Friday, 12 February 2010

How to botch your way to fixing a laptop drink spill

Four days ago I was watching one of Hutch's Modern Warfare 2 videos on youtube. At some point I laughed and my left hand took advantage of this temporary lapse by knocking over the large glass of milk I had just poured for myself. It went right on top of my Macbook Pro.

I don't have a picture of the immediate aftermath but there was milk everywhere. I was happy to see my external hard-drive was turned on which meant I had a Time Machine backup, so I quickly shutdown the machine and tried to drain some of the liquid off.

At this point there seemed to be only one option. I couldn't let the milk dry out because it would leave a thick coating on the logic board and anything else it came into contact with. I couldn't wipe down everything by hand because there was bound to be milk in places I couldn't access.

I decided the best thing would be to pour an extra 2 glasses of water on the laptop to flush all the milk out and replace it with semi-clean water. I would much rather deal with water than milk. So I poured over the water where the milk had been spilt and held the laptop on its side to drain.

I now had a bit more time to Google for information using my iPhone. A lot of sites tell you to wait for a few days so everything can dry out, but I didn't like the idea of water sitting in there for ages possibly corroding the components.

I found a guide on that explained step-by-step how to strip down the machine, and I was lucky enough to find this tiny Phillips-head screwdriver in the toolbox which worked perfectly for most of the screws:

And just when I thought all was lost I found an item on my Leatherman that could undo T6 Torx screws:

So I opened up the machine and went to work with the hair-dryer:

After a good 20 minutes of drying I put everything back together and tried booting her up. I was happy to see the OS X desktop, but after starting Safari I heard those horrible clunking death-sounds from the hard-drive. So I opened her up again.

Yep, the hard-drive was drenched in milk. I didn't realize that the milk had got that far, so I had been focusing the hair-dryer on the logic board and I/O ports. I tried cleaning it but to no avail: on the next boot attempt the drive only managed a pathetic whining sound and the OS X boot manager showed me a big fat question mark.

So I ordered a new hard-drive from Amazon. The old one was a Seagate Momentus 7200 RPM with 160 GB of storage. I ordered the same model with 320GB instead.

One other problem I noticed when booting up was that I had somehow managed to tip the laptop the wrong way when draining it: there were liquid stains all over the inside of LCD... it was a mess. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of this.

So I had a go at cleaning that up. Unfortunately on my first attempt I partially stripped a Torx screw that I needed to undo to get access to the display. I couldn't use the Leatherman anymore so I had to wait for a mini-screwdriver set to arrive before I could continue with a proper T6 Torx screwdriver:

Cleaning up the display was a bit of a disaster. Firstly, I damaged the iSight connector:

Luckily I rarely use it.

Secondly, a mystery piece of magnetized metal fell out from somewhere:

I ended up stuffing this into a little groove where it obviously didn't belong. Does anybody know what this is for? (That's just a little dot of blue ink you can see on it)

UPDATE: Turns out this is the sleep magnet, and sleep still works so it looks like I did put it back in the right location!

I did manage to clean up the LCD panels a bit:

Here you can see some of the milk/water:

However I didn't put it all back together again properly so there are now a few artifacts on the screen:

And the display is not aligned properly so it's too far to the top right which means it is now missing couple of rows and columns of pixels:

The new hard-drive arrived today and I put that in with no problems. Everything is working again now. I restored from a Time Machine backup so the system is missing no more than 60 minutes of data. I was only watching Youtube videos so I didn't lose anything.

All the I/O ports seem to be working, and the various temperature and fan meters in iStat pro look normal.

So overall I think I came out of this pretty good. Apart from a few screen artifacts and a broken iSight (both my fault) I'm back up and running with hopefully no more issues to come.

I did have one more year of AppleCare left, but I recently had a new logic board and RAM chips installed under that, so assuming there is no damage from the spill they should be good to go for a few more years.

Overall this was quite a fun experience, although there was a moment of dread deep in the deconstruction of the LCD where I thought "Oh god, this had better work when I put it back together". Time Machine is a life saver, and is a fantastic site.

So to summarize:

  • Milk damaged the hard-drive. I put in a replacement with double the capacity: a Seagate Momentus, 2.5in, 7200 RPM, 320GB
  • Milk got behind the LCD. I cleaned this up but there are now a few artifacts and the screen is not aligned properly.
  • The iSight is no longer functioning because I damaged the connector while opening the LCD.
  • I now have a pretty nifty set of mini-screwdrivers: Hama Mini Screwdriver Kit


  1. Hi Mike,
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