We’ve all had the sensation of reaching for a metal doorknob only to receive a slight electric shock as we touch it. That little jolt is an electrostatic discharge, the release of static electricity that occurs when two objects come into contact. However, that little zap can cause severe damage to an industrial computer’s internal components. 

An electrostatic discharge (ESD) can damage electronics, delete media saved on magnetic storage, and even start fires in flammable environments. While the latter two problems are thankfully rare, ESD damage costs businesses an estimated $5 billion every year in destroyed devices and lost productivity. In this article, we’ll explain how static electricity affects computers and how to protect against it. 

What is Static Electricity?

Whenever two objects meet, they naturally exchange electrons as they come into contact. One object gains electrons and becomes electrically negative, while the other loses electrons and becomes electrically positive. 

An electrostatic discharge occurs when electrons from a negatively charged object that aren’t moving, or static, suddenly jump to a positively charged object. This creates the distinctive jolt that people associate with static electricity. 

The human body can store and conduct small amounts of electricity, and we do so all the time. The problem, however, is that the human body is far more resilient against changes in electric charge than the average computer. Even rugged mini PCs must be designed to protect their internal components against ESD. 

How ESD Damages Computers

Even on a microscopic scale, ESD can damage a computer’s components. Simply touching circuitry with your bare hands or plugging in a peripheral device while you have a negative charge can damage the machine. 

The most vulnerable part of a computer regarding ESD is CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) circuits. CMOS circuits are the basis for modern integrated circuits, which are the basis for today’s computers. We would not have modern industrial computers or tablets without integrated circuits (and without CMOS as their physical architecture). 

CMOS circuits are extremely popular because they consume very little power and operate very quickly. Still, they have one major downside: their thin layers of insulation make them highly vulnerable to ESD damage. A sufficiently high charge can destroy the circuits if it reaches their terminals. 

A typical result of ESD is the immediate failure of a chip or device. This most commonly occurs when the computer manufacturer or owner tries to install a new piece of hardware, such as a RAM card, without using grounding methods. ESD occurs and fries the card, which prevents the computer from booting up properly. 

Failure does not necessarily have to be instantaneous, either. Delayed or partial failure can also occur as a result of ESD. Chips can linger with partial functionality for weeks or months before completely failing, causing reliability issues that can be mistaken for faulty software. Whether the failure is instantaneous or takes months to collapse fully, the only solution is the same: replacing the damaged component.

How To Protect Against Static Electricity

Computer manufacturers and IT professionals must take serious precautions to prevent ESD. These are just some methods used to protect computer components from static discharges.

  • Keep the PC grounded while working on it. Plugging the computer into an outlet while working on it (while having it completely powered off) gives static electricity somewhere to go rather than remaining in the device. 
  • Avoid certain materials or actions that generate static electricity. We’ve all probably experienced rubbing our sock-clad feet against a carpet to build up a static charge and shock someone else as part of a prank. Anyone working on a computer’s circuitry should avoid similar actions that cause static build-up. Simply avoiding static-prone clothing like wool sweaters can help protect against ESD. Workers will often use specialized footwear with leather soles to prevent static build-up.
  • Take the necessary precautions in handling components. Before touching a computer’s components, technicians will often touch a metal part of the computer’s case. This grounds them and neutralizes any static charge they may be carrying. Touching the case occasionally while working will also neutralize any static charge. Another best practice is holding circuit boards at their edges and keeping fingers away from conductive parts. 
  • Have a slightly humid environment. Static builds up more quickly in areas with hot, dry air, while moisture helps static charge bleed off. For this reason, computer manufacturing environments will often implement humidifiers to keep humidity at or above 55%. 
  • Use an antistatic wrist strap. Using an antistatic wrist strap is the most reliable solution for preventing ESD while working on a computer. An elastic band goes around the wrist, connected to a wire that ends in a clip attached to the computer’s case. This ensures constant contact between the technician and the case, and prevents ESD since they are constantly grounded. 

Closing Thoughts

While most computer users might never open up the case and handle the components inside, understanding the threat of ESD and how to prevent it is still critical for any responsible owner. One of the best ways for end-users to protect their computers is by working with a trusted and reliable manufacturer of industrial panel PCs like Cybernet Manufacturing.

At Cybernet, our rigorous quality control and testing processes minimize the chances of ESD occurring and ensure our shipped products work exactly as intended. Contact our team today, and we can further detail how our computers enjoy a failure rate under 2%. 

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