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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 11 Issue 8
August 2017
I spilled something into my keyboard--Now what do I do?

The problem

Many years ago a client called to tell me that she had just spilled coffee onto her laptop keyboard. I asked the most important question I could think of: "Was it black, or cream and sugar?" Luckily, it was just plain coffee. As we talked I also realized that the laptop was still running. I told her to turn it off immediately! Then I had her arrange the laptop so it would be able to dry out (see below). When she was ready to try turning it back on, it came back to life!

I've had clients spill all sorts of liquids into computer keyboards, including water, coffee, and wine. Here's my advice if this ever happens to you.

How soon should I do something?

You should take action immediately.

Don't let it sit or decide to deal with it later. You risk the liquid getting into places it shouldn't, which can make a variety of things happen, from the keyboard "typing gibberish" to possibly permanently damaging internal electronic components. Also, the stickier or thicker the liquid, especially if sugar or honey or milk are involved, the more likely it will leave behind a residue when it dries.

For a separate keyboard

If it's a freestanding keyboard (not built into a laptop):
  • Don't try to use it. It's probably acting erratically, or it will soon.
  • For a corded keyboard: Unplug it from your computer. If it's got a USB cable, you don't have to shut the computer down first, but there's nothing wrong with doing that if you'd like. However, be prepared to shut down using your mouse only (ideally saving any documents you were working on) since your keyboard may not be working properly.
  • For a cordless keyboard: Remove the batteries. If the batteries can't be removed, turn off the keyboard's power switch.
  • Take the keyboard over to a sink or trash can, turn it over, and pour out as much of the liquid as you can.
  • Dry the keyboard as best you can with a towel or cloth. I don't recommend paper towels because they can leave lint and torn pieces behind.
  • Spread out a dry towel on a flat surface.
  • Turn the keyboard over, with its keys toward the floor, and lay it down on the towel.
  • Wait at least 24 hours for it to dry out, changing the towel if it gets saturated.
  • Clean the keyboard if it's stained or sticky.
  • For a corded keyboard: Connect it to your computer and try it out.
  • For a cordless keyboard: Put the batteries back in, turn on its power switch (if any), and try it out.
For a keyboard built into a laptop

Dealing with a liquid spill into a laptop keyboard is more complicated because right underneath that keyboard are other electronic components, including the motherboard, hard drive, and more.

Here's what you should do immediately:
  • If possible, save any documents you were working on.
  • Shut down your laptop right away. You may have to do this using only your mouse or trackpad since your keyboard may not be working properly. If that doesn't work, with most laptops you can force the power off by simply pressing and holding the power button for about 10 seconds.
  • Unplug everything connected to the laptop, including all the wires and any devices (flash drives, etc.).
  • Take the laptop over a sink or trash can, turn it over, and pour out as much of the liquid as you can, ideally in the same direction that it came in. Be careful to avoid getting the liquid (or any more of it) onto the monitor.
  • Dry the laptop and keyboard as best you can with a towel or cloth. I don't recommend paper towels they can shred and leave lint and torn pieces behind.
  • If the laptop has an optical drive with a tray (not a slot) and there's a CD or DVD disc inside, remove it if possible. The tray probably has a little "eject switch" you can trigger by gently inserting the tip of a straightened paper clip into a little hole in the tray, typically located near the activity light.
  • If possible, also remove the laptop's battery.
If you can swing open your laptop's screen to 180 degrees from the keyboard (i.e., you can open it flat like a book):
  • On a table that's not in a high-traffic area, spread out a towel that's twice the area of the keyboard.
  • Turn the laptop over, with the keys and monitor toward the floor.
  • Gently lay the laptop onto the towel.
If your laptop's screen doesn't open that far (or if the hinge doesn't work well):
  • Near the edge of a table that's not in a high-traffic area, spread out a towel that's a little larger than the size of the keyboard.
  • Open the laptop lid to about 90 degrees from the keyboard, similar to the angle that you would normally use it.
  • Carefully turn the laptop over, with the keys toward the floor.
  • Gently lay the laptop down with the keyboard on the towel, with the hinge at the edge of the table and the screen hanging over the edge.
  • Don't let go until you're sure it won't slide off the table, or put a paperweight on top to keep it in place.
  • Wait 48 hours for it to dry out, changing the towel if it gets saturated.
  • Clean the keyboard if it's stained or sticky.
  • Put the laptop back together (battery, cables, etc.) and see if it powers up.
At this point the laptop might work. However, as soon as possible I strongly recommend that you have a computer professional take the laptop apart and clean it. If you don't have someone that you know and trust, get a recommendation from a friend or colleague.

Helping the drying process along

While you're waiting for your keyboard or laptop to dry, if you want to help the process along, the gentle breeze from a fan on low speed can help.

  • Don't use a hairdryer on your keyboard or laptop. Adding heat is not a good idea with electronics.
  • Don't put it in the oven.
  • Don't put it in the microwave.
  • Don't try to dry it out with rice.
Do your best to prevent this from happening again!

You might consider:
  • Switching from using an open cup or mug to something less likely to spill, like a travel mug or water bottle, or simply keeping all drinks away from your computer entirely.
  • Buying a transparent plastic keyboard cover (sometimes also called a "protector" or "skin") designed to fit over your particular keyboard.
  • For a laptop, switching from using the internal keyboard (high risk) to an external or cordless keyboard (low risk).
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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