Static Variables

Mandy\'s avatar

  It’s winter! The season of fluffy fluffy sweaters! …and static. Lots of static. Fox assured me I didn’t need to worry about a static strap or anything like that, but I did change first…

I don’t do a lot of hardware stuff with computers, so I was overly cautious about pretty much all of it. Super gentle, super careful… then Fox would come double check things for me and just manhandle it because “it’s in a big metal box Mandy, it’s fine.”

Fox\'s avatar

If she’d let me turn the heat up in the house she wouldn’t have to dress like that.
To be certain: static discharges will destroy electronic devices. I know, cuz I’ve done it.
Once.
And that was in a very, very dry tech shop that didn’t listen to me so I went and got my own humidifier to prevent it from happening again.
I then got into an argument with a very angry and less-than-knowledgeable supervisor when he found it, who then backed down after I showed him the RAM I’d fried by trying it his way. (He believed moisture was harmful to sensitive electronics. It is, but too little of it causes other problems. Try not to be an extremist whenever feasible.)

Fox\'s avatar


I think I was around five or six years old when our family got a 386. It wasn’t long before I’d opened it up. Unlike most kids who disassembled things, I also put it back together. (Evidenced by the fact that I’m still alive. Heh, it used AA batteries to retain CMOS settings.) I’d Capsela as a kid, so I’ve always been a ‘maker’, but my first paying job was building PCs, cuz I already knew how–and did it well. I’m also a diagnostician by nature: I need to know the solution to the puzzle, but implementing the fix doesn’t interest me. (Think “House M.D.”) So while everyone else would simply opt for routes that saved time, but learning nothing, I’d fiddle with problems until I learned why it wasn’t working. The former is great for most techs. The latter literally writes the book for those techs:
Dave: “I can not get this system to boot, man!”
Stephen: “Did you bypass the switches?”
Dave: “Yeah, man! Shorted it right at the board. Tried another power supply. It just won’t turn on.”
Me, over-hearing this while working on my system, “Dave, loosen all the motherboard screws a little and shake the case. A screw probably fell behind there and is grounding it out.”
Dave pauses, looking incredulous, then tries it. The familiar sound of a few metal-on-metal clicks echos through the tech-area.
Dave: “How do you do that?! You weren’t even on this side of the room!”

Now, among other things, I get paid to work on computers that cost more than my house. Combine that with over 30 years of dealing with workstations/PCs and they don’t have nearly the mystique they once held. They certainly no longer get handled with kid-gloves. You know precisely which parts to be careful handling (namely the land-grid arrays) and and know everything else could be installed by primates.

22 comments on “Static Variables

  1. Ha, I took our first computer apart, too; but it was already broken, so no worries about needing to put it back together. I’m still amazed I didn’t get a nasty shock after cracking open the power supply.

    1. Would be appropriate. Many furry species have a “second coat” of fur that grows in for extra insulation during winter. Dog breeds that retain this trait but live primarily indoors have a tendency to shed what feels like an entire extra dog’s worth of this spare fur every few days during the cold season.

  2. I’ve built and repaired computer for a living for over 30 years, and yes, the dangers of electrostatic discharge (ESD) has been exaggerated. I’m not claiming that ESD can’t damage or break electronic equipment, but it’s quite easy to avoid.

    At work we’ve got ESD protected carpets, desks, chairs and tools, but whenever you go to a customer to work on their computers you work with what you get. Sometimes that’s a fully ESD protected workstation in a server room but more often it’s an ordinary office built with no thought about preventing ESD whatsoever. When working in an environment like that there are a few things you can do to minimize the risks, starting with your clothes. Avoid all synthetics and anything wool. Cotton, silk, hemp and leather works fine. Shoes can be a problem, but in general leather shoes with chemically stable rubber soles seems to generate very little static. You can go all out and get ESD protected shoes, but without carpets or flooring with ESD protection they aren’t that much better.

    When working on the computer remember that as long as it’s in the unopened chassis it is protected. Also remember that it’s all about the difference in potential. Once you’ve touched the chassis somewhere it’s bare metal you’ve equaled the ground potential. Also if possible keep the computer grounded. If it’s a high end server or workstation there’s probably a switch on the power supply to switch it off. If you use that you can leave the computer connected to the wall without risking to turn it on at an inopportune moment.
    If it’s a typical office PC or home PC odds are there isn’t an on off switch on the PSU. This leaves you with a few options. One is to have a power led where you’ve cut the live and neutral, leaving only ground. Another option is to use an extension with a on/off switch. If neither option is available or even worse, there is no earthed outlet then you can still work on it safely if you remember to make sure everything, including you, are at the same ground potential. Keep any components in or on their antistatic bags. Keep one hand on the computer chassis and handle any components with your other hand. Pick up any extension cards by their metallic brackets.

    Or you do it the right way and spread an electrostatic mat over the work surface, ground it using a ESD grounding cord, and connect your ESD wrist strap to the mat, but where’s the fun in that?

    My point writing this is that while some people think touching any computer component without the full ESD protection kit in place will automatically kill whatever you’re touching you can actually do anything, including building a complete computer without anything but a few tools. ESD protection isn’t necessarily needed, but it makes the job easier and less likely to damage anything. No matter how observant you are it’s easy to forget and make a mistake. Unless you are a walking ESD disaster area a single slight mistake probably won’t do anything bad, but sometimes a little bad luck goes a long way.

    1. A note about the anti-static bags. You said “keep them in or on the bag. It should only be in the bag. The outer layer is a conductive layer that can short the equipment.

  3. Some types of electronic components are more static-sensitive than others. CMOS (the technology, not the computer settings storage) is more static-sensitive than NMOS is more sensitive than TTL. Also, with especially static-sensitive devices, the spark doesn’t need to be large enough for you to feel in order to cause damage. So best to be safe rather than sorry, especially if you think you’ll be working on or near CMOS (4xxx) series ICs or whatnot. I keep a anti-static wrist strap and a pair of rubber-soled “old man shoes” around in case I think I might be encountering CMOS devices in whatever I’m working on. Of course, some of the stuff I work on uses vacuum tubes, which don’t give a s**t about ESD, though they *do* tend to be sensitive to being dropped on the floor………..

    1. Ain’t old-tech fun? 🙂
      – Friend of mine had an old “IBM” branded vacuum tube on a stand in his ham shack.
      – I have a sci-fi book written during WWII which -prominently- featured vacuum tubes in their “advanced” tech. 🙂 Written -during- the war and the FBI…took an interest. 😉

  4. Another thought has crossed my mind, I had many positions in tech support. I couldn’t cut it on the front lines initially because I was more diagnosing than following the script.

    It was the third time around that I had to bite my tongue and go by the script before working my way up into the upper tiers where I could then have the leeway to do the Dr. House thing. By then the only script was the “Thank you for calling” and the requisite stuff prior to doing account resets. I was able to stay there for a while until I inevitably left for greener pastures.

  5. I read the “Whoa Mama Motherboard” on the Jonny Bravo voice, and then I noticed the tiny Jonny Bravo head on the box and I lost it. :3

    1. Goes well with the Robin Williams endorsed pieces there on the right.

      PHENOMINAL COSMIC POWER supply
      iiiiiitty bitty cpu

  6. I shot my Xbox with a .45 to see if it could stop it.
    It stopped it.
    Game systems are tough.

      1. Yup. I read they’re supposed to be re-releasing it. I think it was a bit more expensive than LEGOs, but still a far better value, IMO. (Since I can 3D print Legos now…)

  7. Yeah, for the most part you don’t need to be so paranoid about the static. Not that it isn’t a threat, just that it’s overblown. A non conductive or grounded workstation, Rubber soled footwear and natural fiber clothes are fine for most work. I personally only use a ground strap for CPU and Ram install myself as it’s more of a hindrance than a benefit otherwise.

    And for the love of god, do NOT do what that video by the Verge did. That’s a surefire way to blow up your new rig.

  8. I learned pretty much everything I’ll ever need thanks to the good tech support people of late 90’s Compaq. We’d just gotten a floor model Presario from Best Buy, and the sound didn’t work. Diagnosis lead to “We’ll send you a new motherboard”. Sound works, but the 56k modem has now stopped. Diagnosis: new modem. Install the modem, sound cuts out again. Four loops later, someone finally figures it out: I hadn’t gotten any disks from Best Buy since they couldn’t find them. One driver install CD later, and everything’s peachy. On top of that, I’ve learned useful skills! Thanks, Compaq.

    Now, my current build is approaching ten years old, and eight gigs of RAM doesn’t go as far as it used to. I’m holding out for the Ryzen 3, but it’s gonna be a rough month… assuming it goes on sale after CES.

  9. Hey Fox, ever had to bump start a hard disk? I was an electronics engineer atached to a computing department. When I started we had a handful of PC model Gs. The PC XT, the eXTended version came later. My first PC was built out of two scrap units. I unsoldered the DMA chip from one board to repair the other.

  10. I built my computer nekkid. Mostly because when I built it, I didn’t have any way to build it that didn’t involve a carpeted floor.

    To be fair, the danger of static electricity bricking components used to be much higher. These days, it’s VERY hard to destroy things that way.

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