Your Sneakers Can Kill Your Computer: How Static Electricity Works [MakeUseOf Explains]
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static electricityStatic electricity is the number one computer hardware killer, and its everywhere! Panic aside, if you do any work with computer components – even as simple as upgrading your memory – you need to know what static electricity is, how it can damage your PC, and how to prevent problems occurring in the first place.

What is static electricity?

Most things don’t have an electrical charge – meaning they don’t zap you when you touch them – and that’s because they have a balanced number of electrons (a negative charge) and protons (a positive charge). However, when two surfaces rub together, electrons are “scraped off” and attach to the other surface. Since some surfaces lose their electrons more easily that others, you can end up with an imbalance – when one surface has more or less electrons than it would have normally. Rubber things are particular susceptible – balloons, or sneakers – for example.

Static electrons remain on the surface of the item until they can be neutralised somehow. One common experiment for demonstrating this power is to rub a balloon against the carpet or your jumper, then make it stick against the wall – the negatively charged balloon is electro-statically “attracted” to the positive charge of the wall.

Why is it dangerous to computer hardware?

Sometimes, this electro-static charge will jump suddenly from one charged material to another – something which conducts electricity. When a human body becomes charged, this can often result in a small electrical shock when you touch someone. It also occurs on elevators – you’ve been walking around, creating an electrical charge – then you suddenly touch the metal area under the handrail. The shock is a mild discomfort, but certainly not harmful. However, if that discharge of electricity (called Electrostatic Discharge or ESD) goes to computer components, which are semi-conductors, permanent damage can occur. Even if a physical spark is not seen, smaller discharges can cause significant damage too.

Unfortunately, damage from static electricity – electrostatic discharge – is also the hardest to diagnose. Since it leaves no visible damage (at least, at the level we’re talking about), it merely presents itself as erratic behaviour – random errors – that may occur anytime, without repetition and without an obvious pattern. Your CPU may return incorrect calculations; your memory may flip certain bits and become corrupt. It may be an error that your computer can easily overcome with error checking processes that automatically correct these kind of events; or it may cause a critical blue screen of death and immediate restart. You might refer to these as gremlins in the machine, but the real demon here is often ESD.

Prevention then, is the key to avoid ESD damage.

static electricity

How can I prevent ESD damage?

The basic message to take home today is that before you touch any electrical components – computers or otherwise – you should discharge yourself of any static electrical energy. If you’re working inside your PC – upgrading or replacing parts – this can be achieved easily by wearing an anti-static wristband. These are no more than electrical conductors that “ground” you and provide an outlet for the electrical charge to dissipate. Attach the wrist band to yourself and the other end to a radiator, or to the metal computer case itself, provided it’s plugged in to the electrical supply but not actually turned on.

static electricity facts

Another method is to simply touch a radiator, though this isn’t as reliable. Remember that if your radiator isn’t right next to your PC, you’re going to be building more static electricity walking back over to your PC!

In addition, don’t wear a wooly jumper – these are really good at creating static charge with every movement.

Of course, you can’t walk around connected to a wrist strap all day though, so what above when you’re moving or carrying components and hardware? In that case, you should always use an anti-static bag. They look like this, or sometimes just a foil bag:

static electricity

Those lines you see are electrically conductive, and the conductive mesh creates what is known scientifically as a Faraday Cage. These protect anything inside the bag by absorbing (or to be more accurate, redistributing) electrical charge on the outside. You’ll know exactly how this works if you’ve ever been in a car or aeroplane that’s been hit by lighting – the huge electrical charge won’t have transferred itself to you.

I hope this has been informative for you. The trouble with explaining that static electricity is harmful to computers is that you can’t really see it, and problems may not manifest themselves for weeks, nor as anything specific. In fact, this article is probably going to get some comments along the lines of “well, I’ve never discharged myself or worn a wrist-strap, and my computer’s fine!” – but they’re wrong, and you’d be best ignoring them. The damage does occur, and it does cause problems, and you will end up with gremlins in your PC. Play carefully with hardware!

Image Credit: static power, Shutterstock; anti-static wrist strap, Shutterstock

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  1. 7e1593f85fa133f4d3a9c11ea5dfb791
    September 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    i consider myself lucky, i never knew about this and now that i think about it, it's quite a miracle that it's never happened to me considering how much i walk around when i'm fixing my computer..

  2. tom
    August 30, 2012 at 11:55 am

    if used anti static gloves instead of the wrist band would that still work

  3. Emmanuel Olalere
    August 25, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Very informative, thank you!

  4. VictorGeis
    August 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Think this is one of those things that new computer tinkerers don't think about when they open their computers. Nice article!

  5. Edward
    August 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I managed to let the smoke out of a laptop once due to ESD. In the winter especially, because it is dryer, you can get static buildup from walking on carpet. Now I spray static guard on the carpet near my desk every week or 2 ... much cheaper than a new laptop!

    • muotechguy
      August 24, 2012 at 7:24 am

      Thanks for the tip Edward, I admit I'd never heard of static guard spray for carpets before.

  6. Benjamin Glass
    August 23, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I need an antistatic wristband!

  7. steve
    August 22, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Hi thanks for this. i work with computers and this info is perfect for what I need.

  8. AP
    August 20, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Completely unaware about this fact, thanks for enlightment.

  9. elhaj
    August 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    nice article, thought a cheap and easy way to avoid static charge is to touch the metal case when working with desktops (or any metal).

    • James Bruce
      August 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      Yep, mentioned that. Though remember this will only work if the computer is actually plugged in, otherwise the case has nowhere to ground itself.

      • Amstyl Polycarpe
        August 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm

        It's actually that only one part of the article i don't like at all: "...provided it’s plugged in to the electrical supply...".

        • James Bruce
          August 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm

          Not sure what you mean - why dont you like that part? Plugging it in means it will correctly act as an earth/ground. Provided the physical power switch is off, there is no danger.

        • Amstyl Polycarpe
          August 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm

          I've always heard that the first thing to do before working inside a PC is to disconnect it from electrical supply.

        • James Bruce
          August 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm

          That's probably not bad advice in general when dealing with anything electrical, but unless the power supply is faulty, you're unlikely to run into problems.

  10. Achraf52
    August 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    People should know that any Silicon chip is perfectly made and any slight change made in it would affect it's performance .

  11. Ravi Lamontagne
    August 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    I have heard of this problem before but never new how serious the problem was.

  12. GrrGrrr
    August 20, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Very informative article. Thanks

  13. josemon maliakal
    August 20, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Thats a nice one :)

  14. Ashwin Ramesh
    August 20, 2012 at 4:28 am

    nice article :)

  15. Ed Menje
    August 20, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Silk is also a major esd creator. I read a story recently about failures of computers at an assembly plant being tracked down to a couple of assemblers who were in the habit of wearing silk boxers. As assembly workers they should have known better how to protect against esd and damaging computer components before they even left the plant.

  16. Kaashif Haja
    August 20, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Heard about ESD previously!
    Thanks for the info about the preventive measures....

  17. Kylee Kanavas
    August 20, 2012 at 12:58 am

    Stuff like this helps the longevity of my computer, thanks sooo much!!!

  18. Kris
    August 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    My buddies always laughed at me that when I got new electronic part for my computer I would keep the little bag. And if it was an item I had to carry around with me I would put it back in that bag and then into the laptop case. Still using ancient parts. Who's laughing now ;) thanks for this post.

    • Shakirah Faleh Lai
      August 20, 2012 at 2:17 am

      Yeah, a great way to reuse that little bag. I don't throw the away too.

  19. Dan Valentin
    August 19, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Good pointed!I use the anti-static wristband in case of repairs and the anti-static bag for parts when i move them from place to place or for storing.I like explanations like well structured and explained.Thank you Bruce for remembering.