Electronic Restoration: Critical Considerations

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Consider these two scenarios. In one, you receive a call at 3:30 a.m. Sunday. Your building engineer is on the other end in a panic. He tells you that a sprinkler head burst last night and the entire office is flooded. Immediately you think about all the data-packed computers in the offices and cubicles, the servers for your website and perhaps that brand new conference table wired for telecommunications. They will all surely be ruined.

Or take the second scenario. You stand before your manufacturing facility, as firefighters drown the flames. Inside sits your multi-million dollar assembly line of electronically run machines - the very heart of your business that is impossible to replace quickly. In either case, you face a business continuity nightmare as you imagine the cost and time of replacing these electronics and the downtime the company will endure from retraining employees on new systems.

In a business environment in which electronics have come to play an overwhelming and vital role, these cases demonstrate the crippling impact of electronic damage and the importance of including effective electronic restoration in your business continuity plan.

To select a qualified electronic restoration partner, you need to understand:

  • what can be restored,
  • criteria for electronic restoration,
  • types of contamination that can be removed,
  • procedures for fully effective electronic restoration,
  • the cleaning process,
  • and post restoration performance expectations.

What Can Be Restored

The good news is that over the past 20 years, electronic restoration has emerged as a highly sophisticated discipline. Research, development and testing have given us increasingly refined, field-proven techniques for restoring a wide range of damaged electronic equipment that includes everything from computers to highly sensitive medical, manufacturing and telecommunications technology. This is true under quite extraordinary circumstances such as complete immersion in floodwaters as well as exposure to heat, smoke or corrosive vapors.

In many cases, the skillful removal of deposits and corrosion effects can return electronic machines or components to an almost "brand new" state for 10 to 30% of the cost of replacement and, in most cases, in a fraction of the replacement time.

Criteria for Electronic Restoration

To completely remove contaminants and ensure total operational ability, damaged electronic equipment must meet certain criteria.

  • It must be possible to remove contaminants completely from all surfaces.
  • The success of the cleaning treatment must be reproducible and must not rely on chance results.
  • The cleaning process itself must not cause any, or only cosmetic, damage to the equipment in question.
  • The cleaning process must clearly be:
    - more economical than complete replacement of the equipment
    - or significantly reduce business interruption due to long procurement time.

Types of Contamination That Can Be Removed

Fire and water damage, "natural contamination," and environmental factors all produce contaminants that damage vital electronic components. Each type must be dealt with as rapidly as possible, on a case-by-case basis. This is particularly true for fire and smoke damage, that affect components differently than water damage or "natural contamination." Skilled electronic restoration specialists have the ability and the field experience to rapidly assess damage, access chemical expertise/analysis and establish a protocol to remove the contaminants.

An experienced electronic restorer with access to a comprehensive array of specialty cleaning solutions can successfully remove the following contaminants:

  • soot deposits
  • aggressive deposits from smoke and chemical vapors (hydrochloric acid)
  • deposits from water (lime, sludge, mud)
  • residues of chemical extinguishing powders
  • dust deposits
  • other pollution (environmental, operational, etc.)

Procedures for Restoring Damaged Electronics

Once your electronic restoration expert has determined that your technology meets the criteria, there are seven steps that must be taken to ensure your electronics are restored properly.

1. Immediate action to avoid further damage, particularly after the impact of smoke and water damage, such as cutting all power and ending use of the equipment.
2. Chemical analysis of the type and concentration of contaminant.
3. Determination of the restoration protocols, procedures and cleaning chemicals.
4. The actual cleaning process including disassembly of the equipment and cleaning of individual components, frequently in many individual steps, by specially trained electronics specialists.
5. Optical and chemical quality testing.
6. Reassembly.
7. Adjustment and return to service.

The first and probably most important thing to remember is that time is the enemy of electronics and the best friend of corrosion. It is essential to hinder the destructive chemical process (corrosion), and prevent avoidable harm before comprehensive repairs begin. If preventive measures are taken rapidly, you increase your chances for a successful restoration and limit the expense.

Once on the premises, your electronic restorer will evaluate the type of damage and take the appropriate measures. Experts in the fields of restoration and electronic restoration will come up with the correct course of action for your particular needs and develop a plan to get you back up and running as quickly as possible.

In the case of fire damage, hydrochloric acid (HCl) is one of the biggest problems. When this is mixed with water from sprinkler systems or fire hoses, the corrosion of electronics progresses rapidly. This corrosive effect, however, can be minimized by applying a protective lubricant directly on the electronic components, removing all water from the room and lowering the relative humidity to below 40%. Once this is done, the chemical reaction of hydrochloric acid and metals will be drastically reduced and will allow technicians the time needed to restore your electronics.

When a room or area is flooded, turn off all electronic devices as soon as possible. This would seem to be common sense, but many times in the chaos of disaster the simplest and most important measures are forgotten. Once electronic equipment is turned off, batteries removed and battery back-ups turned off, they will endure exposure to water relatively well. The longer the equipment is on, while partially or fully in water, the greater the chance for more significant and irreparable damage and short-circuiting. Once water comes in contact with the metal on circuit boards, the corrosion process has begun. Thus, it is essential for drying to begin as soon as possible, either by removing all water and lowering the relative humidity or removing the electrical equipment and placing it in drying rooms or drying ovens. When all the water has dried, your electronic restorer will use the appropriate chemicals to remove any contaminants, such as mud or lime residue.

To determine if other contaminants are present, your electronic restoration experts will perform additional evaluation procedures. This is essential in order to select the appropriate cleaning compound to remove the contaminant without harming the electronics in any way.

Cleaning Process

To completely remove contaminants, all equipment components must be accessible. The cleaning process is done in the following five steps:

1. Disassemble the equipment - down to the last circuit board, if necessary, so that all components can be accessed.
2. Carefully decontaminate all individual components.
3. Perform visual and chemical tests to ensure the success of the cleaning operation.
4. Reapply protective coatings as needed.
5. Reassemble equipment.

All of these procedures must be carried out by trained and experienced electronic technicians to ensure the success of the restored equipment. Highly qualified technicians are able to dismantle any electronic device and reassemble it after a successful cleaning process. This can only be accomplished routinely if your electronic restoration company has an established system for uniform disassembly and reassembly. Most qualified electronic restoration companies have engineers, chemists, and technical publications at their disposal in order to develop unique solutions to new challenges.

Success and Reliability of Restored Electronic Equipment

How successful is the restoration process and how reliable are the electronic components after restoration? It is estimated that 60 - 70% of all restored systems go back into operation without further repairs or disturbances. Observations of restored systems over a long period of time have shown that the reliability of the system is at least equal, in some cases better, than before the damage occurred. To give one example, a manufacturer of highly sensitive film capacitors (Styroflex capacitors) required expert electronic restoration after fire damaged their plant. The components were unsoldered from the circuit boards and cleaned. The restored capacitors were then compared to brand new capacitors of the same design from the same manufacturer. It was revealed that the cleaned capacitors had better quality factors and a smaller resistance spread than the new ones from the manufacturer. In the past, it was often argued that electronic restoration was neither cost effective nor reliable. Clearly, this argument is no longer defensible.

Now imagine the two scenarios at the beginning of this article. Instead of panicking, rest assured that you have pre-selected a highly qualified electronics restorer as part of your business continuity plan. Of course there will be problems due to the flood or the fire, but you know your electronic restoration expert will assist in your recovery by successfully restoring your electronic equipment.


About the Author
Vernon Duty is a Regional Manager for BELFOR USA. His electronic restoration background includes Team Leader training from BELFOR Relectronic-Remech in Munich, Germany. Through his work with BELFOR, he has participated in hundreds of electronic restorations covering a wide range of applications from computers to the most sophisticated medical and manufacturing equipment. For more information, contact Vernon at BELFOR USA's Atlanta, Georgia office (770) 939-0128 or at Vernon.Duty@us.belfor.com.

Russ Dunbar is a Project Manager for BELFOR USA. He is a graduate of Georgia Tech where he specialized in electronics and machinery. For more information contact Russ at BELFOR USA's Atlanta, Georgia office (770) 939-0128 or at Russ.Dunbar@us.belfor.com.