The not so Hidden Danger of Electric Static Shock
It was a hot and dry day. Made more uncomfortable by a stressful and highly charged corporate meeting. There I was fiddling with my hands, squirming in my seat and dragging my shoes across the carpet floor. A classic case of a swan looking pristine but has tiny feet paddling like crazy to stay afloat.
It sounded like a miniature lighting crackle that mixed with my girlish yelp. STATIC SHOCK ! The sound sliced the silence and my air of masculinity in one fell swoop.
What is static electricity
Static charging occurs when there is friction between two materials. Electrons are dislodged from one material and transfers to the other. Imagine electrons as small sticky balls on a table. When your hands touch or rub the table, some of the sticky balls attaches to your hand. In time, you will gather more and more electrons.
On the atomic level, I’m assuming you know your atomic science basics. The rubbing or friction between materials can make some “loosely bound” electrons to leave their atoms. These fickle electrons then attach to another atom. When this happens there is electrical imbalance, the first material now has more protons and becomes positively charged. The other material which absorbed the electrons now has more of them compared to protons. This material is now negatively charged.
This imbalance of electrons will seek to be balanced, that is nature’s way. Back to my “shocking incident”, my body is negatively charged due to all the friction I generated from moving a lot. These collection of electrons stayed static until such time that I came in contact with a natural conductor – like a metal door knob. This transfer or discharge of electrons is the cause of the static shock.
Static Electricity Discharge (ESD) Damage
Computer parts like motherboards, disk drives, RAM, processors and graphics cards are susceptible to electric charge damage. Static charges as low as 10 volts to 50 volts can do irreversible damage . Due to absence of obvious physical damage, static damages are mostly unnoticed.
Computer parts with static damage may still function but will degrade in performance.
A damaged graphics card could display garbled images. Processors could crash and cause blue screens of death. System RAMs could have memory errors during tests. Disk drives with read and write errors. All could be the result of undetected static damage that in time became worse.
How Can You Avoid ESD Damage
Wear low-static clothes like cotton shirts. Avoid wool and polyester clothes. They are the closest thing to a static shock factory.
Have you seen how cats walk? They have a light step and they don’t drag their padded feet on the floor. That’s a bad example but you should get what I mean. Dragging your feet creates friction. Friction creates static electricity.
Don’t swing your arms while you walk. I know, I know.. that’s how you walk. But your flailing arms will rub against your sides which also creates friction.
Maintain the humidity of your room or where you will repair and assemble computers. When air is humid, it means it has air particles. The air particles help decrease the buildup of static electricity by acting as a conductor.
Running a humidifier or steamer will release more air particles making the air more humid. Those with asthma knows what I’m talking about.
Remove Static Electricity by Grounding
The best way to combat ESD and static shock is by grounding!
I can just let that statement stand and be done with this blog, but heck. My www.diyinternetcafe.com readers deserve better.
Truth…..I’m an Electronics and Communications engineer…but back in college, I really had a hard time with the electrical ground principle.
Diving into Google’s arms I studied this elusive (for me) electrical theory….. again.
So what is this ELECTRICAL GROUND?
Using electronics and electrical engineering terms. It is the point in a circuit that serves as a reference point or base. This point has zero voltage and is considered to be electrically neutral — neither positive or negative, right smack in between.
Moving on… An electrical flow is actually the movement of electrons from on point to another. It flows from a high resistance material or electron source to lower resistance materials or more positive end. These flowing electrons is the energy that lights up a bulb, see this example below.
You can say that electricity is like how water flows, from a high place going down. If you happen to touch a fairly strong electron flow, say a plugged electrical wire with some cladding removed. You would get an electrical shock because some of the electrons travel through you.
But! in order for the electrons to travel through you, it must flow through you ( some deep Bruce Lee type talk right there ). For it to flow through you, it must travel from a high resistance (Your body) to a lower resistance or a neutral point. If you are standing barefoot, your feet is connected to this neutral point. The electrons will flow through your body down to the ground or neutral point, shocking every cell in your body in the process.
What’s The Importance of Grounding Again?
Remember that your body can discharge stored electrons when you touch a conductive material , like a graphics card or processor (basically any computer component made from metal), damaging the component .
If you touch something that’s grounded or connected to the ground, you will discharge those electrons by letting it flow from you to the ground. Some shocking may happen, like my metal door knob incident. At least your precious GTX or Titan card is safe and that is worth the split second of pain.
You can find grounding rods, like the one on this picture which I borrowed from Wikipedia.
If your home is properly grounded (not all homes are) then touching plugged computer case should be enough to discharge static electricity.
If you are not sure if your home is grounded. You can just look for any metal material that’s partially buried or driven to the ground (like those old school metal water pipes).
Other Counter ESD Measures
These equipment are inexpensive making it a no-brainer for any technician. Add these items to your tool kit, together with these recommended tools.
Anti Static Wrist Bands
You can use an anti static wrist band. This is simply a conductive material that you wrap around your wrist and then connects to a grounded point.
If you can’t buy one. Its quite easy to build it.
The most basic build is find a long electrical wire. Get a metal bracelet like object and attach one end of the wire. wear this metal bracelet on one of your wrist.
Get the other end of the wire and attach it to a grounded object.
Usually, technicians attach this to a computer’s casing. But, if your home is not equipped with grounding this will not work.
Find a way to connect the end of this anti static wrist band to that metal water pipe!
Anti Static Bags
Newly bought computer parts are always shipped with a protective anti static bag.
Never remove them from this protected state unless you are ready to install or use them.
When storing unused components, package it first using an anti static bag
Always use anti static bags when handling computer parts.
Needless to say, Don’t throw away those anti static bags!
Wear Anti Static Gloves
Anti Static gloves are made from materials that prevent static shock discharge.
Aside from protecting components from ESD damage. These gloves are used to keep impurities like sweat or oil from contaminating your computer components.
Sweaty hand owners beware.
There are numerous ways to tag your components. Putting your finger prints all over the circuit board is not one of them
Proper Handling of Computer Parts
I still cringe when I see computer store clerks holding and handling computer parts as if they are just ordinary items for sale. Holding the item with just two fingers, thinking that minimal contact is enough protection from static shock.
Most technicians also don’t take extra precaution when repairing computers. This happens because most people do not understand how ESD works or how destructive it could be.
Unfortunately, unsafe practices are the norm. Since static damage does not immediately result in component failure, most people get away with it. They unknowingly cause irreversible damage which could rear its ugly head weeks or months, even years after the ESD. So start investing in a few anti ESD equipment and start practicing safe component handling. It’s the DIY Internet Cafe way.