Saving a ThinkPad from drink: How to recover from a tech travel disaster

There are those moments in life that occur, seemingly, in slow motion. That first teenage kiss. A bobbled piece of early morning toast headed Nutella-side down toward fuzzy carpet. A full glass of beer placed too close to a laptop.

Not just any beer. Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout. And not just any laptop. My not-quite-nine-month-old Lenovo ThinkPad T430.

The instigator.

The instigator.

I was in Washington, D.C. to speak at a conference. Because it was a longish stay of five nights, my wife Dee Dee and I checked into the Residence Inn and walked up to a Whole Foods to provision the mini-kitchen which, thoughtfully, had been stocked with tall glasses.

It was later that first evening when, as spousal unit was seated at the small living room desk and having difficulty getting a website to load on my ThinkPad (due to typically crappy “free” hotel WiFi), I quickly turned around from where I was standing to point to where she should click on the screen.

Without seeing the delicious tumbler between my arm and the laptop.

In a near-perfect arc, approximately 12 ounces of dark, foamy brew poured directly into the center of the keyboard, apparently preferring the area between the H and L keys. “EE,” I interjected. Recalling what little I’d read about dealing with this kind of disaster – but knowing that liquid and electronics shouldn’t get too cozy – I immediately flipped the laptop over. Stout rapidly drained onto the desktop in a viscous pool (and, since it was a good stout, didn’t flow onto the floor).

The laptop was still plugged in and turned on. I pulled the power cord, briefly righted the ThinkPad to select “Shut Down” from the menu, and hoped for no black smoke. Then, I wet a dish towel and carefully wiped up the remaining brown liquid from the surface of the keys.

I gingerly (and probably unwisely) turned the power back on to see if it would boot. It did. Typing was possible, although a few keys worked reluctantly at first. I turned the laptop back off, relieved.

A normal person would have stopped there. I have never been accused of that.

The fix.

The fix.

I was well aware of stories in which electronics seemed to work fine right after a spill, but suddenly stopped working a few days later after corrosion or sludge from sticky liquids does its gradual damage. And, as I said, it was a really, really good stout.

Yet I was on the road. I was in the first day of six away from my office, my tools and my supplies. Ample time for goo to solidify.

I would have to MacGyver my way out of this – and I’m not giving anything away by saying you might be able to, too, if you shadow me retroactively.

The next morning:

  1. I went to a nearby CVS to purchase isopropyl alcohol, distilled water, Q-tips, and a plastic spray bottle.
  2. After searching on my smartphone for a ThinkPad manual, I borrowed a screwdriver from hotel maintenance, removed the laptop battery, loosened four screws on the bottom that secured the memory door and the keyboard, and slid the keyboard off.
  3. I warmed the distilled water (distilled = no minerals to later dry and conduct electricity in unwanted places) in the hotel microwave. Holding the extracted keyboard vertically by its edge over the room’s sink, I sprayed this precious eau de vie across and down the keys until the water ran clear (then continued pulling the spray trigger for a few obsessive minutes more).
  4. Dipping the Q-tips in isopropyl alcohol (91% percent isopropyl alcohol, not cheaper 70% “rubbing alcohol” that has more water in it), I gently scrubbed any spots of brown residue from the exposed inside of the laptop underneath the keyboard.
  5. Finally, to remove all remaining moisture, I cut a toilet paper tube into quarters, spaced the pieces flat on several folded paper towels, laid the keyboard on top of them, and left it and the open laptop to air dry in the air conditioned room. For two days.

It turns out I did all the right things thanks, first, to using said smartphone to do web searches when I got stuck. Second, I have to thank a very patient spouse who – when surrounded by bottles, Q-tips, electronics parts and mangled toilet paper tubes in a hotel room on what was supposed to be her vacation – offered me no “advice.” And last, I was also likely saved by a wonderful design decision Lenovo made for many of its ThinkPad models: incorporating a “drainage system” inside, around the keyboard, to channel any spills to two small holes in the bottom. (In my case, none of the liquid traveled that far.)

Ultimately, amazingly, remarkably, the keyboard actually worked better and was more responsive after I was done. Though I’d be hard pressed to recommend this as a routine cleaning method.

The backup plan.

The backup plan.

On Facebook, my friends were incredulous. “You need a keyboard condom!” one admonished. “Is there any wisdom in the idea of submerging it in rice?” another asked (not for fermented liquid, I replied, but a must after a smartphone toilet dive). “Du bist wirklich ein Geek,” a third simply observed.

The lesson? Anyone can recover from potential tech disaster, even while traveling. I gifted the remaining distilled water and isopropyl alcohol to the hotel with Sharpie-scrawled instructions on the sides of each bottle should any other guest ever need them. And, I learned, never put a good beer next to a laptop in an unfamiliar setting.

After all, a liquid spill can void a warranty. With more than two years left on my pre-paid extended one, I also hope to learn that Lenovo hasn’t read this.

Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire essays take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. See the archive of his regular GeekWire columns. He now drinks only distilled water while writing.

Previously from Frank Catalano: 5 steps to prepare your geek child for college The future of news, as viewed from 1993: What we got right, and very wrong

Follow GeekWire on Twitter @GeekWire.

  • TimG

    A waste of a good beer! I used rice on a laptop that I spilled green tea (no sugar) into. I first turned it off, and upside down, cleaned it and then put it in a pillow case then inside a large plastic bag with white rice on both sides. The rice sucked the water out well. Still using the laptop with no problems.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      That’s a great rice tip for (non-sticky) liquid spills. I have to admit, I was pretty amazed how solid the Stout residue became after drying overnight.

  • Kishari Sing

    Thanks for this! I accept that a liquid+technology tragedy will happen someday, and I already feel better knowing that I’m prepared. :)

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Always glad someone else can learn from my mistakes. It also helps knowing where the nearest CVS (or other pharmacy chain) is when traveling, too. Ideally, one that operates 24 hours. And then hope you never, ever need any of this knowledge.

  • Definiendum
  • Lane Hutchinson

    Frank i’m sorry for you, lenovo just posted this story from their facebook.. You’ve been caught!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Damn. Well, Lane, it was for the greater good. And a column deadline.

  • Darren

    Distilled water is bad for you, i hope your joking!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I am. It’s really now single malt. Or Talking Rain. I forget.

  • Helpasap!!!

    My niece spilled orange juice on mine last night, do you think this should work? When I reconnected the keyboard it won’t even turn on… before I did any of this it was still working, then I removed the keyboard and when I reconnected it it turned on but some keys were not working so I removed it again and triwd reconnecting it but now it won turn on

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      You definitely need to let it dry completely before turning anything on. While I can’t guarantee any of this, removing the keyboard, rinsing it in distilled water (very important; not tap water), and letting it dry thoroughly before reconnecting it may help. And good luck!

  • Dimas El shaday

    Thanks for sharing sir…..!!