How cold weather can affect electronics

Since we are approaching the fall/winter season, I felt it appropriate to discuss how the weather affects our electronics. When I say electronics, I am really referring to items like laptop/notebook computers, and cameras left in a cold or freezing vehicle overnight.

First let me just say that leaving your laptop/notebook computer in your vehicle overnight is not really a good idea at all if you value what is on it. You just never know what could happen, worst thing being that it gets stolen. Remember if it can go wrong it probably will.

Now with that out of the way I’m going to cut straight to it. Have you ever brought in a pair of sunglasses or a compact disc from your cold vehicle indoors and noticed how it fogged up? Well this is what happens to your laptop/notebook computer when you bring it in from the cold after it has been sitting in the car all night.

Your hard drive platters and circuit boards develop condensation when it goes from cold to warm or hot and this could cause for some nasty short circuiting of your precious item.

In general, laptop/notebook computers are remarkably resilient when it comes to dealing with low temperatures (down to around 0 degrees F or -17 C).

However, cold can and does affect the LCD screen and disk drive. LCD’s are liquid crystal devices which can freeze if the temperature goes low enough. In addition, the fluorescent tube that provides the backlight to the screen (called a CCFL) can be dimmer due to the cold.

Both the LCD and the CCFL generally recover as they warm up and will operate normally afterwards. It is not clear whether this shortens the life of either component as I do not have any data from comparison testing.

Disk drives can also be affected by the cold. First, there are two types of disk drives. One uses ball bearings and a race around the shaft of the drive. The other uses fluid dynamic bearings (FDB), rather than the ball bearings. FDB drives are almost always used in laptops and have the advantage of lower noise and the ability to spin at higher speeds.

Mechanical disk drives with bearings seem to survive extremely low temperatures better than the FDB drives. As the temperature approaches single digits Fahrenheit (around -12 C), the fluid in the bearings thickens and the drive platter cannot spin at the appropriate speed. This can cause a boot failure.

In almost all cases, FDB drives returned to normal operation after just a few minutes in a warm environment. If the drive is inside the computer case, the heat from the processor will often warm it up and a reboot can be accomplished. On the other hand, for those external USB drives, you may want to wait a while longer for it to warm up.

So with cooler temperatures approaching, just keep all this in mind the next time you take your portable office with you home, and decide you are too tired to take it inside where it’s nice and cozy.

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10 Responses to “How cold weather can affect electronics”

  1. ken Says:

    Condensation forming on hard drive platters? Are you saying there is water inside a hard drive case?

  2. USERBYTES Says:

    Take your sunglasses from a cold vehicle, indoors and watch the condensation. The glasses were not wet. The wetness is in the air. The hard drives are not sealed air tight.

  3. craig Says:

    What their saying is the humidity which is how much moisture is in the air gets inside the hard drive or screen case then causes damage.

  4. Sia Says:

    I have a VGA monitor, Mitsubishi Diamond Pro 920, that I really like to use despite its age but it refuses to function and goes to sleep mode when temperature drops to below 50 F indoors. I have to put a blanket on it and heat it up for 15 minutes before use. Though very interested to know what exactly is the cause, I’m resigned to accept its age and that it’s old nenough to be moved to warmer climate Florida for the rest of it’s life πŸ™‚

  5. USERBYTES Says:

    I suggest getting a new lcd or led monitor as it will save you in electricity and possibly a home fire. I wouldnt put a blanket on the monitor. It sounds faulty so replace it.

  6. Mac Says:

    Hard drives not air tight? I have disasembled dozens of corrupted and broken drives i have never seen a spec of dust or any evidence of no seal, not to mention every hard drive lid is torqued so tight you need all your strength to remove it and a rubber gasket to keep DUST OUT. I am sorry but this information about air tightness, seems to be incorrect.

  7. USERBYTES Says:

  8. Matthew Stolze Says:

    Well, Mac got burned.

  9. Gary McAuley Says:

    What I am trying to find out is what will happen to our desktop pc if interior cabin temp falls to around 40F? We are leaving for four days, with expected highs of 50F and lows of 30F. We only have wood heat, so of course the cabin temp will gradually fall. Right now, interior temp falls from 70F to about 58F overnight (10pm-6am). I assume interior temp won’t drop to 30F. My current plan is disconnect and wrap in plastic and blankets. Regardless, any advice?

  10. USERBYTES Says:

    I have a computer in my workshop that stays on year round in 115F highs and 10F lows, still works fine.
    The biggest concern with cold weather is the condensation that builds up going from cold to hot, as in leaving your notebook computer in the car overnight, taking it in the office the next morning, and the platters on the hdd and other items fog up or sweat up and hurt the computer when powered on. This can happen.