Static electricity can give you a shocking surprise (sorry!) when touching a doorknob or light switch. If you’re building a PC, however, the consequences can be a lot worse than your hair frizzing up a little. In fact, if you’re not careful, you could do serious damage to your most important computer parts.
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That sounds like something you’d like to avoid, right? Fortunately, we’ve got some tips to help you banish static discharge from your PC building workspace. Let’s start with the basics: understanding how static electricity works and why static discharge happens.
What Is Static Electricity?
The proper scientific name for the phenomenon we call static electricity is electrostatic discharge (ESD). Basically, it’s what happens when positively and negatively charged objects come into contact, causing loose electrons to jump from one object to the other. The result is an electric discharge that often produces a spark.
Let’s look at a classic example: the spark that occasionally happens when you touch a doorknob. Typically, this happens because your body or clothing has built up a static charge. Common things most of us do, such as walking on a carpet in socks, can cause your body’s electrical potential to change as it gains or loses electrons. When you touch a conductive material (such as a metal doorknob) with different electrical potential, the result is a nasty little zap.
Not all ESD is so harmless. Lightning, for example, is a large-scale form of electrostatic discharge that happens when a cloud and the ground (or a cloud and the air) have different electrical potentials. Keep that thought in mind as we move on to discuss the effects that static electricity can have on your PC parts.
Why Is Static Discharge Bad for Some Computer Components?
Much as a lightning strike can be devastating for electronics without a surge protector, ESD can produce an extremely powerful electric current inside sensitive computer equipment that’s not designed to handle it. Computer components like the motherboard are delicate and operate at specific voltages that shouldn’t be exceeded. (Speaking of which, you did use a PC builder to check that your power supply is electrically compatible with all of your components, right?)
By and large, today’s electronic components are much better protected against static discharge than previous generations were. Motherboards and other sensitive items typically include ESD capacitors that allow them to absorb a few errant electrons without harming the components. That said, ESD is an unpredictable phenomenon, and it’s always smart to do what you can to avoid it — especially when those precautions are as easy as the ones we’ll talk about up ahead!
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Preventing Static Discharge When Building a PC
So, if you’d like to avoid frying your motherboard with a sudden blast of electricity from your body, what precautions can you take to avoid it? Here are the four most important steps to take:
- Build in an environment with minimal static discharge risk.
The simplest way to avoid static discharge is to build your PC in an area where you won’t have to worry about it as much. Ideally, the floor should be made from a hard, non-conductive material like wood, tile or concrete. Your building surface should also be something non-static — basically, nothing metal and nothing with cloth or upholstery.
Finally, remember that certain clothes can cause static discharge, so avoid sweaters, sweatshirts and outerwear in general. In general, more clothing means more chances for static, so a minimal outfit like a t-shirt and pants is the best choice. Finally, be aware that all of these precautions are more important the drier and cooler the air is. If you live in a cold and/or arid climate, or even if you’re just running a dehumidifier in your home, the risk of static discharge can increase considerably.
- Use an anti-static wristband or mat.
If you want to maximize protection against static discharge, or you don’t have a space without carpet or rugs on the floor, an anti-static wristband or mat could be the solution you need. These accessories are built to dissipate static electricity safely through their attached grounding clips, which you should attach to an unpainted metal surface.
For those who just want quick and affordable protection for their PC build project, an anti-static wristband is typically enough and costs only a few dollars. However, if you plan on doing more PC projects in the future, an anti-static mat is a smart investment that will give you years of ESD protection for your computer parts.
- Keep sensitive components in anti-static bags until you’re ready to use them.
Sensitive components like your RAM and motherboard will normally come in anti-static bags when you order them. The smart move is to keep these components safely in their bags until you’re ready to install them in your PC. If you’re ready to install, or you need to take them out early to look at them, the safest option will always be to handle them on an anti-static mat or use an anti-static wristband.
- Touch an unpainted metal object (such as your PC case) before handling sensitive components.
This is a useful trick for discharging any static you might be carrying before you touch your motherboard or other fragile parts. All you need to do is find a grounded, unpainted metal surface and touch it before you pick up the sensitive item. The I/O panel of your PC case is a popular choice, since it’s often unpainted and pretty much every PC case has one. You can also use the chassis of the power supply itself. Just be sure to plug it in first, but leave it switched off.
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Static discharge isn’t going away any time soon — never, in fact, since it’s a fundamental element of physics as we know it. Fortunately, we’ve got better tools than ever to deal with ESD, so there’s no reason to fear it when you’re building your PC as long as you’re using the tools we’ve talked about here!