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HD Freeze Source

There seems to be (anecdotal) evidence that putting your hard drive in the freezer can make it readable again, at least for a short time:

I guess that by doing this, some metal parts in the HD could contract, putting back in place defective parts, and making everything work again for a few minutes. [Source]


But data recovery expert Scott Holewinski advises against it in this video (YouTube), saying

... putting your hard drive into the freezer is the WORST thing you could possibly do in your attempt to recover your data as it can actually render your HD completely unrecoverable (due to water condensation)


But people who say it does work usually recommend wrapping the HD in a sealed bag to avoid condensation (see picture above).


My question:
Is the method of freezing your HD for data recovery viable?
Will sealing the HD in a ziploc bag actually help avoid the condensation problem?
(AFAIK there is air inside the HD)

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2  
Haven't really looked at this, but I'm predicting "No way." I think this is probably a spin off from a method to recover data from RAM, not standard, platter-spinning HDs. It's a well documented effect that allows a "cold boot attack" -- LINK. Perhaps these folks are extending that toward other types of storage? –  Hendy Jun 25 '11 at 13:47
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"Is the method of freezing your HD for data recovery viable?" - There's anecdotal evidence that "it worked for them": which implies that the answer is, "sometimes". My guess as to how that's possible is that if the head is touching the platter, freezing it might cool the air inside enough to make the air denser, which could allow the head to 'fly' a little better. –  ChrisW Jun 25 '11 at 17:12
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Sadly I only have anecdotal evidence, but we used this successfully 8 or 9 times in the mid nineties When a hard drive had died, this did sort it out long enough to retrieve the data off it, before it was then discarded. We also had 4 attempts that failed. I don't have any evidence from more recent drives. We did also successfully use the de-stick technique of smacking a drive off a concrete block a few times as well, but don't try it at home:-) –  Rory Alsop Jun 25 '11 at 17:22
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Belongs on Superuser, exact duplicate of superuser.com/questions/1078/… ;) –  Andrew Grimm Jun 26 '11 at 2:40
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Wrapping the hdd with sealed bag doesn't help with condensation. The condensation happens after the hdd was taken out of the fridge. I believe the condensation happened inside and outside of the hdd. –  lamwaiman1988 Jun 29 '11 at 2:28

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

TL;DR: No, it's not a viable method, it will likely cause damage and will not likely work at all.

Here's what the largest data recovery firms say on the matter:

datarecovery.com

Stamped on pretty much every page of the site:

Please keep in mind that hard drives are delicate instruments. Like any other delicate instrument, if they are not handled with care or properly cooled, you may experience a failure. Hard drives are sensitive to heat, rapid temperature changes, static electricity, power surges and physical shock. We estimate that most hard drive failures occur due to operating conditions, not manufacture defects.

Which pretty much means, don't mess around with temperatures because HDs are very sensitive to that.

In fact, according to krollontrack.com, hard drives are so temperature dependent that thermal expansion (and I am adding: thermal contraction) are relevant to the design of the base casting assembly:

Today’s hard drives have no room for errors when it comes to platter and head alignment. The tolerances are so exacting that hard drive manufacturers even design ways to keep the Base-Casting Assembly, where all the components are attached to, from shifting due to high temperature situations. For instance, one hard drive manufacturer of high performance SCSI based drives actually designs their Base-Casting Assembly with pre-stress points. The assembly does not line up from corner to diagonal corner—it’s pre-torqued. When the casting assembly heats up, the unit actually twists back (thermal expansion) into a true line-up from corner to corner.

Unsurprisingly, the correct advice abounds on data recovery sites, for example datarecoverylabs.com:

If a drive is making unusual mechanical noises, turn it off immediately and contact a data recovery specialist.

securedatarecovery.com—boasting high-profile customers, from Nasa to Microsoft—also gives the same advice:

Stopping all use of the damaged equipment or medium is the single most important step in any data loss scenario.
Attempting to perform data recovery on your own is very dangerous - if you are not absolutely sure of what you are doing, you might jeopardize the safety of your data. Do not attempt to use data recovery software, and never try to disassemble the hard drive on your own. Continuing to use your hard drive while it is in a degraded state can endanger your data and make the data recovery process more difficult.

But I think nobody makes it more explicit than datarecovery.net:

  • DO NOT put your drive in the freezer and then try to spin it up. It is possible that moisture has condensed on the media surfaces. This WILL cause head contact if it has and will destroy the drive.
  • DO NOT listen to your friends or continue to look for home remedies on the net such as the one mentioned above, seek professional help if you value the lost data.

As a side note: not a single one boasts "cryogenic units" or anything similar. All the most reputable ones boast clean rooms and privacy/security standards.

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So, companies that want you to spend money on their services are telling you not to try to fix it on your own? I have a bit of a hard time trusting these sources. –  mmr Dec 14 '11 at 15:47
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@mmr: agreed. However. much more reliable than the anectodal evidence presented in other answers. –  Sklivvz Dec 14 '11 at 16:22
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Data recovery companies are not a good reference, especially when they spread fear so you buy their services, instead of fixing it yourself. I freezed a drive, and recovered data from it. Am I a sinner? –  Tiberiu-Ionuț Stan Jun 26 '12 at 9:21
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I agree with @Tiberiu-IonuțStan that data recovery firms aren't what I would consider and unbiased resource. However, something else I would be curious about is the age of the hard drive itself. Hard drives 10 years ago where not built the same as modern hard drives and what is try now may not have been true then. –  rjzii Jul 9 '12 at 1:41
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I disagree the companies are not a good reference. While they may have some interest in advising people not to try and fix their drives, their services are very expensive and targeted to valuable data and companies. I think they are more concerned with having simpler cases to handle... Put it this way: when doctors say "don't move in case of injury", does one quip "doctors say this because of self interest?" @rob –  Sklivvz Sep 4 '12 at 7:59

I speak as a professional who has worked as a Data Recovery specialist for a firm that specialised in this.

There are three common types of hard drive failure:

Control Board failure: This is where there is a short or surge that damages the controller board of your hard drive. The symptoms of this are the drive not being found by the BIOS, the drive not "spinning up", sometimes an odor of ozone (if the short is active). Freezing will not fix this failure. Replacing the board usually allows for full recovery of the data. The difficulty is finding a board that works with your exact model of hard drive. If you have one, it's very simple to replace.

Motor Seized: This is the motor that causes the hard drive to spin. It was fairly common in the early hard drives. Parts overheat and expand causing the parts to wedge themselves in a position that doesn't allow the drive to spin freely. Often you could put these in the freezer and it would cause those parts to contract and release allowing the drive to work again. The miniaturization of the motors have reduced the frequency of this failure, and made it so that the damage from them is often irreversible. The data is still on the platter and can be recovered. Symptoms: Drive is recognized by the BIOS But does not spin up. Sometimes you can hear the motor trying to move but it is a constant whine (older drives only). Data recovery places do not want you freezing these for several reasons:

  • it is an easy fix, if you know how to fix it and have the time, so they can charge a lot of money and recover all of your data (win win),
  • if it is not a motor failure and is other mechanical failure you can cause data corruption(see below)

Head Crash: This is the noticable kerthunk kerthunk kerthunk that anyone who has ever heard it remembers. The drive seems to spin up, thunks 3 or 4 times then spins down - rinse & repeat. Sometimes it will even boot up. This thunk is the drive head making contact with the platter and being propelled away (momentum) every time the head touches the platter it scrambles some of the data on it. The more often the head crashes the more data is destroyed, the less likely to recover what you want. No amount of freezing is going to help here. There is physical damage to the parts that are responsible for reading the data. In order to recover data from this we have to replace the drive heads in a positive flowbench (a poor-man's clean-room) and hope the disk damage does not cause them to crash again. These are generally a bit more interchangable.

Evidence: http://www.dataclinic.co.uk/hard-disk-failures.htm

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Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence has been deemed harmful to this site. Back up your answer with sources or remove it. –  Sklivvz Jun 27 '11 at 18:06
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Nothing on your reference page makes reference to freezers. –  DJClayworth Jun 27 '11 at 19:20
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No reference is needed to show that freezing metal causes it to contract. A reference is certainly needed to show that this has a noticeable effect on making broken hard drives work. –  DJClayworth Jun 28 '11 at 14:25
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Chad, all you have provided is a theory on why it could work. This is not a sufficient condition for it to be actually happening. I can provide a slew of competing theories that equally "prove" the opposite: "freezing contracts the metal parts of the drive outside the operational parameters and damages them further"; "Internal condensation while thawing fries the electronics"; etc. –  Sklivvz Jun 28 '11 at 18:18
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You need to prove it with references. Fix your answer or remove it. I am not wasting any more time repeating myself. –  Sklivvz Jun 28 '11 at 18:30

protected by Oddthinking Sep 25 '13 at 14:26

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