iPhone resurrection

On Saturday, I attended a housewarming party at a friends. He’s got a great house in Lake Washington and his party coincided with the Blue Angels air show. During the afternoon, a few of us helped him take a dip in the lake. The humor would not have been lost so suddenly if he hadn’t come up minus his iPhone, which went into the lake with him.

Between the cadre of tech geeks present, we had spare iPhones but this wretched soul had not synced his iPhone since January. I dove in and concluded that the bottom was about 20 feet deep and my lungs are only conditioned to free dives of 15 feet. So we formulated a plan. Jen and I drove home and fetched our SCUBA gear. Nelson fetched his tanks and BCD. We found a couple bricks to use as weights and went in. Nelson took a turn diving and then I did. After 10 minutes of swimming around face down and fins up, I found the phone.

There was much rejoicing but after 3 hours underwater, there was little hope of the phone working again. To prevent any further water damage I disassembled the iPhone and removed the battery. What surprised me was that I could find no evidence of the magic smoke having leaked out. That meant that either a component I couldn’t see had fried, Apple had some type of circuitry to prevent shorts, or we were just plain lucky.

Having the battery removed, the phone could now be safely “washed.” As we may remember from high school chemistry, pure water does not conduct electricity. It is the impurities in the water that allow water to conduct and wreak havoc on electronics. To stand any chance of recovery, the dirty water must be removed. Better still if I can also get as much of the lake sediment removed as well. Instead of distilled water, I prepared a bath of isopropyl alcohol and immersed the iPhone for a couple hours.

Why alcohol? Because even if I placed the phone in a ziplock full or rice, or my warming oven, it would take 3-6 days for the phone to completely dehydrate. Alcohol evaporates much, much faster. Isopropyl alcohol also acts as a water scavenger which further expedited the drying process. Finally, it is a mild solvent, which will help clean up any sediment that found its way in into the phone.

After a 2 hour bath in alcohol I removed the iPhone and set it out to dry. Exactly two days later I plugged it into my USB charging cable. The Apple logo came up but it failed to boot all the way. Suspecting that it couldn’t draw enough power via the 5v USB adapter, I plugged it into my iPod FireWire charging cable and it booted right up. Voila!  A working iPhone. 

The grand finale was soldering the battery contacts back onto the phone. After doing so, the battery still had plenty of charge left and the phone booted up off the battery. Our victim was able to sync his iPhone with his computer. Everything on the iPhone works (touch screen, applications, wifi, etc) except the phone radio. I dropped the SIM from my iPhone into it but got only a generic “call failed” error.

Interesting things learned: The iPhone has an immersion sensor at the bottom of the headphone plug. White is good, pink means it has been immersed. A USB cable does not supply sufficient current to power the iPhone when it doesn’t have a battery. A FireWire cable does. WiFi will not work on an iPhone without the battery. Alcohol worked well as a cleaner, solvent, and drier.

2 Comments

  1. Luis

    Dear Matt,
    While Google-ing I found your site. My Iphone does not charge well, actually it does cuz I measured the battery ans it is reading 3.42 volts; however the logic board doesn’t seems to route the power to the circuits or so.
    I want to try using the firewire cable to the iphone, WITHOUT the battery connected, but first I want to make sure that indeed that is what you did while trying to fix your friend’s iphone.
    Could you please confirm?

    best regards,
    Luis Sanmiguel

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