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How (Not) to Repair a Water-Damaged iPhone

For a clumsy person whose phone is in hand more frequently than in pocket, I’ve had my fair share of cellular device disasters. This is precisely why two weeks ago, when sink met iPhone and iPhone met death immediately thereafter, I took the news like a seasoned phone battle veteran. What made this event different than my many tales of broken phones past was that this time, I decided I was going to fix it myself.

SPOILER ALERT: I failed greatly in this endeavor. However, being on a college campus where interconnectivity and communication are so valued and accidents are so prevalent, I’m going to offer the tale of my failure both as a precautionary tale as well as a guide should any of you decide to tackle the innards of an iPhone yourselves.

Step 1: Assess Damage
As I yanked my helpless phone from the sink and saw the screen dim like a fleeting life right before my eyes, the flash lit up like a firework and kept on blazing for the next hour or so as the last reserves of the battery drained. I kept telling myself the water damage wasn’t that extensive, but then I saw the camera lens, filled with more water bubbles than an aquarium.

Step 2: Triage
At this point, I hurried back to my apartment as quickly as my choice of footwear would allow, filled a Tupperware container with dry, uncooked rice and buried my phone in it. I later learned from my research that proper protocol calls for using a blow drier on a low setting to disrupt larger pockets of water. I omitted this key step due to my own ignorance, but have made a mental note in case of future disaster. Perusing blog after forum after blog on proper iPhone treatment, I read claims of revival after leaving an iPhone in rice for anywhere from 24 hours to 6 days. I decided to liberate my phone from its rice-grave only after the bubbles visible in my camera lens had evaporated.

Step 3: Surgery
As I waited for the intrusive water to vacate its new home in the innards of my cellular device, I prepped for what bloggers across the web told me would be a necessary step: battery replacement. When water damage is to blame for an unresponsive iPhone, the problem is usually the battery, as water will fry that first. Thanks to videos, step-by-step guides and supplies from iFixIt (supplies that arrived at my apartment 4 days before scheduled.. .thank you very much you speedy shippers you) I believed myself perfectly capable of changing the battery. Armed with the following list of tools, I had full faith that this would be a piece of cake:

  • Replacement Battery
  • iPhone 4 Liberation Kit (to deal with those pesty pentalobular screws)
  • Electronics cleaner (to fix any internal corrosion that may have occurred)
  • Electronics-cleaner towel (same purpose as above)
  • Tweezers (to manipulate small parts)
  • Paper Towels (to act as the surface for my operating table)

When, on day 4, I checked on the coma-status of my phone and saw that the camera-lense bubbles had evaporated, I knew it was time. Setting up a sterile and clean environment on the coffee table in my living room, I laid out my supplies, went over the iFixIt video and guide one last time, and dug in.

I was pleased with how easily the screws from the phone came out; I was also shocked by how, in the absence of those screws, the back panel slid off so cleanly and easily. The back panel was gone, and there lay the naked basics of my phone: warped battery, corroded connectors and all. Despite the fact that it looked like a lost cause, I changed the battery anyway, closed her up, and plugged her into my computer.

Step 4: Analyze Results
Shockingly, my computer recognized the phone. iTunes popped up promptly and I immediately hit the backup button in anticipation of failure. When my excitement subsided enough for me to actually look at my phone, my elation deflated like a popped balloon; the screen was black. I jiggled the silence button, was informed by my obnoxious ringer that I was getting a phone call, received an e-mail, and had a few new text deliveries. Advised by a commenter on one of iFixIt’s forums, I turned the phone off expecting that to solve the issue of my black screen. Sadly, it would never turn on again.

Step 5: Admit Defeat 
After the typical stage of denial, I accepted defeat and took the proper 15 minutes to mourn my phone. Then I got in the car and went to the Apple store at Carousel, told my sad tale of water damage and tampered innards, was informed that my foolish tactics rendered my warranty invalid. I accepted my well-deserved phone fate, took the necessary steps to replace my lost-cause, went home and restored my phone from its backup-from-deathbed, and haven’t looked back since.

In my failure, I hope there were some lessons learned. They go a little something like this:

  • Invest in a heavy-duty case, i.e. the OtterBox case which guarantees to protect your phone from everything short of a volcano.
  • Don’t overestimate the prowess of your internal techie.
  • Let the pros handle it unless said internal techie is truly a guru. Remember that all tampering will void your warranty because Apple loves uniformity and hates all things home-made.
  • Do as I say not as I do.
To share your tales of water damage woe, leave a comment below, email Jessica at jlsmit22@syr.edu or find her on Twitter @j_lynn_smith.

Jessica Smith

Jessica received her masters degree in Information Management from Syracuse's School of Information Studies. She is an avid fan of robots and people with unique names. In her spare time she obsesses over Kurt Vonnegut, politics, and all things digital media/data journalism. If you find her mildly entertaining you can follow her on twitter @j_lynn_smith.

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