Ask LH: What Can I Do After A Drink Is Spilled On My Laptop Keyboard?

Dear Lifehacker, Someone spilt booze all over my MacBook Pro. The keys are sticking. What can I do? Cheers, Man Always Reading Kotaku

Picture by Karl Baron

Dear Mark,

I know the feeling. Some years back, I spilt a glass of rather good port into the guts of my ThinkPad. The machine still worked fine, but for a while the keys were distinctly sticky (in both senses). Some careful cleaning and time fixed the problem — eventually, the offending liquid I hadn't managed to remove evaporated. So you can recover.

First things first: even though it sounds like the machine is working fine, make sure you run a backup, and that you continue to use an automated backup process. (On a MacBook, Time Machine is the easiest and obvious option if you've got an external network drive somewhere; for a cloud-based option, check out our step-by-step guide to automated backup.) While keyboard damage won't necessarily translate into a system-level fault, there's no point in taking chances.

We've run a number of guides to keyboard cleaning over the years, including a guide to this very problem. That particular video is focused on external keyboards, but there's a useful comment in there from a former Apple support engineer which is worth repeating:

Most keyboards nowadays are membrane construction for the contacts, and liquids can/will creep between the membranes by capillary action and spread out over a surprisingly large (but very thin) area…. altering the very sensitive electrical characteristics of the contacts – often resulting in weird keyboard behaviour and / or total failure. Because the liquid is trapped between the plastic membranes it can take ‘forever’ to evaporate naturally – even when the rest of the machine seems perfectly dry. Complete disassembly of a laptop membrane keyboard is not for the faint-hearted and is time consuming and fiddly – but we have done so on a number of occasions with some success. In instances where liquids such as ‘cola’ have been spilled and allowed to remain and ‘fester’ within the membranes, the corrosion damage is usually permanent.

So let's be clear: fiddling with laptop keyboards can be tricky, and the device might not work afterwards. The step-by-step guide on the How-To Geek site is extremely comprehensive if you do go down that route.

An obvious point that's worth making: you can always connect a USB keyboard to the machine and use that. Yes, that cuts down on the portability, but if all other fix methods fail (or you just want to give evaporation a chance to run its course without potentially spreading more gunk through the machine), it's a possibility. If you want the full experience, the official Apple keyboard is $55; Windows-centric USB keyboards can be had for somewhat less depending on your tastes.

Unfortunately, one thing you can't do is take advantage of your computer's warranty or an AppleCare extended warranty to get the problem fixed. Apple specifically excludes liquid damage from those plans, and incorporates technology to detect liquid spills. (Since the damage is caused by the user, not the device, standard consumer law won't help you here either). You could potentially take the device to an Apple Store to get a repair quote, but that's definitely a last resort. Good luck! If readers want to share success stories (or dire warnings) from their own keyboard spills, the comments await.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    Obviously get another drink...

    Oh my god... Is that a can of SHite I see? For all who are curious, stay away! Cheap, horrible Korean beer! Gives huge horrible hangovers! More than soju does!

    As for the spillage, I agree with Mr. Biggles... get another drink, but make sure you lick as much of your spilled drink up as possible first!

    This happened to me with coffee 2 weeks ago. The biggest mistake I made was trying to do a backup on the spot. I kept plugging away and after about 3 minutes my laptop fried - luckily the hard drive was still good so I could re-image.

    I highly recommend you immediately pull the battery out or, at minimum shut down your computer....and WAIT until everything is dry before continuing. Yes, it requires patience, but will be worth it.

    Get a Thinkpad with a spill resistant keyboard.

    My wife spilled half a cup of coffee onto her netbook, also two weeks ago.

    I turned it off, shook/blew as much loose liquid off as possible, then fired up my laptop and looked for a video for taking the keyboard out.

    I managed to get the keyboard out, then dried and cleaned it as well as I could using Armorall cleaning wipes (they were nearby).

    Left it overnight and it has been working fine ever since. I should do a backup; thanks for the reminder!

    i didn't spill anything on my hp laptop, but a number of keys started playing up after our 5 year finished playing with it.

    $30 - new keyboard off ebay
    5 minutes to install using video off youtube (no i'm not a hw boffin - 1st time ever doing something like that to a laptop)

    wife very happy again - works perfect.

    I recommend not doing what I did once and using a vacuum cleaner to try to suck out the liquid. I thought it was working until I sucked a few of the keys right off and then had to dig around in the vacuum cleaner bag to look for keys and the bits that make them stick to the keyboard!

      Nice one, Chopper!

    What about the rice trick?

    Your best bet is to urinate on the keyboard straight away, it will dilute the drink you've spilled and limit the damage. Urine (mainly water) is far less sticky/corrosive.

      No. Just no. A poor idea however you look at it.

      You're not related to Bear Grylls are you?

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