The dangers of ESD and how to prevent damage

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1/18/2017 – This article has been updated with further information at the bottom.

ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) is when, attempting to touch or work on an electronic component, a small ark of electricity jumps from your finger tip to the electronic component. It is the same think as when you go to touch something like a door knob and you feel a brief shock.

The human body can act as a conductor for static electricity. If your body has enough of a charge, upon nearing a metal component, another person, or various other items, the electrical charge in your body discharges to what you are near, via the path of least resistance. Sometimes these are so weak that you don’t even feel them, and there is no visible spark. However, even the weak ones that you can’t feel can damage an electrical component, such as a chip on a motherboard.

Some computer techs will claim that they have taken apart several computers without taking any ESD precautions except for MAYBE touching the power supply, and have not had an issue. They will tell you that you don’t really have to use a wrist strap, or anti-static mats. Do not believe them. ESD damage may not cause an immediate failure, even though damage has been caused. It sometimes takes months, or even years for a component damaged by ESD to fail outright. By that point, the tech will usually blame something other than ESD, even though ESD is the root cause. Some components may not fail outright, and just exhibit unusual behaviors, such as odd errors.

Here are a few things you can do to help prevent ESD when working on electronic components, including computers.

Always use a grounded wrist strap

Grounded wrist straps are small bands that go around your wrist, with a wire, and clip that you can attach to a ground, such as a grounded post, wire, or other grounded item. Sometimes the clip can be removed so you can directly plug the wire into the ground on an electrical outlet. You should always use a grounded wrist strap when handling sensitive electrical components, such as computer parts.

Always use an anti-static working surface

You should always place the device you are working on on a grounded, anti-static working surface. You can get mats, that like the grounded wrist strap, have a wire that goes to the ground in an electrical plug. These mats also usually have anti-static properties.

Whenever possible, stand on a anti-static floor mat

Just like with your working surface, special floor mats are made for techs to stand on when working on sensitive components. While most techs do not have them, you should always stand on one if you have one available. If you do not have one available, touch a grounded piece of metal before beginning work. For example, if you are working on a desktop, touch the power supply, just to be safe.

Always place components in a shielded anti-static bag when not in use or being handled

You should always place components that are not being used or handled in anti-static shielded bags when storing them. This is not the same thing as a regular old anti-static bag. Regular anti-static bags are typically pink, and are not shielded. This means that ESD can still effect the part from outside the bag. Anti-static bags prevent static build-up inside and on the bag itself, but do nothing for ESD jumping from your finger outside the bag, to the part inside it. Shielded anti-static bags, which do prevent ESD from jumping to the part from outside the bag, will have a dark tint, instead of a pink one.

Ignore people who say you do not need to follow any of these steps

If anyone tells you that these steps are not necessary, ignore them, even if they have extensive experience. Some with extensive experience have, unfortunately, developed bad habits. Well, I really shouldn’t tell you to ignore them, just don’t follow their advice on not using precautions against ESD. I have heard everything from “Modern Components have protective measures against this” to “I have never had an issue”. However, the ESD Association, responsible for developing preventative measures against ESD takes this position with modern components:

The age of electronics brought with it new problems associated with static electricity and electrostatic discharge. And, as electronic devices became faster and smaller, their sensitivity to ESD increased. Today, ESD impacts productivity and product reliability in virtually every aspect of today’s electronics environment. Industry experts have estimated average product losses due to static to range [up to] 33%. Others estimate the actual cost of ESD damage to the electronics industry as running into the billions of dollars annually.

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