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Discharging Static Electricity for Safe Computer Upgrading

By: OWC Michael

So often we are asked in reference to our OWC Instructional Series of Videos, "How exactly am I supposed to 'Use proper anti-static precautions when performing this upgrade'?" The real answer is... it depends. There are actually several different ways, depending on your situation, that you can help to control static electricity in order to avoid damaging the electronically delicate components found inside your computer.

According to Wikipedia: Static electricity refers to the buildup of electric charge on the surface of objects. The static charges remain on an object until they either bleed off to ground or are quickly neutralized by a discharge. And it's that discharge that can 'zap' or 'fry' your computer components, rendering them inoperable.

To give you an idea of how little static electricity needs to be generated to cause harm to your computer components, it takes as little as 5 to 10 volts to cause damage inside your computer. In order for you to even feel the presence of static electricity, the level needs to be above 1,500 volts. You can accumulate an average of 10,000 to 12,000 volts just walking across carpeting. Rubbing a balloon on dry fur (or hair) generates about 20,000 volts. Did you know the average person can carry up to 25,000 volts of static energy at any given time? So discharging any built up energy before you begin is important.

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So, how are we to be safe when working in our precious machines?


User proper anti-static precautions when performing this upgrade.

  1. Discharge static electricity before beginning.
  2. Work on a static free surface.

Keep in mind the following suggestions are for working inside the computer itself – these rules change when working on a monitor where grounding yourself can prove to be hazardous.

First off, prepare your workstation. You want to work on a clean, dry, static free surface. In most home situations, a cleared-off kitchen table provides the best place to work. And, depending on the likelihood of generating more static electricity in the area, no more prep to the workspace should be necessary.

However, there are always additional factors to consider:

  • If you have a cat (or dog, or ferret), keep them shut out of the area you're working in. Cats are living static electricity generators and combined with their curiosity to see everything you're working on, make for a bad situation when working inside your computer.
  • Be mindful of the humidity. A humidity level between 35-50% is ideal. A cold winter day tends to have humidity levels too low and becomes a great environment for accumulating those pesky electrons. A hot summer day with the A/C running can also have the same effect. Now, too humid of a room isn't good for electronics in general either; so use a humidifier or dehumidifier as necessary.
  • As mentioned, keep the workspace cleared off. Plastic garbage cans, telephones, cellophane, even paper being moved on your workspace can generate static.
  • If your workspace is prone to static electricity buildup, or located in a carpeted area of the house, or on a rug, or if you just want to be extra careful; you can always clean the area first with an anti-static spray. You can pick up anti-static spray in most mega-marts, hardware stores, electronics stores, and many places you buy your normal cleaning supplies from. Alternatively, you can make your own by mixing liquid fabric softener with water. Just spray on non-porous surfaces and wipe clean with a clean, dry cloth. For porous surfaces such as carpeting, rugs, drapes, sofas, chairs, etc., simply spray lightly and let air dry.
  • Speaking of fabric softener, try carrying an anti-static dryer sheet in your pocket, and rubbing it once in a while. This works to dissipate static for people as well as laundry.

The other component to safe installation is to discharge any static electricity from yourself before starting. Just like when we were kids and dragged our feet on the carpeting trying to gather up as much static electricity we could in order to 'shock' our siblings or friends, we need to discharge that shock before we start working in our computers.

Many times, you won't even feel the shock happen – as mentioned earlier, 5-10 volts can cause damage, but it takes 1,500 volts for humans to even perceive the effects of static. Once the static is discharged, we then just need to not accumulate any more while we're working inside the machine.

  • For most of us, touching a grounded object before beginning will be just fine. Then proceed with your install in your anti-static environment.
  • You can ground yourself with most computer models by touching the metal chassis inside the case. That is, provided the machine is turned off, plugged into a properly grounded outlet, and has a metal chassis. If the machine isn't grounded, you're actually causing the damaging discharge we're trying to avoid on purpose.
  • For machines with a 'rocker switch' for turning power on/off, you can leave the machine plugged in while you work in order to actively discharge electricity. This method is NOT advisable if you have a touch sensitive power switch such as an iMac. You never want to install or remove components while the machine may be running or you can risk looking like the OWC Globeman above. For touch sensitive models, ground yourself and the machine, then unplug the unit.
  • Alternately, you can find power cords with only the ground pin at many electronics stores that you can use to ground the machine without the risk of turning it on while working inside. Or, you can make one if you have a spare power cord (don't use the one you run the machine with). Simply clip or grind the two flat prongs leaving only the ground pin. Plug that cable in instead when working on the machine and you can actively ground without possibly turning the machine on.
  • For greater safety, you can actively discharge any static buildup while working through the use of an anti-static strap. Basically, this device tethers you to the machine, thus creating a symbiotic relationship between you and the machine where any charge is shared between you and no discharge between the two of you can occur. No discharge = no damage.
  • If you perform a lot of upgrades (as we do here at OWC), the investment of an anti-static mat is advisable. You'll see on our videos that the installations are performed on a light blue surface which is one of our anti-static mats. Follow all instructions on the mat for installation as many need to be grounded in order to be operational. Otherwise, they collect static rather than dissipate it.

There are a few other tips for static electricity control I'd like to share with you. Many of these are more common sense than actual tips, but do bear mentioning:

  • Turn your computer OFF before discharging static electricity. With a current of electricity running through the machine, the likelihood of damage to the computer (or yourself) greatly increases. Remember, it's not sheer voltage that causes electrocution, it's current that does.
  • Keep your RAM, processors, expansion cards, etc. in the anti-static bags that they came in until you're ready to install the component. The bags are designed to specifically protect the component from accumulating any static , so let it do its job.
  • When you do remove or install components, always handle them on the edges away from the connectors or pins where electricity is normally transmitted to the device.
  • Always allow components to reach room temperature before installing. Static electricity builds up faster when cold and dry.

With a little knowledge and a little common sense, you can upgrade your computer safely and easily.