Static electricity, while briefly annoying and mildly painful to a person, can be deadly to a computer. The voltage from an electrostatic discharge can wreak havoc on the delicate internal circuitry of a desktop machine. Not only is static electricity severely damaging to a computer but it is also easy to generate when building, repairing or upgrading a computer.
Static electricity is caused when two different materials rub together. As the materials are rubbed together, electrons are exchanged. This leaves one material with a positive charge and one with a negative charge. The charge remains until it dissipates or is discharged into another material. When working on a computer a charge can build any number of ways. For instance, while moving around, clothing may rub against skin and build up a charge.
Severe damage can have an instantaneous effect on computer components. Damage is most common when you can physically hear or feel a static discharge. A computer that has suffered catastrophic damage from a static discharge will not work properly and, in some cases, not at all. If a computer is not completing its boot cycle or refusing to power on after a new component is installed, that component should be removed. If the computer is still nonfunctional, a primary component has suffered damage and will need to be replaced. Otherwise, the part was incorrectly installed or was itself damaged.
Even if a static discharge isn't physically felt, that doesn't mean it didn't occur. An electrostatic discharge requires at least 3,500 volts before it can be felt, however, damage to the integrated circuitry of computer components requires only 400 volts. A component can suffer a light, undetected shock and still retain functionality to a point. Depending on the component, the damage may remain unnoticed for extended periods of time, causing a wide range of unpredictable behavior that may gradually become more pronounced. This type of damage is difficult to pinpoint, so it is best to take precautions against electrostatic discharge any time work is done inside a computer.
A well prepared workplace and anti-static aids are the keys to preventing electrostatic buildup and discharge. A workbench should be a bare top and kept clear of fabrics or plastics. The floor should be bare if possible, or covered by an antistatic pad. Work should always be done in shoes, never socks or bare feet. The work should also be done standing, as office chairs can quickly build up a static charge. Use a wrist strap designed to connect to a working ground to allow a charge to flow harmlessly back to the earth. If no wrist strap is used, touching the unpainted metal portions of the computer case can keep the electrical potential with the computer consistent. That technique, however, is unpredictable, difficult to control and generally not recommended.
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