A Cool Hard Drive Fix

Well, I should say all the caveats like "don't try this at home," and "it'll destroy your data," and "this is a stupid thing to do," and "don't try this with data you really need, use a professional data recovery service," but...

At home I have a Windows Home Server, which is really cool way to store data, I used to use a server with RAID-5, but so far this has been a lot easier.  Anyway, I digress.  Last week I added a 2TB drive.  (Well, 1.75 TB or so, how come HDD manufacturers can't count in binary like everyone else?)  We have lots of video @ home (yea, I know I need to prune it, but haven't had the time).

I didn't really have enough space to duplicate everything, so I turned off duplication on a folder I figured didn't have very important stuff on it.  After all, it's a new drive, and the price of drives drop fast, so I'll buy another drive in 6 months and relieve the pressure.  You can see where this is headed.

This morning I was more than a tad surprised to discover that the new drive had failed.  For various reasons 1TB of data had gotten onto it, and an unknown amount hadn't been duplicated.  I was a bit bummed and also discovered something about myself:  "unimportant" data becomes more important when there's a terabyte of it missing!

I could reimport the original tapes (Hi-8, Mini-DV, etc), so I wasn't too worried, but that'd still be a LOT of work and time, so I was hoping there was an easier fix.

In that vain I moved the changed the power cord, then switched the SATA port of the drive. I put it in an external case, I put it in a different external case, I changed the power supply, I put it in a different computer.  Nothing.  It started to spin up and then click... click... click.  I don't know much about HDD internals, but the click sounded like heads trying to move, but failing.  (Not crashed, that's a much worse sound!).  Finally I gave up.

Since I gave up, I got a new drive (so WHS could duplicate the data again), and wrote off the data.  Since I hadn't done this with WHS before, I poked around the web to get more info and stumbled into a bunch of "repair" info.  (There's a youtube clip of someone stopping a similar clicking noise.  They carefully arrange the drive on a workspace, with a nice mat to protect the parts, then they arrange the screwdrivers and tools and demonstrate the click.  Then they "solve" the clicking with a sledgehammer.  Admittedly the clicking noise did stop, however I think they should've specified their requirements a bit clearer!)

In my stumbling, I came across anecdotal reports of cooling a HDD to "fix" it.  Various reasons were given (and another youtube video of a HDD in a block of ice, which I doubt was very successful.) 

The "Fix" 

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I stuck the drive in the freezer (in it's USB housing for good measure).  An hour later I pulled it out, ran downstairs & plugged it into the Windows Home Server.

The power turned on, the drive spun up, then a "click".... then more clicks, the normal soft clattering of heads moving normally!  I ran upstairs to the desktop and told WHS to find the drive... and it did!  Freezing the drive did something to make it work.

There are numerous suggestions on how to cool off the drive.  Some people suggested using a baggie to keep condensation from it (not sure how that works since there'd still be air... and moisture... in the baggie).  I didn't bother, and the thin layer of frost was a bit freaky.  Other people ran cables out the freezer door so the drive could stay cold.  Since the server's downstairs that's pretty inconvenient, so again I didn't bother.  I figured I'd worry about that if it heated up and died, but it's been copying files for several hours now (it takes a long time to copy a terabyte), so I guess it was the initial "spin up the drive" that was causing my problems.

So why's it work?  I have no clue.  Some speculation on the web was weak connections that somehow got happier.  I know electricity's happier conducting at lower temperatures, so maybe there's a thin wire or connection somewhere that got just enough more electrons through it.  Or maybe a mechanical problem was overcome by shrinking the parts (most things shrink when they get cold).  Or maybe even an electrical connection was mechanically fixed by shrinking.  Who knows.  Again, I don't recommend anyone do this to their drive, but I was pretty happy it worked as a last resort.

It's a bit disconcerting that the drive failed after only a week or two.  I'm guessing the server spun down the drive sometime and then it failed to spin up again.  I assume I was pretty unlucky and there was a weak part somewhere that made it past the initial test.

Windows Home Server Recovery 

Since the drive's "back", it's a little easier, but it would've been about the same anyway.  I put in the new drive, then I told WHS to remove the dead drive (which wasn't dead then).  Then WHS copies all the stuff off of the removed drive to other drives.  If I hadn't frozen it, same thing, 'cept the lost data would've been missing.  So any duplicates or originals on that drive would've been recreated on the new drive or another drive.  Obviously anything I didn't enable duplication for that lived on the dead drive would've been lost, I'm lucky in that respect.

I wasn't very familier with how recovery would work on WHS.  Previously I had a RAID-5 system, and have off-site backups of some files, but hadn't done recovery with WHS.  There's a bunch of discussion on the web of the pros & cons of WHS's technique, but it seems to work.  It sounds like it'd be more interesting if the main drive had failed because it'd have to recreate the "tombstones," but it'd still find the other drives and recreate the file structure when the WHS was reinstalled (I don't work in WHS, so forgive me if I got something wrong here).  As a contrast, another box died last summer and I still haven't gotten it's RAID-5 array back up.  (Fortunately I was suspicious of it and most everything was copied to the WHS).


[Update: This is a bit disconcerting.  I took the defective drive back to the store, and they happily took it back.  I said it was defective, but they tested it and apparently it froze really well because it still worked.  They didn't care, they said they'd take it back anyway.  I clearly stated that it had died, dead, like bad heads, and that I'd "fixed" it by sticking it in the freezer.  They still didn't care and marked it to go back on the shelf!.  Though this drive was new, I will now never buy a HDD with a "returned, full warrenty, 5% discount" sticker on it!  It's one thing if I have to go back to the store 'cause my DVD player died, completely different to have an iffy HDD.]

Comments (3)

  1. John Cowan says:

    When you wrap something in a baggie, you make sure all the air is out before you put it in the freezer.  Otherwise it gets damaged (in the case of meat, it undergoes irreparable cellular destruction, commonly called "freezer burn").  But you’re right, no baggie is marginally better than a baggie full of air.

  2. Ed says:

    I’ve had about 50% success with this, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.  There was one time I really needed it to work and it did.  Still don’t know why it works but if it does, it can really save you.

  3. I’m at exactly 50%.  Many months ago I got a drive sent from a friend of a friend (gotta love being the "expert").  After my drive succeeded I tried the freezer trick with their drive to no avail :(.

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