How To

What is ESD? Silent Killer or Mythical Boogeyman?

Hands removing a stick of RAM from a laptop, they are wearing and anti-static wristband

The world of tech is chock-full of strong opinions: iPhone vs Android; AMD vs Intel; Xbox vs PlayStation. These squabbles are nothing compared to the fiery debates about the impact of electrostatic discharge, or ESD. If you peruse online forums on the subject, you’ll encounter surprisingly diverse opinions. One camp will offhandedly boast…
“I’ve built over 2,500 computers since they were invented, have shocked every component I’ve ever touched, and never damaged anything.” 
While the other might claim that…
“I coil my body in copper wire anchored to a buried iron stake before I glance at my PC.”

Okay, the spectrum may not be that diverse; but arguments around ESD are often based on taste or superstition rather than on science and logic. It doesn’t help that the literature on the subject is full of dry, ultra-technical terminology, presenting a linguistic barrier for those of us who lack a degree in electrical engineering. In the hopes of better understanding this oddly polarized subject, I embarked down a rabbit hole of research and discovery—the fruits of which you’re about to enjoy.

There are a few key questions I endeavored to answer: 

What is ESD? 

Electrical arc inside a Tesla coil tube

A lightning bolt cracks across a stormy sky; your hair stands like an amped-up medusa; you shuffle your socks across shag carpet and shock your mom, who’s really not in the mood. Such stunning events (pardon the pun) are all the result of electrostatic discharge, though some are less shocking—and less dangerous—than others. According to the Electrostatic Discharge Association (ESDA)—yes, there’s a whole nonprofit dedicated exclusively to this phenomenon—ESD is defined as “the rapid, spontaneous transfer of electrostatic charge induced by a high electrostatic field.” Let’s break this down a step further.

Simply put, ESD is the near-immediate release of a built-up static charge. Most people have an intuitive understanding of static electricity, as almost everyone has shocked an unsuspecting doorknob. But how does something as simple as friction create a… 

Charge! How ESD Happens

Way before we understood electricity as anything more than magical sky-rage, early Greek thinker Thales of Miletus was rubbing amber against fur and observing how dust and leaves were mysteriously attracted to the stone. In fact, even the word “electron” evolved from the Greek word “Ēlektron,” meaning amber. The precise writings of Thales seem lost to the sands of time, but I think it’s safe to assume that he fancied himself a Zeus-esque demigod, and that he didn’t know the secret behind the attraction, which we now know is simple friction—or, if you want to sound smart, triboelectrification

When two different materials rub together and then separate, one is left with a positive charge—a dearth of electrons; and the other with a negative charge—an excess of electrons. These subatomic particles want nothing more than to return to comfortable neutrality, and when the opportunity presents, they will. Thus a static shock—the zap—is the result of this rapid rebalancing.

More Than a Zap

In most circumstances, a little static shock isn’t a big deal. Many tinkerers ignore ESD altogether and never experience any issues. It might seem harmless, but that tiny arc springing from your fingertip can transfer up to 35,000 volts—more than enough juice to damage or destroy sensitive electronic components. You usually won’t notice a static discharge of less than 3,500 volts—a particularly spooky fact when you consider that some electronic components can be damaged by as little as 30 volts, according to CompTIA.

Nasa scientists in clean suits
NASA techs lounging in “bunny suits.” (Image credit: Steve Jurvetson)

Built-in ESD protections weren’t much of a consideration until micro chips became more commonplace in the 1970s, and since then, design-level protection has dramatically improved. But as components continually miniaturize with each generation, gates, pins, and terminals are crammed closer together, increasing the risk of static-related damage. Generally speaking, the smaller the component, the more sensitive it is to ESD. That’s why microchip manufacturers take ESD precautions as seriously as surgeons take hygiene. 

ESD is Serious Business

In microchip manufacturing facilities, the average technician suits up in anti-static garb, steps on to a grounding mat with static dissipative shoes, throws on an anti-static bracelet, and works on a grounded surface mat—not to mention the strict humidity controls and lightning storm mitigations facilities are outfitted with, as well as ionizers that blast out protons to further reduce the risk of static build-up. While you may not take ESD seriously, manufacturers sure as heck do. Despite the extreme precautions, industry leaders estimate average product losses due to static range from 8-33%, which could account for billions (with a B!) in lost revenue each year. But that’s just a problem for manufacturers, not us regular folk… right? 

Wrong! You might be thinking: ‘Well, I’ve ignored ESD safety, even zapped a chip or two, and everything seems to be fine.’ Good news: you’ve avoided a catastrophic failure—congrats! Bad news: your component may now be haunted by an insidious boogeyman, the bane of tech manufacturers and tinkerers everywhere—latent damage.

Frying a component outright is a huge bummer, but you’re at least afforded the luxury of knowing what’s failed and why your computer won’t boot. Latent damage, on the other hand, is a ticking time bomb.

A rogue zap can melt just a couple gates out of millions, and the component might function perfectly for weeks, months, or even years—until it doesn’t. No one thinks to troubleshoot hardware that has been chugging along for ages without a hitch, and unless you have an electron microscope laying around, you’ll probably never know if you’ve inadvertently doomed a component to an early grave. Latent defects can lead to erratic performance, and if the component eventually kicks the bucket, you’ll experience hair-pulling, enormously frustrating troubleshooting. 

Bottom Line: Ground Yourself

So, should you suit up in your humidity-controlled, ionizer-regulated environment, slip on your conductive shoes, and take a step onto your grounding mat before touching your PC? You can never be too safe! But the average tinkerer doesn’t risk turning an operating room into a bonfire, or an ammunition factory into a fiery crater. Odds are, unless you’re sprinting around your carpeted winter hideaway in wool socks and spandex while juggling RAM sticks, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to fry anything—except yourself after an overzealous slide. 

Even if your project precludes the risk of explosion or immolation, you should still take ESD seriously. Besides, simple peace of mind is worth its weight in gold. Without proper precautions, or at least a healthy scoop of common sense, ESD can destroy everything you love—provided everything you love is attached to a motherboard. 

At the end of the day, taking basic ESD safety precautions is like putting on an electronic repairs seatbelt: you can probably get by without it now and again, but you’d surely rather be buckled in instead of flying through the proverbial windshield, right? After all, your graphics card cost as much as a used Honda Civic, so you probably want to avoid reducing it to an RGB-clad fan box.

The Best Way to Avoid ESD

Use anti-static safeguards and prepare your workspace:

  • Remove any metallic jewelry, like bracelets, rings, and watches.
  • Take a moment to ground your workstation, then throw on a grounded anti-static bracelet—your components will thank you!
  • Set your ESD-safe tools, device, and components on a grounded mat before opening anything.
  • If you’re working on a seriously sensitive device, pop off your socks and plug in a humidifier. High humidity dramatically reduces the likelihood and intensity of static discharge.
  • Place your device on a grounding mat, and either attach the grounding clip to an unpainted metal surface, or plug it into a grounded outlet pin.

Common sense is your best friend:

A laptop repair with tools in the background and anti-static bags of parts being held in the foreground
  • If you don’t have anti-static safeguards handy, limit your movement as much as possible, and touch a large, unpainted metal object, like a desk leg or cabinet, before fiddling with any components.
  • Never build, tinker, or repair on carpet; always work on solid surfaces, like a table or workbench.
  • Keep all components inside their anti-static bags until you’re ready to install them.
  • When handling components, avoid touching the pins as much as possible.

In short, if you’re delving past the case: sit down, take a deep breath, ground yourself and your device, and tinker away!