Although working in IT support usually isn't as dangerous a profession as, say, fishing the North Sea, there are guidelines you should follow to keep yourself and your end users' equipment safe. To test our members on their knowledge of these guidelines, we conducted a quick computer safety pop quiz. Over 1,300 TechRepublic members took up the challenge and here's how they did. Would you have done any better?
The correct answer is: Electrostatic discharge. I'm glad to report that 89 percent of those who took the quiz knew the answer, as shown in Figure A. As I pointed out in a previous article, "Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is the transfer of an electrostatic change between two objects. Although ESD can be a real hoot when the other object is an unsuspecting friend, electronic components aren't so tolerant. ESDs produce a significant amount of heat, and although we don't feel this heat when shocked, it can damage the tiny parts within electronic components. Sometimes a piece of equipment that has been damaged by ESD will continue to function. However, the latent defect is extremely hard to detect and can significantly reduce the device's life span.
"To prevent ESD damage during shipping, many electronic devices, including computer components, are shipped in antistatic bags. Likewise, PC repair technicians should wear either a grounding wrist strap or use a grounding mat when working on a computer. For more information about best practices for opening a computer, check out this article by Mike Walton."
No wrist straps needed
The correct answer is: When working inside a power supply. Luckily, 85 percent of our quiz takers knew the answer (Figure B). As I mentioned, grounding wrist straps (also called shorting bracelets) are used to protect computer equipment from ESD. These handy devices provide a reliable path for static to discharge safely to a ground and not to the computer you're working on. This is great unless you're working inside a power supply.
Power supplies contain capacitors that can store a dangerous electrical charge even when the device is unplugged. Because grounding straps create a path of least resistance for an electrical charge to follow, they can put you in the path of the current from a discharging capacitor—somewhere you don't want to be.
Keep those parts protected
The correct answer is: An antistatic bag. This time, a whopping 97 percent of those who took our quiz knew the answer, as shown in Figure C. Manufacturers almost always ship computer components in antistatic bags to protect the parts from ESD and so should you, even if you're just carrying a modem down the hall or a motherboard across town.
A shocking experience
The correct answer is: Monitor. As shown in Figure D, 93 percent of our quiz takers got this one right. Like televisions and computer power supplies, computer monitors contain capacitors that can store dangerous electrical charges even when the device is unplugged. You should never open a monitor's case unless you have the training and experience to do so. Check out this From the Technical Q&A column to read what other members have to say about working on monitors.
The meteorological approach to PC repair
This correct answer is: A low temperature, low humidity environment. Only 39 percent of those who took our quiz knew this one (Figure E). I must admit that this one was a bit tricky; indeed humidity has more of a direct effect on static electricity than temperature. In a highly humid environment, moisture coats the surface objects, creating a low-resistance path for any electrical charge. When objects touch each other, this path allows each object's charge to "recombine" and thus neutralize the charge imbalance—it's this charge imbalance that creates a static electric spark.
So where does temperature come into the picture? Well, a low temperature environment is more conducive to a low humidity environment than a high temperature environment—that is, unless devices have been used to artificially alter an environment's humidity. Remember, during the cold, dry winter months it's much easier to slide across the floor in your wool socks, sneak up behind a friend, and give him or her a good shock than it is during the hot, balmy summer.
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If you have a topic you'd like us to cover in an upcoming pop quiz, we want to hear about it. Drop us a line and share your suggestions for both quiz topics and questions. If you'd like to comment about this quiz, please post a comment to this article. Good luck on our next quiz!
Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.