportunity to clean out the fan and heat ventilation system of any apparent excess dust. Simply use canned air to apply short, powerful bursts of air to blow away the dust.

Reassemble the computer completely. Attach the new keyboard just as you detached the old one.

Plug in the computer to electrical power and turn it on. Either there will be no further problems, or you will be the proud owner of a several-hundred dollar paperweight.

Tip

  • This article concerns large spills of a teaspoon or more. If you spill literally just a drop or two of something onto the keyboard, turn off the computer and stick a paper towel or tissue in as fast you can. It might dab up most of the spill using a capillary effect. If you’re really confident that it’s a minor spill, you might not even turn the computer off. To be safe, though, turn the computer off and let it stay off for the rest of the day.

Warning

  • Don’t use rubbing alcohol to clean your laptop screen. Some kinds of alcohol can damage some screen surfaces.

Items you will need

  • Isopropyl rubbing alcohol, 70-95 percent concentration
  • Abrasive washcloth
  • Paper towels or tissues (optional)
  • Cotton swabs (optional)
  • Bowls
  • Towels
  • Screwdriver
  • Anti-static wristband (optional)
  • Replacement keyboard
  • Canned air

Photo Credits

  • Silje England Garshol/iStock/Getty Images