Every so often, I see some search result that led to my site that piques my interest. I think I’ll post about these when I see them and add them to my new category: Interesting Search. Every so often, I’ll select one of these search queries and try my best to provide the content that I believe that person was looking for.

To kick off Interesting Search, we have the search query “cleaning soda off a motherboard”. I have to say that I find this search both funny and very concerning at the same time. In all seriousness, having soda on your motherboard is a very bad situation. While I’ll focus on soda and motherboards, the information I provide here is valuable for anyone who has spilled any type of liquid or powdered chemical on an electronic device.

So what dangers does soda pose to electronics?

  • Most sodas contain a large variety of chemicals including water, sugars, salts, acids, and numerous other chemicals often referred to as “natural flavors”. These chemicals can individually or collectively can create a conductive path for electricity, corrode metals, can cause moving parts to stick, and can act as thermal or electrical insulators.
  • The most immediately dangerous aspect of soda is its ability to conduct electricity. Since soda can carry an electrical current, it can easily create a short between the very tightly packed circuit traces on electronics such as motherboards. This has the potential to instantly damage the contacted electrical components which can cause the component to fail.
  • The conductivity of soda can also cause metal dendrites to grow between two neighboring circuit paths. This dendrite would act as a direct, low-resistance path for electricity to travel and could create a damaging short on the motherboard.
  • In the presence of chemicals found in soda, all of the metals found on a motherboard have the ability to corrode. If any portion of metal corrodes enough, the entire motherboard can fail.
  • Since modern computers generate massive amounts of heat, many motherboards now have one or more motorized fans on them. These fans provide needed cooling to keep the chipsets from overheating. Unfortunately, fans are easily stopped by a small amount of resistance. A small amount of soda in the housing of one of these fans can cause it to stop rotating and can lead to overheating.
  • Not all of the chemicals in soda conduct electricity. Some sugars actually work as insulators which will not conduct electricity very well. If these sugars were to form around or between connectors on a board, they could stop the flow of electricity between the connected components. For example, imagine that some of the soda got inside the socket where the CPU is attached to the motherboard and dried. This soda could act as an electrical insulator that would prevent the CPU from making proper electrical contact with the socket.
  • In addition to being an electrical insulator, dried soda can become a thermal insulator which prevents the motherboard and its components from being cooled efficiently. As the board heats up, not only would this dried soda cause rapid built up of heat on the covered component, but the soda could be heated enough to liquify. This thick, semi-liquid residue could then flow across other components potentially causing the above listed problems.

As you can see, the dangers that soda poses to electrical devices is numerous. It stands to reason that the best way to handle soda and electronics is to not let them mix. However, going by the searchers query, it’s apparent that this utopian world where soda and electronics never come together simply doesn’t exist.

So how do we deal with our electrical equipment once we’ve spilled soda on it?

Immediate Action

If you are going to have any chance of saving your precious electrical equipment after spilling soda on it, you need to immediately remove all sources of electricity from the device. This means that you immediately turn the device off, unplug it, and remove any and all batteries.

Many electrical devices have energy sources that they may forget about or don’t know exist.

  • A laptop typically has at least three sources of power. The first is naturally going to be the power cord. The second is the main battery. The third is the CMOS battery on the motherboard. There may be additional batteries on different components, so make sure you check everywhere. Of course, removing the CMOS battery may be difficult if you haven’t dismantled a laptop before, but you should try your best to locate it and remove it.
  • Standard tower or desktop computers have two main sources of power: the power cord that connects the power supply and the CMOS battery. If you spill any type of liquid on the computer case itself, you should immediately remove power by unplugging the power supply. In addition, if your power supply has a switch on it, turn the switch off. Then carefully open the case to gain access to the motherboard and remove the CMOS battery.
  • With computer peripherals that are powered by the computer, such as keyboards or mice, disconnect them from the computer immediately. This will power off the device and prevent the device from potentially damaging the computer.
  • Computer peripherals that are self-powered should be powered off immediately by unplugging and/or removing the batteries. After removing the source of power, remove the device from the computer as an extra precaution.

For those not in the know, a CMOS battery is a small, flat battery called a button cell or a coin cell that is on the motherboard itself. This battery provides power to specific areas of the motherboard at all times, even when the power is off. When you look at the motherboard, the battery is not hard to find as it is a round disk that is usually mounted in a holder. In order to remove the battery, push the metal holding pin back and the battery will pop out.

Keep in mind that many electrical components can carry a charge in capacitors for minutes or hours after power is removed. Your skin is conductive and can provide a path for electricity to flow, so never touch any circuit board surface or electrical connection directly since this residual energy can flow across your skin and damage other components.

Removing the Bulk

Once you have remove power from the electronic device, it’s time to handle the spill in a quick yet smart manner.

Do not simply tip the device over and shake the soda off of it. All this will do is spread the soda all over the already covered component(s) and could easily spread it to other components.

What you want to do is to pick up the bulk of the spill without spreading it further. Using a clean, absorbent, non-conductive material, such as a microfiber towel, absorb as much of the material as you can without causing it to spread to other areas. Sponges are a bad choice since it must get damp in order to be effective. If you must use a sponge, use rubbing alcohol rather than water to dampen the sponge and squeeze out as much liquid as possible before using.

If the spill has started to dry, dampen the towel with a small amount of rubbing alcohol, squeeze out most of the liquid from the towel, and slowly dab and wipe the dried spill up. As before, make sure that you don’t spread the spill as you are cleaning up.

Assessing the Situation

At this point, you need to decide whether you trust yourself to handle the cleanup further. You should call your local computer repair shop, tell them what you have done, and ask what it would cost to have the machine professionally cleaned.

If the value of the system isn’t worth the cost to get the machine professionally cleaned, you are experienced with handling electronics, or just want to proceed with the cleanup for whatever reason, read on.

Getting it Totally Clean

Fact is that you are unlikely to ever totally get the machine clean, but you certainly can do as much as possible to get it as clean as possible.

Since I’ve already created a detailed post about cleaning an entire computer, I’ll refer you over there for the finer details of cleaning the computer. However, there are some important things to note that aren’t mentioned on that post. I recommend that you read these items before going to the other post.

  • Contact or electrical cleaner can be a very valuable tool to use when cleaning a spill off of your electrical devices. This is not “contact lens” cleaner, it is a can of pressurized, electrical device safe cleaner that can help you clean some of the tougher spots. You can find contact cleaner at your local electronics shop. I typically get mine from Radio Shack or purchase online if I’m thinking ahead.
  • If some of the spill got into connectors such as the CPU socket, memory socket, or similar, you will need to clean the socket out thoroughly. A good way to do this is by using a contact cleaner as mentioned above to first spray out as much junk as possible. Immediately follow up the contact cleaner with a standard electronic-safe air duster. The air duster is to ensure that any moisture from the contact cleaner is blown clear from the socket and any surrounding components so that it can evaporate.
  • Make sure that you reassemble everything properly. If you removed the heatsink from the CPU, make sure you put down a fresh layer of thermal paste between the heatsink and CPU before reinstalling.

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