Failing Hard Drives and the Freezer Technique Revisited

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Above is an example of a drive that has been completely frozen.

 

Normally you would put the drive in the freezer for about an hour. This was a common hard drive recovery trick called a thermo challenge. The only real worry was condensation either on the circuit board or even worse inside the drive itself. This used to be a viable way to recover data. In fact I had a whole system built to ensure that I could run the drive in a very cold environment. This would ensure I would not get any shorts in the electrical components of the hard drive. That being said those days are all but gone.

For many years the internet has been filled with information and success story’s regarding freezing your failed hard drive to temporarily repair the drive and enable you to pull small amounts of information from the drive.

I would like to revisit my experiences with this technique as a data recovery professional of more than 11 years.

The first thing we need to look at is:

Can freezing your hard drive actually repair your hard drive?

The answer is:

YES! In rare and particular circumstances it is possible. Especially on specific drives whose size are under 10 GB. The reason for this is that certain drive manufacturers used material to fabricate platters that would swell in extreme heat. Placing the hard drive in the freezer would cause the platters to shrink to their original specifications.

What are these specific drives and under what circumstances will I be able to recover my data? In my experience they were IBM Deskstars and drives manufactured by Seagate Technologies. One of the signs that these drives could in fact be recovered is a shudder in the device due to the platters swelling and causing an imbalance. These drives would usually initialize but then fail to come ready or come ready for a brief moment and then drop out. The hard drive would then no longer be recognized by the systems bios.

These drives did not exhibit any of the normal anomalies such as clicking. In fact they were receiving power and spinning at optimal RPMs. So if your hard drive is exhibiting any of these faults putting it in the freezer is NOT going to fix it. In addition, if the hard drive has a power fault related to the printed circuit board (PCB) freezing will not fix that.

Drive manufacturers have since realized that using such materials in the design is poor engineering. Since then they have found other ways to design platters that will spin at high speeds, and will not heat up and swell.

I hope this article clarifies the reason clean rooms used to put hard drives in the freezer. We no longer use this method in our clean room.

In the final analysis we would never tell you NOT to put your hard drive in a freezer. What we would say is make sure everything stays dry. If you decide to freeze your drive and it is still clicking you should contact a hard drive recovery professional to at the very least help you to assess the situation.

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Comments

  1. FALSE. Just had a friend successfully backup a dead hard drive using this technique: a Toshiba external. So it does work for modern hard drives in some circumstances as well.

    • Jacqui Best says:

      David,

      I agree there could be a drive or 2 out there that is can work for still but this is not going to be what is was back 10 years ago when it would work on a LARGE portion of drives.

  2. snarfblam says:

    I recovered data from a failed hard drive (seagate) about a year ago using this method.

  3. Greg Patrick says:

    Just for information, a computer tech still uses the freezer method to recover data and/or wipe the disk. He does for the court house in my city. My concern, would hooking it back to computer fry other compontents? I have three I would like to wipe data from, none our recognized by the bios. I don’t trust places that would do that for you, could steal your info.

  4. Mr. Fact says:

    Just put defunct WD HDD in fridge at 7 degrees Celcius for 1hr and it now is plugged into PC and I am downloading the data. 10/10 result. Note I did also have a full backup so it was no loss either way for me if it worked or not.

    • Mr. Fact,
      I am glad that this worked for you and thank you for noting you wouldn’t have tried it had you not had an intact backup. I would stress again that using the freezer technique is very dangerous. Condensation is a real problem and can end up causing even more failure to the drive. Only if you are not actually worried about the data on the disk should this method ever be tried!
      Thanks
      Jacqui

  5. Hi, my hard disk fell on the floor, and it dsnt work.
    Can you recover my data ?
    Please let me know the prices. I live in Portugal.

    Thank you

  6. Worked like a charm for a 160GB Lacie external HD. I didn’t remove the hard drives so I don’t have manufacturer info. Put the HD in the freezer for an hour and was able to access and download all the data I needed ( about 4GB worth)

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