Anything that humans drink or eat may end up on a laptop keyboard. If it’s an errant spoonful of mashed potato, it can usually be flicked off without any major consequence, However, if it’s a liquid or food with a lot of liquid in it, there are going to be problems. The commonest liquid spill is probably coffee, followed by carbonated soft drinks but the long tail may include water, wine, beer, soup or oil. Whatever it is, the effect is the same – the laptop stops being usable.
Why Does the Laptop Stop Working?
The main reason for this is that the liquid gets under the laptop keys and stops them from working, either by preventing them from closing the electrical contact which defines a key press or making it closed all the time, simulating a key being held down. If the spill is large enough, and the internal keyboard design permits it, the liquid may also penetrate to the laptop motherboard, and maybe even the battery. If that’s the case, then the only thing to do is remove the battery and call a repair service The repair service can remove the storage device (either a rotating disk drive or a solid-state drive on modern machines) and, if it’s undamaged, mount it as an external device on another machine. The content can then be copied to a removable USB drive which you can then access from another computer to recover your precious files.
Damage to the storage device from a liquid spill is unlikely. Rotating disk drives have only a very small hole in their housing in order to equalize air pressures inside and out but keep dust away from the rotating platter. Solid state drives are an encapsulated chip and should be unaffected by the presence of liquid around them.
What Should I Do Next?
The first thing to do is to unplug the laptop from its charger (if you are using one) and remove the laptop battery. If the spilled liquid is highly electrically conductive and bridges the battery or power supply, it may generate a lot of heat and cause further damage. Inspect the battery connectors for liquid and wipe away any that you find.
The next step is to try and remove as much of the liquid as possible from the laptop. Wipe away as much as you can with an absorbent cloth and then use a vacuum cleaner to try and suck up the liquid which has flowed into the keyboard or touchpad. Whilst vacuum cleaner instructions warn against sucking up liquid, the liquid volume is small enough that it shouldn’t affect it significantly.
Then re-insert the battery and try to power up the laptop. If nothing happens and the screen remains black you have probably damaged the motherboard and the laptop is a write-off. The best you can hope for is to retrieve your files from the laptop storage device, or from a backup if you have one.
If it does start up, you can then test the keyboard, trackpad and click functionality. If any screen shows that you seem to be holding a key down when you are not touching the keyboard, then the liquid is conductive and has bridged at least one of the keys. If the startup screen appears normal, see if you can log in. If you can, then attach an external mouse and keyboard via a USB port. This will let you use the computer if one of the keys does not work, or if the click or trackpad does not work. It won’t be as convenient or portable as the laptop, but it will work.
You will need to disconnect the internal keyboard if you are using an external one and the internal one is acting as though a key is being pressed continuously. This can be done via the Device Manager (on Windows). Right-click on This PC (or Computer on Windows 7) in File Explorer and select Manage>Device Manager. Then expand the Keyboards entry, uninstall any entries you find there, and then plug in the external devices.
If the laptop is under warranty, you may be able to get it repaired by the supplier, but expect it to be gone for at least a fortnight. If you disassemble the laptop yourself and get into trouble while it's under warranty, you may void the warranty.
To Dry or Not to Dry?
Many guides to how to deal with this situation suggest drying out the keyboard after battery removal, by disassembling the computer as much as possible and leaving it for a period of time (usually 24 hours) before attempting a restart. They also warn against using a hair-dryer to speed the process.
Drying out is a slow process due to the very small air spaces within a laptop keyboard. Most laptop keyboards use what is known as the chiclet design, which provides low construction cost and a low profile with good reliability and ‘feel’. However, once water-based liquid enters the structure it will be slow to evaporate, and once it does evaporate there will usually be a solid residue left behind, which may affect operation just as much as the liquid. Looking at the bottom of an unwashed coffee cup will give you an idea of what might remain after drying and this residue is likely to prevent normal operation. Sugary drinks will leave a sticky residue after evaporation with similar results. Keeping warm air moving over the keyboard will accelerate evaporation, but as the keyboard contains thermoplastic parts, these may warp, or even melt if temperatures are too high.
Drying is worth doing if the liquid damage is such that a key seems to be permanently pressed, or possibly if the motherboard is not working. If you place the opened laptop in a warm, dry air stream (such as in front of a fan heater) this will accelerate evaporation. If the air stream is bearable to your hand it probably won’t cause any damage to the laptop. The length of time required is difficult to recommend – other guides suggest at least 24 hours. After evaporation, some keys will not work but you may be able to use an external keyboard to access your files.
Replacing the Keyboard
Replacing a laptop keyboard is reasonably straightforward. The first step is to purchase a new one – they are quite readily available, but make sure you know the exact model number of the PC so that you order the correct part. The laptop manufacturer may have some in stock, but the lowest cost ones come from China and may take a couple of weeks to arrive. To install the new keyboard, you’ll need to disassemble the laptop. There are plenty of YouTube guides on how to do this but you will need to find the one that’s specific to your model of laptop. The guide may cover the replacement of the keyboard as well. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to work out how to do it.
If you don’t feel confident in replacing the keyboard it’s still worth ordering one and getting your repair service to install it – it will probably be cheaper and quicker than getting the repair service to supply and install it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on March 23, 2019:
This is amazing! Thanks for the info!