Fixing Hard Disk Drive Access Problems (Clicking Noises)

Hard Drive Failure Scenario

Maintaining a rather large digital audio library (greater than 200,000 recordings of songs, comedy skits, and old time radio shows), built over fifteen years, I’m quite anal about keeping current backups.  So, the backup strategy in this case involves six 1.5 TB external Seagate FreeAgent USB hard disk drives (HDDs), and keeping a current full copy of the library on each drive, and then storing each hard drive in separate places.  Periodic syncing is done, to assure that al drives have the same files and file versions.


The Problem

However, over the years, many of the HDDs have exhibited the same symptoms of failure.  It matters not whether the HDD is SCSI, IDE/PATA, SATA, or any of these types, hidden inside a USB enclosure.  The difficulty occurs no matter which data interface is used.  When accessed, they emit a repeated clicking sound (tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick), like a lumbering  grandfather’s clock, struggling to keep the correct time.  And, while clicking, any program you’re running that try accessing the affected HDD hangs, waiting for the requested data to come.  Frequently, after several seconds, the clicking stops, and the data is read normally, and once it warms up, the HDD thereafter performs flawlessly.  Accessing some files exacerbates this erratic behavior more than others.  Some files cannot be completely read at all, while others read perfectly every time.


Cautions and Warnings

  • Back up the HDD first, before doing anything.  If the clicking drive contains data you need to save, be sure to copy it to another drive before proceeding with the solution steps below.  The steps that involve reformatting the HDD will make inaccessible any data stored on the clicker.  Also, even if you are just swapping power supplies and / or data cables, there is a remote possibility that the drive becomes corrupt, and should that happen, you’ll be happy that you took the time to perform a complete backup.
  • Avoid static electricity while handling the drive.  Be careful handling the drive, especially around its data ports, power connectors, and any exposed printed circuits.  One snap of static electricity at any of these places can destroy the drive.


Possible Solutions

  • Replace Faulty Power Supplies.   If the HDD is used in a disk drive case or external enclosure, check the accompanying power supply adapter for correct voltages, to within 5% tolerance.  So if the supply specifies its output to be 12 volts, then you should read no more than 12.6 volts and no less than 11.4 volts (plus or minus five percent).  Note that some drives, particularly the internal ones, can require several voltages (plus or minus twelve volts, and plus or minus five volts).  Verify correct values on these lines as well.  Try a more accurate power supply if read voltages fall outside of tolerance.
  • Verify proper software operation.  Power up the drive, but leave the data connector disconnected.  If the HDD clicks again and again, then the problem is likely in the drive itself exclusively, and does not depend on any external software to trigger it.  This means that your installed programs and apps are probably not to blame.
  • Test the drive, away from strong sources of electrical interference.  EMI (electromagnetic interference) and RFI (radio frequency interferences) can trigger unreliable HDD operation.  So, try moving the disk drive away from sources of said interference, such as computers, switching power supplies, brush motors which can arc inside and generate significant radio hash, fluorescent lights, televisions, cell phones, wifi access points — any device that might generate unwanted signals.
  • Verify that the HDD is not overheating.  Note that hard disk drives normally operate at temperatures high enough to cause some discomfort when you touch them; especially after they’ve been running for an hour or so.  So it can be hard to tell if the drive, which normally runs hot anyway, is actually overheating when it clicks.  So, just make sure that there’s plenty of air circulating around the drive.  Many computer cases and external drive enclosures feature circulating fans to bring in a constant supply of cool air from the outside.  Verify that these are all functioning properly and that any provided vents are not blocked.  However, persistent clicking after these measures are taken, means that your problem is likely not thermal in nature.
  • Try the HDD in a different drive enclosure.  If the problematic disk drive resides in a USB drive enclosure, keep in mind that these housings also contain electronics to convert one data cable format into another.  E.g. USB to IDE or SATA to PATA.  Though rare, these electronic components can fail, leading to drive clicking, low data throughput, and other symptoms of severely reduced performance.  So, try moving a drive to a different but known-good enclosure, or better yet, try connecting the HDD to your computer via its native data interface.  If it’s a SATA HDD, use a SATA or eSATA cable to interface it with your PC.  If the clicking persists in either scenario, then the problem is NOT the drive enclosure.
  • Check and replace any faulty cables and connectors.  Loose connectors, or broken wires in strain relief tubes can cause erratic power and data transfers between HDDs and computer devices.  If this occurs during sustained read / write operations, while many megabytes of data are passing across the cable, drive clicking and poor performance can result.  So, it’s always a good idea to keep some spare USB, SATA, SCSI, USB, and internal power cables handy.  With these, depending on the type of HDD you have, you can swap out the various cables to verify proper cable operation.  If the problem persists when each cable is substituted for a known-good one, then the cause of the drive clicking is probably NOT a bad cable.  On the other hand, if it clears up, pitch the bad cable, order yourself a new spare, and consider yourself lucky.
  • Try quick formatting the HDD.  In the Windows operating system, you can either fully- or quick-format an attached disk drive.  If the cause of the clicking happens to be a corrupt file system on the disk, this step will create a new, and presumably non corrupt file system to replace the old, faulty one.  A quick format, even for a multiple terabyte drive, takes just minutes, whereas a complete format can take well over a day to finish.  In either case, we recommend formatting with NTFS (New Technology File System), which is the Windows default, as it is less likely to break in the future than the older FAT32 file system.
  • Try fully formatting the disk drive.  However, if the clicking problem persists, you will have to perform and exhaustive disk formatting; a procedure that forces writing into every sector on the disk.  For the more advanced HDDs that remember and hide any bad sectors that they discover during operation, a full formatting forces the disk hardware to test each sector and mark it as faulty, thus preventing use of that sector in the future.  So, full formatting is a way to flush out and exclude damaged disk sectors from future reads and writes.  Sometimes the clicking can result when the drive attempts to write and read bad sectors, and so, by eliminating them from the available pool of sectors, you reduces the chances, once the drive is completely formatted, that you’ll encounter bad sectors again.  Thus, the possibility of clicking and failed read/write operations diminishes.

However, if none of the above recommendations solves your poorly performing HDD, the drive may have suffered internal mechanical or electronics hardware damage, or may have been exposed to strong magnetic fields which erased some of the low-level formatted information on its magnetic platters.  In either case, your best bet is to replace the HDD, given how inexpensive they’ve become in recent years.  Low-level formatting may be possible, particularly in older HDDs.  But this procedure is different for each brand of drive, and is therefore, beyond the scope of this article.




Revision History

  • 2017-01-24: Updated tag list.
  • 2015-12-22: Added more appropriate tags.
  • 2015-10-05: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2015-05-30: Originally published.