You should save those silica gel packets that come with your

Piles of silica gel packets

Piles of silica gel packets

They tell you to throw them away.

They tell you not to eat them.

Some might tell you that they’re dangerous.

But these little packets of silica gel, also known as desiccant, might save the life of your tech. 

I was reminded of this by a post by my ZDNet tech colleague David Gewirtz, who recently had the misfortune of dunking his AirPods Pro into his morning brew.

He took a few silica gel packets, threw them into an airtight box with his dunked AirPods, and left them there for a day.

And his expensive earbuds lived to fight another day.

As someone who has cleaned up, dried up, fixed up, and also commiserated with owners over dead tech, I thought I’d chime in here with some of my thoughts about drying up soaked tech.

Silica gel is a desiccant, which is a fancy way of saying it absorbs moisture (actually, technically it adsorbs moisture, but the difference is not important here) from the atmosphere. It can take in some 40% of its weight in water, and it can bring the humidity of the air around it down to about 40% (assuming enough silica gel, and that the container is sealed).

And no, you can’t use rice to dry things out. It’s not only that this doesn’t work, but it also fills your device with yucky rice particles.

The purpose of those little packets of silica gel that you find alongside items you buy is that they are used to keep the surrounding air dryer than the ambient air, reduce corrosion, and inhibit mold growth.

This brings us to the first problem with silica gel packets — they’ve been out in the air absorbing moisture for weeks, months, or maybe even years, and how much more moisture they can catch and hold might be limited.

You can recharge silica gel by heating it, or you can buy fresh stuff, either in a bag or in little packets. You can also use a product like DampRid.

If you like to be prepared for any aquatic mishaps, then you might want to consider buying a few pre-made moisture-absorbing bags specially designed for electronics. They’re only a few bucks and have a long shelf life.

Another thing to note about silica gel is that it doesn’t “dry out electronics.”

Instead, what it does is that it dries out the air, which means that you need to evaporate that moisture into the air for the silica gel to catch it. This is why it’s a good idea to put the item that needs to be dried in a box with the gel packets, and to keep the box in a warm room. That said, don’t put it somewhere hot like on top of a radiator or in direct sunlight as the heat might damage the device you’re trying to dry out.

You should also remove any visible liquid before placing it in the box to reduce the amount of work the silica gel has to do.

And then you wait. A day. A couple of days. A week.

Okay, but does it work?

To answer this question, we need to know how water damages your gadgets.

Short-circuiting

A short circuit is where electricity inside a device takes a path that it shouldn’t, which in turn causes damage.

Pure distilled water is not conductive, but the more “contaminants” that are in the water add — tap water, seawater, cola, coffee, mud — the more conductive the water is and the higher the likelihood of a powered device being damaged.

If a device is dropped into a liquid and immediately stops working, most likely this damage has been caused by a short circuit.

This is why it’s a good idea to remove the battery from a wet device whenever possible, and not power it on until dry.

Corrosion

If your device didn’t die immediately when exposed to liquids, then the next thing to worry about is corrosion.

Corrosion is a long-term thing and builds up over time. It can cause tremendous amounts of damage, eating away circuit boards and components.

Corrosion can be cleaned off with something like contact cleaner or isopropyl alcohol, but that won’t fix the damage, and I find that once corrosion has begun, all you can do is slow it down.

I’ve lost count of the number of devices I’ve come across that “just died” for no apparent reason, but when you open them up you see that the reason was that at some point a liquid was spilled into it and that in turn caused corrosion to form (this is very common with games consoles and handheld devices). This corrosion looks like a fine greenish gray powder which we in the business call “the green crusties.”

Physical damage

Water can get into displays and speakers, or into buttons and switches, rendering them inoperative. Sometimes drying out a device fixes this (such as in the case of switches), but it can cause permanent damage to components such as displays.

A water damaged circuit board showing a bad case of "the green crusties."

A water damaged circuit board showing a bad case of “the green crusties.”

The fact is that a short circuit can kill your device before it gets anywhere near a packet of silica gel. Also, you might have been lucky and avoided a short-circuit, but still have problems from corrosion down the line.

I tend to think of the actions that are taken following a device suffering water damage as little more than buying time. Now, I might buy months or years, and I might buy enough time that the device dies of some other cause, but even in situations where a device can be taken apart completely, I can thoroughly clean everything with isopropyl alcohol or contact cleaning spray, it’s virtually impossible to remove all traces of the liquid — especially if it’s something sticky like cola or juice.

And where acidic liquids or harsh liquids like salt water are concerned, corrosion can start almost immediately.

In fact, salt water, closely followed by cola, is a death sentence for electronics. Not only is salt water incredibly conductive, which dramatically increases the likelihood of a damaging short circuit, but it’s also very corrosive, so even if your device survives the dip, corrosion damage might kill it a few weeks or months down the line.

Where I can’t open up a device for cleaning, I will focus efforts on drying out any spots where liquids can get into the device — places such as charging ports. I might carefully use isopropyl alcohol or spray contact cleaner into these ingress points to try to displace the liquid, but you have to be careful not to cause more damage doing this.

Another way that you can use silica gel packets (or the loose silica gel beads) is you can put a soaked device into a box with them while you get ready to do a more in-depth drying, either yourself or using a professional service such as Redux.

At least putting the device into an airtight box — which is also likely to be watertight — prevents you from spritzing it a second time!

So, the bottom line is that those silica gel packets can be useful when it comes to drying out a soaked electronic gadget. It’s a quick and simple thing you can do and doesn’t involve opening up a device or doing any manual cleaning.

But there are no guarantees.

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