How to store hard drives safely

As you may imagine, as a data-hoarder, I’ve owned dozens, if not hundreds of hard drives over the years. Each time one of my hard drives reaches capacity, its contents are copied to a new drive, and the old drive is removed from the computer. I’ve mentioned in the past that I don’t like to throw my old hard drives away, prompting questions from readers about how I store them safely.

As a general rule, hard drives should be stored in such a way that they’re protected from static, moisture, vibrations, shocks, and magnetic fields. One way to accomplish this is to store your hard drive in an anti-static bag, inside a hard plastic storage box.

If you just have the odd hard drive to store at home, then this is fairly straightforward. If like me, however, you have many hard drives that you need to keep safe, then things become a little more tricky. For those who need to take their hard drives with them on the road, extra thought is needed to make sure the drives are protected from the extra vibration, shock, and all the other harmful elements.

What do hard drives need to be protected from?

Before we can fully understand how to protect our hard drives whilst in storage, we need to appreciate what we’re protecting them from. In no particular order, below are the five main enemies of hard drives.

Static Electricity

Modern hard drives are complex electronic devices and as such rely on a number of semiconductors, including many integrated circuits (IC’s). In case you’re not aware, should static electricity come into contact with these electronic components, it is known to often permanently damage them. This isn’t unique to hard drives by any means and many other computer components (motherboards, memory modules, expansion cards, etc) as susceptible to damage from static electricity.

When you buy a new hard drive, you’ll find that it will ship inside a protective anti-static bag. The anti-static bag is usually plastic in appearance, but often with a shiny metallic appearance to it. I always keep these bags to re-use when I’m ready to either retire the hard drive or move it to another location. In case you’ve disposed of the bad that your hard drive originally came in, they’re easy to find online and you can purchase them for pennies.

Moisture

Many electronic devices are prone to damage should they come into contact with moisture or water, especially if they’re powered on before being completely dried out. What makes hard drives especially prone to moisture damage is that they’re in essence intricate mechanical devices. When you power on a hard drive, you’ll hear its motor physically spinning up. When you read from or write to your hard drive, if you listen carefully, you’ll perhaps hear the sound of the head scurrying back and forth, seeking a precise location on the hard drive’s platters. If moisture or water is allowed to come into contact with a hard drive, even for a relatively short period of time, there’s a real risk that rust or corrosion will begin to form on the mechanical components within the drive. Hard drives need to operate with such precision (especially nowadays with their huge storage capacities) that even a small amount of surface rust or corrosion on their motor or head will completely stop the drive from functioning.

Vibration

Many years ago, before turning off your computer, you needed to issue a command to your hard drive to instruct it to “park” its head. This would tell the hard drive to lift the read/write head off from the disk platter and move it to a designated, safe “parking space”, known as the landing zone. Failure to do this would mean that if the drive was subject to any small vibration or movement, there was a real risk the drive’s head would crash into its platter. As you can imagine, this was often a costly mistake to make, sometimes destroying the hard drive entirely. Fortunately, technology has moved on, and nowadays, modern hard drives will automatically park their head without being told to do so. With that said, hard drives are still intricate mechanical components and it’s good practice to avoid subjecting them to prolonged vibration where possible. In case you’re storing some really old drives, I would recommend avoiding all vibrations to be safe, and getting your data off them as soon as possible!

Shock

If a hard drive is subjected to shock or impact whilst it is running, there’s a very high chance the drive’s heads will crash into its platters, causing damage to both components. As we’re concerned with the correct storage of your hard drives, this is less of a concern for us. Whilst some shock to the drive whilst it is powered off is less likely to cause the head to crash, there’s still the possibility of damage. If for example, you were to drop your unprotected hard drive from a height of several feet, you’d be very lucky indeed if it continued to function without issue.

Bubblewrap, protective foam, or dedicated storage cases can all help protect your drives against shock. We’ll explore your options later on as they’re going to depend on your use case.

Magnetic Fields

You’re probably aware that hard drives rely on magnetism to store your data safely. As the platters inside your hard drive spin around, a mechanical head travels back and forward over them. This mechanical head employs an electromagnet that can magnetise or demagnetise tiny areas of the platter to indicate whether they should represent a binary “1” or “0”. These binary digits of course form part of your precious data. It should be fairly obvious that bringing a magnet into close proximity to your hard drives risks the magnetic properties of the platter changing, thus destroying or severely damaging the data they hold.

Modern hard drives employ steel or aluminium casings, designed to shield the internal components from external magnetic forces. There’s only so much the casing of the hard drive can protect from, however, so it’s up to us to be careful when storing our drives to be sure they can’t come into contact with strong magnetic fields.

Storing your hard drives at home or another fixed location

If you’re just looking to store your hard drives at your home, office, or other static location then we don’t need to make things too complicated. As long as we can protect your hard drives from the elements listed above, we should be in the clear. Whilst there are special storage cases and storage solutions for hard drives, these aren’t really necessary and we can safely improvise.

I would recommend doing the following when putting your hard drives into storage at home:

Place each hard drive into an individual anti-static bag

This will prevent the hard drive’s components from being harmed by any build-up and discharge of static electricity. If you don’t have the original anti-static bag that the drive shipped in, then order some online. They are very inexpensive and will save you headaches down the road.

Inside each anti-static bag, place a small desiccant silica gel packet

These small sachets help to absorb any small amounts of moisture that may be present in the atmosphere. By attracting this moisture, they prevent it from settling on the metallic components of your hard drive and thus help prevent rust and oxidisation from forming. When you purchase new electronics, you’ll often find they ship with a small silica gel sachet for this very reason. I tend to save these sachets to re-use when storing my hard drives away. If you don’t have any of these, they too are very inexpensive to purchase, especially over the Internet.

Seal the anti-static bag and wrap it in bubblewrap

I always seal the antistatic bag using electrical insulation tape. This provides a little extra protection, helping to prevent moisture and static electricity from entering through the open end of the anti-static bag. If you don’t have electrical tape to hand then it’s not the end of the world. Any decent tape (Scotch tape, Duck tape, etc) will suffice.

Once the bag is sealed, I then wrap it in bubble wrap, making sure each side has around three or four layers for protection. I then tape the bubblewrap tightly in place.

Place the bubble-wrapped drive into a plastic storage box

Once my hard drives have been wrapped, I like to place them into a stackable plastic storage box. The size of the box you use is of course going to depend on the number of drives you need to store. If it’s just one or two, then a small storage box the size of a shoebox is going to be fine. If you have a number of drives then a larger box will be needed. I would advise against storing more than around 12 3.5″ drives in a single box. The reason for this is that the weight can become quite significant and 12 drives fit nicely into a 20L storage box, allowing the lid to shut.

Storing your hard drives for transit

If you need to store your hard drives whilst you’re on the road (perhaps you’re a sound engineer touring with a band, for example) then it would be wise to invest in a flight or cargo case with a proper foam insert. You can buy rugged flight cases that will protect your drives from everything we’ve mentioned above, in addition to dust. As you may expect, they can be quite expensive so you’ll need to decide how much your hard drives mean to you and whether or not there’s a better alternative to keep your data on hand. If you decide you need a protective case, I can highly recommend the “Pelican” brand.

Backing up your data before putting your hard drives into storage

In the past, some readers have jokingly complained that I can’t write an article without talking about backups. Well, I’m afraid this is going to be one of those articles. I can’t stress enough, the importance of keeping a backup of your precious data. Even if you follow all the advice in this article around storing your hard drives, sadly there are no guarantees. You could pull out a drive in six months, or six years and find that you can’t read from it. Perhaps some mechanical component has seized up or perhaps some semiconductor has decided to mysteriously fail. Remember, before you put any hard drives away for storage, make sure you have a viable backup. Ideally, you want two additional backup copies of any precious data. The 3-2-1 backup rule states that you should always have three copies of your data, across two different mediums, one of which is in another physical location. For example, if we say that the hard drives you are putting into storage are the primary copy of your data, then perhaps you’d want a second copy of your data on external hard drives, and the third copy of your data in the cloud.

Protecting your hard drives from fire, flood and theft

One aspect we haven’t yet touched upon is the risk that your drives could be lost to fire, flooding or theft. If possible, once your hard drives are wrapped up and protected, you want to store them in a fireproof safe. Depending on how many hard drives you intend to store, I realise this might not be feasible. If you don’t have a safe and can’t get one, then please remember the importance of backups and be prepared to lose your original drives in the event of a disaster.

Summary

I hope you’ve found this quick article useful and hopefully, it’ll help keep your stored hard drives safe for years to come. In brief, we looked at the major threats to face any hard drive in storage. We covered some options for safely storing your hard drives at home or in the office, and then finally storage options for transporting hard drives. As usual, we touched upon the importance of backing up your important data and the need to employ the 3-2-1 backup strategy. Happy data hoarding people!

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