Electronics Restoration

July 12, 2004
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courtesy of S. Morantz
Q: When people talk about electronics restoration, what exactly are they referring to?

A: Indoor environmental quality can affect electronic appliances in several ways. The most obvious, of course, occur as a result of a catastrophic event such as a fire or from water damage. The heat, soot, water, water vapor and gases associated with such events can destroy or very quickly degrade electronics if not dealt with immediately and appropriately.

There is a lot of information available on how to restore electronics following such a disastrous event. This article, by contrast, discusses the more-subtle and much longer-term possible effects of a non-disaster environment.

How "Stuff" Winds Up in Electronics
Electronic components generate a lot of heat, and overheating is a prime cause of their failure. To remove this heat, just about all of them use air as a cooling medium. The air is most often drawn through the casing interior by a fan, but in some cases the design may rely on natural convective air movement. This air is, of course, representative of the air in the environment where the equipment is located. Since most electronic equipment does not have effective air filters, what is in the air winds up being pulled through the equipment.

So what kind of "stuff" is in this air? Depending upon the particular environment, the constituents of the air can vary tremendously. In a manufacturing environment, oils and other chemicals are likely to be present to varying degrees. In a food-service setting, there may be vaporized oils from cooking. In a home with occupants who are smokers, tobacco-smoke residues, as well as fine dusts, are regularly deposited on all surfaces.

Over time, whatever contaminants are in the air tend to accumulate on surfaces inside the electronic equipment. Natural and synthetic fibers (lint) may form a mat-like surface that acts like a filter, accelerating the accumulation of other debris. Eventually, this debris can accumulate to the point that it begins to affect the performance of the equipment. It can do this both directly, by interfering with optical or magnetic transfer of data, and also by forming a thermally-insulating "blanket" over the components which prevents them from cooling properly, causing a host of electronic problems.

This accumulated layer of debris also has the potential to act as a food source for microbial growth. In a structure that has developed a moisture-and-mold-growth problem, large amounts of spores are likely to be present in the air. As with other airborne contaminants, spores tend to accumulate inside the electronic components. If the electronics are in regular use, actual growth inside the equipment is highly unlikely, since the heat generated by and the airflow through the components tends to inhibit growth by the fact that it reduces the relative humidity inside the case.

However, actual growth may indeed occur if dirty electronics are stored in a damp location, or if components are sealed in plastic or other impermeable materials and then moved into a cooler storage location, which increases the relative humidity inside the plastic wrapping. For example, contents sealed in impermeable packaging at 70°F, 50-percent RH will be at more than 100-percent RH if stored at 50°F. This higher humidity and water activity can easily allow mold growth to occur, assuming a food source (such as accumulated dirt) is present, which it normally is.

To prevent these problems, consider wrapping items with permeable materials, such as Kraft paper, rather than impermeable materials such as plastic. If plastic wrapping must be used, moisture problems can be prevented by enclosing a sufficient quantity of a desiccant material, such as silica gel or clay montmorillonite, inside the packaging.

During a mold remediation project, electronics, as with other contents items, cannot be ignored. If they are contaminated and not remediated, they can re-contaminate the structure after they are returned. Once the equipment is turned on, the spores accumulated inside can be blown out into the clean, remediated area.

Removing Contaminants in Electronic Equipment
The first step in removing contaminants is to determine what contaminants are present and what remediation method is appropriate. This may require the assistance of an indoor environmental professional. If mold spores are the contaminant of concern, and the components do not have massive amounts of accumulated "binder soils" on them (such as oils and greases that might cause spores to adhere in large numbers), and absolute cleanliness is not required, then simply removing the casing and "blowing out" the contaminant with compressed air from a container or oil-free compressor is likely to be effective. This process may aerosolize contaminants and should only be done in a setting where exposure can be prevented or managed. Examples of these managed environments include, but are not limited to: outdoors; in containment with negative air machine in operation; laminar airflow cleaning chambers; or over a high-volume downdraft cleaning table. As always, those doing such work should wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and keep unprotected people at a safe distance.

Where there are higher levels of contamination or situations where there is a need to remove binder soils, it is likely that some disassembly and cleaning will be required. Consult manufacturers of such equipment for directions and limitations.

Before diversifying your business into electronics restoration, you need to be aware that many issues need to be addressed. These issues may vary depending upon whether the project is a residential or a commercial claim.

Some issues to consider include:

  • Age and value of the electronics items. Is it obsolete technology? If so, would it be wise to consider applying available funds towards replacing equipment?
  • What is the cost of cleaning/restoration as compared to replacement?
  • Is the item critical to the operation of a business?
  • Many electronics items, especially consumer products, are very difficult to disassemble and reassemble without damage. Such equipment may be considered essentially disposable.
  • Which is quicker, replacement or restoration, thus reducing interruption of business operations?
  • If items cannot be put back into service, can stored data be recovered? In many cases, the data is of much greater value than the equipment.
  • Are the items under warranty? If so, is the warranty potentially voided by the contamination issue or by restoration procedures? If voided, is it possible to have the manufacturer reinstate the warranty after appropriate testing?
  • What kind of environment is the item used in? Hospitals and nursing homes are likely to be (and should be) much more stringent in their cleanliness requirements than an industrial plant.

    Dealing with the restoration of electronics is not always a simple matter. Those faced with such situations, but who are not really trained or experienced in performing these services, should consider seeking the assistance of those who are.

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