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Mini Tutorial: Liquid Mishaps: Dealing with accidental beverage spills on your PowerBook/iBook; external keyboard

Mini Tutorial: Liquid Mishaps: Dealing with accidental beverage spills on your PowerBook/iBook; external keyboard


Your errant hand or a curious pet can inflict serious damage on a PowerBook or iBook if liquids are nearby. A spilled beverage -- especially those containing sugar or of naturally high acidity -- can be damaging or even terminal for your laptop.

Aside from the general advice of never keeping any food or beverage within striking distance of your 'book, there are some methods for possible resurrection of a flooded unit, as well as preventative measures that can ensure your investment will not be completely lost.

Immediate post-spill procedure Perhaps the most important step in avoiding permanent damage to a PowerBook or iBook that has been introduced to a spilled liquid is immediately unplugging the unit, removing the battery, and performing a perfunctory wipe-down with a clean, dry cloth and/or cotton tip.

Next, if your PowerBook has a removable keyboard, lift it from the unit and allow the internal components to dry:

Keyboard removal/replacement instructions

Allow your PowerBook or iBook to dry for 48-72 hours before attempting to replace the battery, connect AC power and startup.

Note that in some cases only a laptop's keyboard is damaged by top-down liquid spills. If your machine is out of warranty, several third party resellers (including PowerBook Medic and Mac Pro) offer replacement PowerBook/iBook keyboards. Prices generally range from US$100 to US$150 depending on the model.

Remember to connect an external USB keyboard to your damaged laptop before attempting a keyboard replacement in order to to assure only the built-in keyboard is damaged.

Unfortunately, if the liquid passes through the keyboard and penetrates internal components, the results are usually dire.

Bradley of PowerBook Medic, a PowerBook/iBook parts and repairs outlet, gave us some typical cases of units sent in for spill damage:

"If enough liquid spills into the keyboard, or comes in from the sides or bottom, then other components are likely to be damaged as well.

"If liquid does penetrate your PowerBook, then there is about an 80% chance it will damage the logic board. In an iBook, the likelihood of damage to the logic board is over 95% as the iBook is much more compact.

"In the Pismo G3, Lombard G3, and Wallstreet G3 there is a chance that the processor could be affected if the spill was directly on the keyboard, but usually a spill that penetrates damages the logic board.

"In the Titanium G4 models, usually the logic board is affected. However if everything on the unit works except for a dim display, then most likely the inverter board was affected. (It is located in different spots on the VGA and DVI models.)

"In the Aluminum models it is hard to say as it depends on exactly where the spill occurs, but again most likely the logic board will be affected. The good news about the Aluminum model is that due to the design, it is harder for liquid to seep into the main innards from the keyboard.

"The problem with spills is that more than one component can be affected depending on the direction the spill took and how much liquid was involved. The good news about spills is that usually the hard drive is left unaffected.

Plastic covers/stands iSkin's ProTouch PB purports to protect PowerBooks and iBooks from "hazards caused by spills, dirt, food crumbs and other unwanted elements that may get on and in between the keys."

The product sells for US$19.95 and might prevent internal damage in case of a top-down spill.

In addition, a number of PowerBook/iBook stands, including Road Tools' Podium CoolPad, will provide a level of protection from side-spills by raising the unit off the desk several centimeters. The Podium CoolPad is priced at US$29.95.

Laptop Insurance, Renter's Insurance and Retail coverage If your PowerBook or iBook has yet to succumb to a spill, prevention through extra replacement/repair coverage is the best solution

Neither Apple's standard one year warranty nor AppleCare cover accidental damage. A number of other options do exist, however.

Some retail outlets provide accidental damage coverage at a price of US$300-$500 for 2 to 4 years depending on the outlet and PowerBook/iBook model.

Be wary when purchasing a plan though. Some retail employees will overstate the terms of a given coverage plan, or there may be loopholes -- like lower reimbursement for discontinued products.

For instance, though some people have noted success with getting units replaced through CompUSA's TAP plan, the full terms of agreement state:

"The Plan applies only to the operation or use of the covered product under conditions for which it was designed, and does not cover loss or damage resulting from external causes such as dropping the product, collision with an object, burglary, theft, vandalism, environmental conditions, fire, flooding, corrosion, sand, dirt, windstorm, hail, earthquake, or damage from exposure to weather conditions, misuse, abuse, neglect or accidental damage or damage resulting from improper use of any electrical power source."

A better option for guaranteed accidental damage coverage is either laptop-specific insurance or homeowner/renter insurance.

SafeWare offers stated coverage for "theft, fire, power surges, lightning, spilled coffee in the keyboard, accidentally dropped notebooks and natural disasters like: earthquakes, hurricanes and floods." Plans priced around US$80 provide accidental coverage for a PowerBook/iBook and a limited number of peripherals.

Several Renter and Home insurance plans offer computer/peripheral replacement for accidental damage up to US$5,000 and more. Check out NetQuote for local rates. Make sure to confirm accidental damage coverage for whichever plan you choose.

Finally, some credit card companies offer limited consumer protection that will allow a refund for the price of your laptop purchase within a given time frame. Check with your bank for full details.

Spills on standard USB or Bluetooth keyboards If your USB or Bluetooth keyboard suffers a spill, the options for clean-up and repair are a bit more open.

Byron Gracey has created an excellent resource entitled "Disassembly of an Apple Pro Keyboard" that aside from fulfilling its title, provides some tips for what to do in case of an accidental spill, including:

  • Immediately after a soda spill, unplug the keyboard and immerse in a bath of distilled water,
  • Immerse the keyboard in a bath of alcohol, or
  • Attempt to force the remaining liquid out using compressed air

Also, Apple offers some basic tips for cleaning a spill-damaged keyboard in Knowledge Base article #34883.

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