Electronics in cold weather

Yesterday the temperatures were at -28 degrees Celsius in southern Finland. That’s really cold. This is so cold that is starts to cause problems in all sorts of devices. I had problems in starting my car. The battery felt weak. I planned to measure the voltage in it with a multimeter I have in my car, but that was also had problems with cold weather: the display (LCD) did not seem to display any readable number and display showed symbol that battery was too weak. Things got working again when they heated to more normal operating temperatures. Based on that cold experience I put together some material on electronics in cold.

5 Ways You Can Protect Your Tech Gadgets from the Cold Weather article tells that cold weather can not only affect you personally but it can also adversely affect your electronics as well. Cold weather can ruin your electronics and tech gadgets if you do not take precautions in the freezing temperatures. Don’t keep electronic devices hidden in car trunks, especially: laptops or desktop computers, digital cameras, MP3 music players, game systems or hard drive-based video recorders. How cold weather can affect electronics article says that leaving your laptop/notebook computer in your vehicle overnight is not really a good idea, and I can agree on that. Cold can and does affect the LCD screen and disk drive.

Some tips on electronics in cold:

  • Most electronic components are not damaged by ‘normal’ cold temperatures. -20C is not in itself a problem.
  • Condensation can be a problem, if the temperature cycles between warm and cold with humidity.
  • Batteries lose capacity in cold (battery powered devices might not work in the cold)
  • Some materials will become brittle, and some things could crack from the expansion and contraction
  • Normal electronic components (ICs, resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes etc.) do not crack from the expansion and contraction on “normal” cold temperatures

There are three main standard temperature ranges for the operating range of components:

  • Commercial grade: 0 °C to 70 °C (sometimes −10 °C to 70 °C)
  • Industrial grade: −40 °C to 85 °C (sometimes −25 °C to 85 °C)
  • Military grade: −55 °C to 125 °C (sometimes -65 °C to 175 °C)

I wouldn’t expect any permanent damage from going a bit out of that range, and odds are it won’t even malfunction, though it’s probably outside the operating temperature range the back of the manual will give you. Usually battery capacity will be greatly reduced, LCDs will respond slowly and poorly and quick temperature changes could cause mechanical stress or condensation both of which are bad. Writing to flash memory gets difficult at low temperatures: it’s slower and it wears out the flash faster. The main CPU and many other ICs in typical PC actually work better when they are cold (running components at very cold temperatures is trick that many over-clockers use).

Storage temperature ranges will be outside the given usage temperature range. Most components you see on every day electronics will either be commercial or industrial grade. If the actual storage temperature is outside the operating temperature, but within the storage temperature range, then all should be well.

In general, for most electronics it should be fine to store them in cold weather, but you need to be careful. What you need to worry about is condensation when you take them out of storage. One of the worst things is condensation that happens when you warm up cold electronics. The trick is that you’re supposed to let electronics warm up to room temperature and then some before turning them on. The recommended time is about 4 hours. The reason for this is that when you take a warm item into cold air moisture can create condensation on the item. This water can cause a short in the electronics. In below freezing weather that condensation can then freeze, so when you bring an item in from freezing cold you need to give the condensation time to melt and then evaporate before turning on the item.

In some rare cases cold weather can play havoc on solder joints and can cause rust and cracking of circuit boards from condensation.

Design electronics for cold environments article tells that engineers shouldn’t get frightened by designing circuits that must work at low temperatures. There are hundreds of low-temp circuits operating in the field. Usually the main challenge becomes finding components for low-temp use. There exists no large market for them, so most companies don’t specify components for low temperatures. Designers typically purchase semiconductors and test them at low temperature to find the ones that work.

4 Comments

  1. Richard says:

    The minimum design temperature for solar array outboard transistors for the first satellite power system I designed in the 70′s was -90 deg C.
    http://heasarc.nasa.gov/docs/heasarc/missions/td-1a.html

    Reply
  2. Alexosipov says:

    Profis und anspruchsvolle Amateure lockt Nikon mit der neuen D600 gleichermaßen: Eine Vollformat-DSLR unter 2.000 Euro, Mehr infos gibt es hier Nikon-online.info

    Reply
  3. Janet Myers says:

    We are going be traveling this winter, but I can’t take my computer. It will be inside of a mobile home and wrapped up in a blanket. Do you think it will be alright?

    Reply
    • Tomi Engdahl says:

      What is expected to be the expected tempearature range on the mobile home when your computer is there?
      Is it going to be cold or will there be some heating….

      Will the comuter be powered on or powered off during that time?

      Computer turned off and wrapped up in blanket does not do much help in the long run.
      When your computer is wrapped in blanket, it will become same temperature as the air around it
      in hours to few days. If tempeature is changing over different times a day, blanket can keep
      computr temperature more stable.

      Reply

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