Will the cold kill my hard drive?
January 10, 2009 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Will 20 minutes at -20 kill my external hard drive?

I have a Maxtor external hard drive that I use both at work and home. On occasion I have to walk to/from work, which takes about 20 minutes. It's cold here ... it'll be -20C when I leave this evening.

a) Is the cold bad for it in general? While I drive or get a ride whenever I can, there are days when walking is unavoidable. Am I better to leave it at work and pick it up next time I have the car?

b) If I leave it to warm up before using, will it be ok? Walking home it's not much of an issue as I don't usually use it until the next day.

c) However ... What about days when I have to walk to work and need to use it relatively soon after arriving? Will 20 minutes at room temperature be enough to let it warm up?

d) I typically carry it in my backpack where it is obviously exposed to the cold. I've considered carrying it in an inside coat pocket but am concerned the moisture from perspiration would be worse for it than the cold.
posted by valleys to Computers & Internet (18 answers total)
Not in my experience. It's been -40 here lately. I've left my drive in the car overnight. I let it warm up before I tried it, but it's been working fine.

Can't speak to using it right away though.
posted by ODiV at 12:11 PM on January 10, 2009

If you don't get any definitive answers I can chuck a spare 40gb outside for the night and see how it does when I fire it up right away in the morning.
posted by ODiV at 12:13 PM on January 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

I believe the real threat is the temperature change and condensation from this.
posted by zippy at 12:14 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a Maxtor external HDD that has regularly been exposed to colder temperatures for longer times, and I've never had a problem with it, even using it within minutes of arriving indoors. I feel a little silly because I never once thought about the effects of the cold, but I've had the drive through 3 winters now and it still works great.
posted by chudmonkey at 12:16 PM on January 10, 2009

Put it in a ziplock bag and then put it in your inside coat pocket.
posted by demon666 at 12:19 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

This hard drive specification (not yours, but probably similar) lists the "Non-Operating Temperature" as –40°C to 65°C so I think it'll be fine.
posted by JonB at 12:30 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Think of all the people who walk around outside with their iPods in their backpacks. What is an iPod but an external hard drive?
posted by bondcliff at 12:33 PM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Electronics LIKE cold temperatures. People spend a lot of money on cooling equipment to keep them low. Should be better than fine.
posted by spatula at 12:46 PM on January 10, 2009

As zippy says, it'll be condensation if anything that will kill the drive; but a hard disk is pretty airtight and won't have water vapour in it.

The disk itself should also generate enough heat to keep it quite a few degrees above the ambient temperature.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:52 PM on January 10, 2009

The real issue that it will take a couple hours for it to reach room temperature. When I receive shipments of electronics at work during the winter I always let them sit 3-6 hours. Spinning that up when its near frozen can be very unhealthy for it. If you let it acclimatize itself you should be okay, but I would do diskcheck/smart diagnostics on it once in a while to make sure that bad sectors arent piling up.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:10 PM on January 10, 2009

Nthing that the problem is the temperature change, and any condensation, not the low temperature itself.

Also, if it's in the middle of a backpack for 20 minutes, it's not going to have enough time to cool all the way to -20.
posted by hattifattener at 1:20 PM on January 10, 2009

@Spatula: Not all electronics. CPUs and GPUs are what people spend money to cool, as it lets them overclock them. Hard drives, however, are full of small mechanical parts which are carefully calibrated and delicate. The cold could, in theory, screw that up thanks to thermal expansion or condensation.

However, I think the drive would be fine. It's designed to handle shipping in cold weather as well, so this is a non-issue. If you can wait for it to warm up, do it, but it's probably unnecessary.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:04 PM on January 10, 2009

As others have noted hard drives love cold weather. My media server has never been happier than when it lived in a 50F degree cellar.

Your drive won't drop down to the -20 ambient temp during your walk. It will get cold, but not as cold as the air temp. If you're really worried about it, buy a cheap insulated soft side lunch bag at your local big box grocery store and put it in there. For $10 you'll have a pretty perfectly sized insulated bag to put the drive it, that'll minimize the temp swings greatly.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 2:04 PM on January 10, 2009

Your drive will not drop to anywhere near -20C in 20 minutes in your backpack. That said, I'd be bit careful if you leave the drive out in cold weather for a long period of time. I've seen bad things happen to a laptop (presumably the hard drive) when it was booted up a couple minutes after being brought inside from -20C temperatures (but it had been out all night). If it is really cold, give it a little time to warm up.
posted by ssg at 2:37 PM on January 10, 2009

Let it warm up for while once inside. And if you are worried, or want to use it faster. Find a way to put it in your coat, body heat will keep it nice and warm. (the cables and stuff can go in a bag, they are far less fragile to cold)
posted by OwlBoy at 2:46 PM on January 10, 2009

It will be fine from my experience. I would let it sit for about 5 minutes before operating it though as going from very cold to very warm could cause condensation.
posted by zephyr_words at 4:00 PM on January 10, 2009

Since no one else's mentioned it, the best way to assuage you worries is, of course, by backing up. Set up your computer to rsync or otherwise backup your drive to another while you work, and at worst you'll be out a hard drive if it freezes to death.

To just point to the HD specs that JonB posted, though, while it lists the non-operating temperature range as –40°C to 65°C, the operating temperature range is only 5°C to 55°C, so it is probably safest to let the drive warm up for a bit before you use it.
posted by closetpacifist at 7:32 PM on January 10, 2009

Thanks for all the answers. Guess I'll not worry about it as much, but will continue to let it warm up before using when possible ... and yes, will make sure it's backed up regularly.
posted by valleys at 7:45 AM on January 11, 2009

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