What does “waterproof” really mean for gadgets?

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The last time we took the dogs to the local park and beach, it was only natural that we took them in the water to give them a cool down.

But wait, there was an iPhone 6S in my pocket, which wouldn’t have ended well, and that gets you wondering: why doesn’t everything device have water resistance, and what does “waterproof” even mean when you’re talking about electronics, things that normally break when water touches them?

IP ratings, and what water resistance really means

You’ve probably seen the term “IP” in places, but what does this really mean, and how does it relate to the world of gadgets?

To put it bluntly, the letter “IP” when attached to numbers stand for “Ingress Protection”, and this is a rating and code as it applies to products based on if elements can find their way inside.

The rating is specified and published by the International Electrotechnical Commission, and essentially it’s an international standard for proofing products against dust and water, with the two numbers to the right of the “IP” relating to that.

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The first number you’ll see is about dust, with zero (0) being no protection, and numbers one (1) through five (5) being about certainly level of protection, while six (6) is dust tight.

An IP rating’s second number is about liquids, with a rating of zero (0) being no protection once again, and the ratings one (1) through to nine (9) relating to the varying levels of protection.

In both of these, the higher the number, the more resistance, and that’s the crux of what you need to know.

If you see “IP68”, the product is fairly resistant, being dust-proof and built for up to three metres of liquid immersion, while a rating of “IPx8” technically means proofed and tested for that water rating of eight (8), while its dust proofing might not have been specifically tested.

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Now that you know what the IP ratings mean, you need to understand that the testing for these gadgets is done with “freshwater” or “clearwater”, what most of us know as standard tap water.

That’s the standard stuff, with no extra bottles or chemicals here. IP tests also aren’t done with super spiffy arrives-in-blue-glass-bottles water, so don’t expect the teams working with their tests to be situated next to the Evian water facility, because you don’t need special spring or mineral water to do water testing.

Basic standard water is what they’re testing for, which is pretty much the same stuff that comes down in the rain, which might be one of the main reasons the devices are tested this way.

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Unfortunately, sea water and pool water is not part of the testing, and just like how people believe Gorilla Glass is drop proof, so too people believe that a waterproof phone or tablet should be proofed against liquid ingression in the ocean or a pool as well.

It’s probably not the fault of the regular consumer, either: almost every water-resistant gadget advertises its existence with people swimming, which we naturally view as swimming in whatever is familiar to us at the time.

If the water on the advertisement is extra blue or light blue, there’s a good chance we’ll see that as a pool, and if the water is a little greener or there are rocks and sand around it, we’ll view that as the beach.

Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. We’ve all done it, and this year, companies like Sony have even decided to make the marketing material a little clearer, because if you’re communicating to the general public that you have a waterproof gadget, you need to say when it isn’t waterproof.

So when is a waterproof gadget not exactly waterproof?

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Water versus water

A waterproof gadget isn’t necessarily waterproof when the tests it is rated “waterproof” in are made for freshwater alone, and many of us opt to take in other types of water.

Just think about that for a moment.

In your life, there are numerous kinds of water.

You have ordinary tap and sink water, which is freshwater or clearwater, and this is generally what flows in your house, whether from the kitchen tap or faucet, or even when you flush the toilet.

You might have mineral water or soda water, which is like clearwater, but contains a level of carbonation, whether natural or injected.

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And then you have other waters, like that in the pool.

Pool water is water, but it frequently has chlorine in it to keep the water safe and clean. It’s not safe to drink — you know that — but it works wonders when you’re holding water in a giant tub for long periods of time.

Oh, and since 96.5 percent of the Earth is water, it’s worth recognising that ocean water is salty, particularly so, and Australia is completely surrounded by it on every side.

When you go swimming, there’s a good chance that you’ll be out in the water with either chlorinated or salty water, too, and it is these chemicals — these extra bits — that IP ratings can’t really test for, and that comes down to one basic factor: time.

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Liquid ingression — when liquid tries to invade and force its way past a fencing or barrier of some sort — is something that can be easily tested for, and depth and pressure play a big part of this. The deeper you go, the more pressure exists, and so devices have to be built differently to handle these rigours.

Time also plays a part, however, because after a while, the water-resistant nano-coatings can break down, so IP ratings have general guides as for what you can do. The guides are mostly that, so don’t call them wrong if you get one hour instead of thirty minutes of protection in freshwater.

But dealing with salt water and pool water aren’t the only situations where you’re dealing with liquid ingression.

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You also have to factor in chemical adherence, because if a gadget is dipped in freshwater, you’re not leaving any chemicals on the body, but if it’s dipped in sea water or chlorinated water, you could be leaving salt or chlorine, respectively, as well as other impurities that may do harm.

They’re not likely to break the screen, either, though salt can definitely leave crystals on glass.

Rather, it’s the other components you have to worry about, with salt water able to corrode various metals, leading to rust and breakdown of components. Chlorination can do similar things, and so pools and oceans aren’t necessarily the friendliest places for water resistant devices.

There may, however, be an easy fix if you get so-called “waterproof” gadgets wet with the wrong sort of water.

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