Apparently you can kill a USB hard drive by moving it from a cold to warm environment and powering it up. The killer being internal condensation.

Q1: How real is the risk? What kind of temperatures are we talking about? I don't want to waste time "acclimatizing" my hard drive every day if it's not necessary.

Q2: Are there technologies/solutions available to mitigate the risk?

Surprisingly, I've found nothing useful on the internet that decently answers the above two questions.

  • 1
    Depends on the humidity of the place you move it to. No real mitigation when dealing in high humidity environments. – Moab Jun 30 '15 at 23:51
  • What type of conditions are you planning to expose your hard drive to? – CharlieRB Jun 30 '15 at 23:52
  • @CharlieRB Potentially as bad as moving from 4C (39F) to 22C (72F). Relative humidity typically between 58% and 90%. None of the environments are air-conditioned in any way, just heating of ambient (outside) air in the offices. – misha256 Jul 1 '15 at 0:27
  • Lol, maybe I can retro-fit my hard drives with a Dew-Sensor and some power logic. Prevent power-on if dew detected: Come to think of father's SLR camera has dew detection. More things need this! – misha256 Jul 1 '15 at 0:34
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    @misha256 On top of all of that, most of the pathways which make up an SSD circuit all do the same thing at the same voltage (the memory bus lines). So even if you randomly shorted out circuits on purpose, it is still less likely than an HDD to cause permanent problems (can't say your data is going to be safe at all if you did this though). – krowe Jul 11 '15 at 5:34
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Condensation is a real danger for hard disks.

You can see in a real-life youtube demonstration of a data-recovery specialist, what a hard disk looks like when taken out of the freezer and briefly turned on, just full of scratches :

scratched disk

Such scratches could possibly damage the disk to a point that even a data-recovery specialist will be unable to recover the data.

A Control Data (later Seagate) factory packaging manual for hard disks says:

If you have just received or removed this unit from a climate with temperatures at or below 50°F (10°C) do not open this container until the following conditions are met, otherwise condensation could occur and damage to the device and/or media may result. Place this package in the operating environment for the time duration according to the temperature chart.

acclimatizing times

It seems that dangerously low temperatures start when the computer is brought from below 50°F (10°C) into room-temperature, and it may need several hours for acclimatization. This long time is explained by the fact that in a mechanical disk, the head is supported by airflow entering through special air-intakes. These intakes are heavily filtered against dust, but not against humidity. They are also small enough, which slows the evaporation process of internal humidity.

You could possibly minimize the acclimatization time by wrapping the disk in watertight plastic while it is acclimatizing, to reduce the humidity that would enter via the air-intakes. You should allow for some drying-off time after unwrapping the disk, for the humidity in the air already contained inside the disk.

This is not the only danger, as explained by data-recovery specialist ReWave Recovery :

A hard drive is at risk for sudden temperature changes including overheating and condensation.

A sudden change in temperature that causes condensation inside the hard drive can cause the material on the platter to evaporate which causes the read/write heads to stick to the platter and stop it from rotating.

Overheating can also be an issue. Overheating can cause the platters to expand which makes the read/write heads travel farther to read the data. The expansion of platters can cause friction which can lead to a head crash.

I checked PDF on Seagate(can't find much info on WD), and find some interesting info. Its for laptop HDD, the one inside portable external USB drive.

According to the PDF(1, 2), the hard drive can operate at 0-60C and a relative humidity of 5-90%. However Seagate also limits the gradient, the temperature gradient is 20 or 30C/h, humidity is 30%/h.

So according to these PDF, if your HDD is Seagate, temperature wise, it should be safe, for humidity, it varies from 58% to 90%, considering its the extreme case and just a little over 30% I wouldn't worry much then.

Answer to Q1: You will not face any internal condensation as long as you are moving a recently used hdd.

If you have left it untouched for a while and suddenly moved it to a warmer environment and also started using it immediately, you may face the risk from condensation issue.

Answer to Q2: I don't see the requirement for a dry box to store a unused hdd. To operate it you need to take it out. As long as your portable has a good casing I don't see any real risk with a regularly used hdd.

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