iPhone water-damage indicators leave users seeing red

The BBC reports broken iPhones are being denied repairs under warranty because their moisture sensors have been tripped due to daily use

Flora Graham
3 min read

A quick trip to the bottom of the toilet bowl is a fast way to kill your iPhone stone dead, but is a chat in the rain or a foggy day just as likely to leave you an iPhone widow? Punters with broken iPhones that have never seen a drop of water have been told their warranty is void at Apple stores, because the moisture sensors on their phones have been tripped, according to a report by the BBC's Watchdog programme.

The iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS have two sensors, visible from the outside of the phone, that turn red when they touch liquid. There are two more tucked up inside the phone. You can spot the two outside ones yourself, using a torch and an eagle eye -- instructions are on the Apple Web site

Apple says the sensors have to come into direct contact with water to be activated, and that they "are designed not to be triggered by humidity and temperature changes that are within the product's environmental requirements". According to the iPhone 3GS specs online, that's 5 per cent to 95 per cent relative humidity.

But there are plenty of anecdotal stories from people who claim that a sweaty palm, misty bathroom or rainy-day chat have all triggered their phones' sensors, voiding their warranties. There's even a class-action lawsuit in California launched by irritated owners of moist phones.

Moreover, some irate users say they were denied a free repair even though only one of the sensors was red, although Apple told the BBC "the warranty will only be void due to liquid damage if all indicators have been triggered".

In a test by the National Belgian consumer organisation Test-Aankoop, the iPhone couldn't live up to its standardised 'moisture, light drizzle, water' test. The test results are in Dutch, but a translation on the Antwerp Calling blog reveals the testers branded the iPhone "extremely sensitive to water" and that we should "beware of typical rain".

We spoke to an iPhone repair engineer at a London shop that's handled a few of our broken screens and similar troubles, and his opinion was that the liquid sensors can be sensitive to everyday moisture, such as the steamy air of a bathroom. But he also stated that the sensors usually gave an accurate indication of whether the phone would have internal water damage once he'd opened it up. 

If you think these liquid detectors are over-sensitive, take a look at Apple's patent for a 'consumer abuse detection system' -- it will record the time and date of a "liquid ingress" event and then come round your house and kick you in the face.

Apple has yet to come back to us with a comment on the damp iPhone issue, but in the meantime we'd like to hear about your experiences. Have you had a broken iPhone turned away because of a red moisture detector, after spending its life sealed in a sandwich bag on a desert planet? Or have your sodden gadgets been welcomed with open arms by the Apple minions who can only be described as Geniuses? Let us know in the comments.