Freeze a hard drive to recover data

It happens.  I had a hard drive crash.  It probably happened because I dropped the laptop on the ground a few dozen too many times.  Fortunately, I was able to recover my data.

To begin the story, I just want to say it is critically important to back up your data.  There are only two kinds of computer users:
  1. Those who have lost data
  2. Those who will lose data.
Is your backup current?

When my hard drive failed, it had been about a month since my previous back up. That meant that while it wasn't critical that I recover everything, it still did represent a potential loss of 75-100 hours of work.

I took the hard drive out of the computer and put it in the freezer, as suggested on Lifehacker.  This suggestion is popular because most computer hard drives are mechanical devices, subject to expansion and contraction with temperature.

When a hard drive crashes, it typically means the the drive head, which hovers less than the thickness of a human hair above the data platter, touches that data platter for some reason.  When they touch, data can be destroyed. Or it could happen because parts go out of alignment or seize up.

Freezing a hard drive lowers the temperature enough that many times, that drive will briefly come back to life.

I put the hard drive into a USB enclosure and tried to access it from another computer.  No luck.

I wrapped the enclosure in saran wrap, and stuck it in two ziplock back, to minimize damage due to moisture.  Then I stuck it in the freezer for a few hours.  No luck.

I left it in the freezer for a couple days.  No luck.

Then I pulled it out of the enclosure, and put the frozen hard drive directly in a laptop.  No luck.

I was about to give up.  I took the drive without the saran wrap this time, put it in a ziplock pack with a silica gel pack to, again, minimize moisture damage, stuck that in another plastic bag, and put it on top of the frozen pizza in my freezer.

Then I did some more trouble shooting.  I took a known good hard drive, stuck it in the USB enclosure, and tried to read that data.  No luck.

It turns out that not only had the hard drive crashed, I also had a bad enclosure.

I bought a different USB adapter. A week after covering the pizza with data, I tried again. I pulled out the hard drive, plugged in the cable, and I put it on one end of a cookie sheet.  On the other end, I put two ice pack.  I used the aluminum cookie sheet to keep the hard drive cold while I went to work on it.

I hooked it all up, and the computer could actually see the drive.  It did give me some errors.  It though the drive was unformatted, and it wouldn't open the properties right.

But the hard drive was making more appropriate noises.

I opened a DOS window in Windows 7, and ran, "chkdsk /f /r /x d:"  In this utility, Windows scans the disk and attempts to correct errors it find in the data structure.  It ran for several hours.  Eventually, my ice packs were starting to melt so it was time to add froze vegetables to rig.  This is how it all looked:

HDD Recovery

As the utility trudged along, it found more and more data.  At the end, I finally had access to all my documents.  All that work was now safe.

I got lucky.

The lesson is the always have a back up of your data.  The hours that go into creating it, or the prescious memories associated with your it are too important to not back up.

But if you do have  worst case scenario and can't get your data any other way, stick it in with the El Monterey Chimichangas, and it might just work.


Kevin said...

And, I might add, that a copy of a file is not a "backup". Backups should be stored off site. Either on an optical media or through a service works best.

Anonymous said...

This is so funny putting a hard drive in a freezer.I have never tried this before but i think it is worth experimenting.My hard drive has now crashed twice and am lucky that when ever it crashes,am on a safeside because i backup all my files online with an online backup solution called www.safecopybackup.com i think with my files there,everything is so secure.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I can't imagine losing an entire hard drive of files. Thanks for sharing with us your experience. I've never thought of putting an HDD on ice ;-)

Cromely said...

@Kevin: I would consider a copy on an external HDD to be a back up. It's not as good at an offsite plan on optical, other HDD, or online, but it will cover most scenarios. It's not a perfect backup solution, but with so few people doing backups of any kind, I think we risk making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Most of the time when someone needs a back up, it's because a primary drive crashed. Or someone in the household deleted the file. Or their OS got corrupted. Or someone stole their laptop while they were out and about. A back up on an external HDD will be a solution in all those cases.

Of course a back up on an external hard drive in the house does no good if some one breaks in and steal it. Or if the house burns down. Or if a natural disaster strikes. Or law enforcement seizes it. Or a loved one or formerly loved one decides to vandalize someone's data.

All of those scenarios require the kind of back up you suggest, but let's face, they are edge cases. I'm sure 90% of the time a local external HDD is an adequate back up and it's a great place to start.

I guess my point is that if you aren't already backing up your data, start simple. Don't let the complexity of off site and alternative media stand in the way. Don't start with a perfect backup scenario. Start with a good one.

It's like layers of protection. Start with the basic layer. If the world goes to hell, it's not going to do much, but it will be more than adequate for most threats. Then add additional layers like offsite and automated solutions.

Pesonally, I try to back up locally every month or two (critical files more often) and I make an offsite copy every year. It's not enough, but it's better than nothing.

@Anonymous: Good luck with your experiments and home you never have to try them. I'll have to check out that site you suggest. It looks like they charge $70 a year for 300 GB. I'm looking to back up about 1.5 -- 2 TB in my next plan, so I wonder about those costs. My mother has a different system setup and Carbonite has worked great for her.

One more thing. You said,"My hard drive has now crashed twice and am lucky that when ever it crashes..." I hope you're not talking about the same HDD. Once a HDD has a data crash that may be related to a physically failing HDD, then that HDD should be considered dead. Recover your data if possible, and then destroy the drive. New ones are relatively cheap. This doesn't apply if it's just a software issue, of course.

@Vickie: It's a last ditch effort, and if the freezer doesn't work, it's likely to do further damage to the drive. There are services that will charge thousands of dollars but can also recover a lot of stuff after a failure. Dealing with a frozed drive might make that process more difficult and expensive due to water damage.

Trying the freezer trick may be the solution if other consumer levels steps have failed, and you aren't willing to spend thousands of dollars on an outside service.

Of course a good back up means not having to make that choice.