Low Humidity and Electrostatic Discharge: What You Should Know

Workplaces and other indoor environments with a low relative humidity (RH) are prone to a scientific phenomenon known as electrostatic discharge (ESD). ESD is defined as the sudden flow of electricity between two objects of opposite charge. When the two objects get close enough to each other, a bolt of static electricity will appear, similar to that of a miniature lighting bolt. One all-too-common example of this phenomenon is rubbing your feet across the floor during the winter and touching a doorknob, at which point you may notice a slight shock.

Since there’s less moisture vapor in the air, ESD is more common in environments with low RH. Normally, the airborne moisture helps to dissipate static electricity. Water is conductive, which allows electricity to travel freely throughout the air, minimizing ESD buildups. If there’s not enough moisture vapor in the air, however, electricity will accumulate in ‘pockets,’ at which point is discharges when an object of opposite charge is nearby.

Electrostatic discharge may not cause any serious injury or health concerns, but it can damage delicate computer components, such as RAM, graphics processing units, motherboards, etc. You might be surprised to learn that the human body can generate, and hold, as much as 50,000 volts of static electricity. Unfortunately, it only takes a mere 25 volts to cause permanent damage to an integrated circuit. Installing new RAM in a computer, for instance, may damage the circuits or other components if certain precautions are not taken to protect against ESD.

The good news is that you can protect the computers and other electronic devices in your office from the damaging effects of ESD by following some simple steps, one of which is to ground yourself when handling them. Maintaining at least one point of contact with a metallic, grounded object at all times will ensure there’s a open path for electrical currents to flow; thus, eliminating the possibility of ESD-related damage to the computer’s components. There are even wristbands made specifically for this purpose, as they feature a metal clip that’s attached to a grounded object.

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