Phones, Water, and Rice

Yesterday, I had the unfortunate experience of dropping my Xperia Neo L in water (more like it slipping out of my pocket and dropping into my laundry tub). It was shocking and fun at the same time.

I managed to fish it out after about 3 seconds. It was not that soaked; however, everything is wet and the majority of the area of the screen is somewhat darker in color due to the water entering it. I proceeded to dry it all I can with a towel.

Then I did some stupid things:

  1. I turned it on again. I was really amazed that it was not short-circuited or anything, but noticed that the touch screen behaved erratically: it seems like invisible hands are treading on it constantly. But the phone still functions as usual: buttons still work, and it still responds to the headset buttons. I can still play audio, and when I plug in and out the headset, music plays and pauses respectively. (I have my phone configured to do that.)
  2. I tried to manually extract the water out of it by shaking it like a salt shaker. I managed to extract some water out of the phone, but not all. It also left streak marks on the touch screen, easily viewable by tilting it upwards when the phone is on.
  3. As per suggestion, I tried to take it to a local repair station (not the Sony Service Center) for drying. At this point I observed that as the phone dries the touch screen tends to return to normal (btw, before doing #2 the touch screen does not work; afterwards, it did with its erratic behaviour), and since I do not have the tools to open it I was hoping that the local repairman was cooperative enough to do this for me for a small amount. However, he seems not to know what he is talking about (he said about the screen needing total replacing), so there goes my help and an increase in dread that I need to go to the Sony Service Center to have this thing fixed.
  4. I bought some screwdrivers so that I can open this thing on my own. Resolving not to go to the Sony Service Center before doing everything I can, I bought some tools at a total of about ₱300 and tried to open up the phone. I ended losing a screw and frustration for it won’t open.
  5. Goto 1. Repeatedly. Yes, that’s so stupid of me. But then, I resolved that my phone’s not really FUBAR and I just need to let it dry and I can use it again like normal. I was even ecstatic when I saw some moisture forming on the camera eye and the sides of the phone’s screen (not on the display, just the case that covers the screen), even though I could not wipe it off. I deduced that if I kept the phone hot enough (by its CPU heat) it will help in the drying process.

Sometime during the night I had the insight of googling about the problem, and saw that it was common with solutions not necessarily having to go to the Sony Service Center or replacing the screen or buying a new phone (plus I learned about the water damage indicator and that it’s now red, consequently voiding my warranty). And even though I know my phone is not that FUBAR, it gave me additional hope that the screen need not be replaced as the local repairman preached.

That’s where rice comes in.

The topmost result suggests rice to drive moisture out of the phone, with the stern precaution of not turning it on or even trying to. Several sites and various suggestions and tales later, being the Filipino I am, I resolved to buy a half-kilo of rice, crossed my fingers, buried my phone in it, and slept fitfully.

And I also researched about desiccants. Wikipedia tells me that

[a] desiccant is a hygroscopic substance that induces or sustains a state of dryness (desiccation) in its vicinity.

And hygroscopy means

… the ability of a substance to attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment.

As a commenter succinctly puts it,

A bag of rice has a super dry, “please feed me moisture”, type of atmosphere.

I also finally learned what silica gel is, and why there are those little bags of “beads” in almost every shoebox. As this website puts it,

Silica gel is a “desiccant,” a substance that sucks up water in its environment. There are several different desiccants out there—clay, for example, which is what’s in a lot of cat litter. But silica gel is hands down one of the best desiccants going.  That’s why it was in your shoebox. It absorbs the moisture that might otherwise ruin your new footwear.

And maybe that’s also the reason why shoeboxes retain their factory smell.

Anyway, after waking up this morning I excavated my phone from its ricey grave and turned it on. And what do you know, the rice worked! The rice managed to extract the moisture on the camera eye and on the sides of the screen, and somewhat diminished the streaks on the touch screen. Best of all, the touch screen is now working as usual. I buried it again and hopefully by tomorrow more moisture would be driven out (after all, the sites recommended burying it for at least 24 hours, not for about a meager 8-10 hours).

Obviously, this had been a shockingly very fun weekend. And what I have learned, dear Princess Celestia?

  1. Keep a level head. As with any emergency situation, some detachment is needed in order to make rational decisions. Panic won’t solve anything and may even worsen the problem and lead to blame passing, which does not solve anything. You’re not stupid for letting that phone meet water; it’s an accident (unless you do it on purpose; in that case you should assume some level of responsibility for that deliberate decision).
  2. Desiccants can save wet phones. Just like the solution for a malware-laden diskette is not throwing it away and buying a new one but an anti-virus (as it is commonly known today), a phone is not necessarily FUBAR the time it decides to swim. Do not let the phone soak, wipe it gently and do not attempt to shake out the water as it can cause further damage, bury it in a desiccant, cross your fingers, and pray to a divine being to save your phone (or just grab a beer and drown your worries away). And check on it after at least 24 hours.
  3. Never turn on wet phones. Or even try to. It’s tempting to do it to check if it still works, but water is a conductor of electricity and it may short out some internal circuitry and worsen the situation. Maybe I’m just lucky enough not to short anything serious, though I think I managed to short the flashlight mechanism because when I insert the battery the LED lights up but turns off as soon as I press the power button and stays that way when I shut down the phone.
  4. Do not go to any service center until you have tried everything. The Internet is a very useful forum; a little searching and literacy helps a lot. You’ll save a lot of money in the process, learn something new, and will help to keep the anxiety level down because nothing shoots it up the roof if the man you are talking about says you need to replace some parts or buy a new phone (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that he/she is not taking advantage of the situation to rip off your hard-earned money).
  5. Go to the service center if you have tried everything. And do not try to hide the situation; remember the water indicator? It will just give you a very bad reputation, and nothing irks people more than when they see through a bold-faced lie. And when I say a service center, it should be the manufacturer’s accredited service center, not just some ad hoc vendor in the sidewalk claiming he/she can fix everything for you can end up with a brick and exorbitant service charges.
  6. And I forgot to mention, water damage voids a phone’s warranty? Just like dropping it and breaking the screen as a result, water damage is considered user negligence. So there goes the free service charge. That’s why I recommend going to the service center last because it can cost a lot if you just surrender your waterlogged-phone to their technician (the moment they inspect it, their money meters start ticking).

For those of you wondering about the current status of my phone, well it does look somewhat good.

  • Touch is fully responsive now, just like before it decided to go on a swim.
  • The screen still has water streaks; hopefully I can still get it out with rice.
  • As far as I can test, all are still functional. Buttons work; programs work. I haven’t tried to call or SMS anyone yet, as well as connecting to the Internet, GPS or Bluetooth. Maybe I’ll post an update on this, but (as far as this blog history goes) do not depend on it.
  • Maybe the flashlight mechanism is short-circuited; I really don’t know.
  • I lost a screw. Not really life-threatening, but one reason to completely void my warranty.
  • The water damage indicator is red. The main reason that voids my warranty. (Luckily there’s only 2 months left.)
  • I have not tried to charge it yet; will try after the phone completely dries up.

Other things I have garnered from this experience:

  • A new appreciation for rice. I am a Filipino, and rice is the staple of every household. So it tends to be a bit boring, especially if you are exposed to foreign cuisine and love pizza. That experience helped me appreciate rice more, for aside from saving lives it can also save gadgets. Now if it could only eliminate entirely the water marks on my touch screen…
  • Discovering silica gel. Yes, I really don’t know they’re called as such, and I really don’t know what those funky packets they put in most boxes heavily laden with poison marks are and what they’re for. But now I know, and that I should store them for future use instead of discarding them. Just in case.
  • Discovering the need for small screwdrivers. I am a computer scientist so I don’t get to fiddle around with bare hardware often, but I realized the need to have spare tools for cases like this. Anyway, there’s no harm in having them stored in a secure container all the time somewhere, right? (Except maybe for rust, but that can easily be dealt with.)

Hmmnn, it seems like having your phone wet is not really a waste of time, and can be a source of knowledge for future references (and apparently blog entries). This reminds me of this Nichijou episode.

And if you ever get your phone wet, here’s a motivational message for you.

But maybe, the best thing to save your phone from water death is not having it wet in the first place. For starters, you can start by temporarily waterproofing your phone.


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