Or how to upset a sibling in one easy lesson
By Mike Dziurgalski
Working in England for the U.S. Air Force was mostly under a line maintenance situation. I had not opened an electronic component for years, much less try to troubleshoot and repair at the card level. Needless to say, I was a little rusty when arriving at Altus Air force Base in Oklahoma to work heavies again. After settling down from an overseas move, it was time to relearn the C-5 avionics systems I left so many years ago.
During training, one of the acronyms that kept popping up was ESD. Now acronyms and I usually get along like an ice cream cone at a blowtorch convention, but I was sure I knew this one. I thought it was something to do with the pulse of energy that emanates from an atomic blast wreaking havoc on computers, communications equipment, and various electronic components. So, when someone offered ESD as an explanation for the untimely demise of an oscillating and smoking computer, I was, needless to say, concerned. Of course, I was wrong in my assessment of a holocaust, and after a time of working with this unseen monster, I started to actually understand it a bit more.
ESD is short for electrostatic discharge - just plain ol' static electricity.
To explain let me take you on a trip back in time to your younger days. For some of you it will be a much shorter journey than mine (and I truly hate you for that) but I digress. Remember when you were a kid? A large portion of your day was likely devoted to making your sister's or brother's very existence a living purgatory. You dreamed of becoming more than you were. You wanted to be a Superhero, a savior of the world, but, alas, this was not to be. Then one day, while shuffling along on the carpeted floor, you reached for the doorknob and instantly . . . you were Electroman. With your U.S. Army wool blanket cape, nylon socks, and cotton Scooby Doo PJs you were set to save the world from evil. You drag your feet, feeling the power build to a crescendo while searching for that most vile super villain of all time, in my case . . . the Big Sister. Slowly you approach her sleeping body. You choose your target wisely, for you have only one shot. The bright blue bolt of hellfire, just before her blood-curdling scream was, in fact, an ESD. Now, let's look at how this natural phenomenon occurs.
The American Heritage Dictionary describes static electricity as, "an accumulation of electric charge on an insulated body or an electric discharge resulting from the self-same charge" (Whew). In layman's terms, when you shuffled your feet on the carpet, you built up a charge of electricity on your body. Now your sister or brother lounging on the couch has less of a charge than you do. When your charged finger came close to their uncharged teeth . . . ZAP . . . instant gratification. Now, apply the same energy to an electrostatic sensitive component and you have a destroyed or severely weakened device. Now don't expect a lightning bolt and a miniature mushroom cloud where your computer used to be. In most cases you won't even feel the harbinger of doom you have unleashed. Moreover you probably will not even feel the discharge. These components are so sensitive they can be dispatched to computer heaven with only a few hundred volts. You can't see or feel anything below around 4,000 volts of static electricity so you will be blissfully ignorant of the damage wrought.
Would you believe just walking on carpet could produce 35,000 teeth jarring volts? "There's no carpet in my shop," you say. How about walking on a vinyl floor? Give that technician 12,000 volts. Even picking up a plastic bag can produce 20,000 volts. And one of the biggest culprits of static production is surprisingly, a common cellophane tape dispenser.
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