Lax precautions against electrostatic discharge can reduce the effectiveness of your support team. Here’s how to set up an ESD-safe workshop.
If you do any component-level service in your support shop, you should have at least one static-safe workstation. A tiny static discharge can hit a printed circuit board like a lightning strike, critically damaging the component. Protecting the systems you work on from the hazards of electrostatic discharge (ESD) requires only a little forethought and a small investment, but the effort is worth it. Here’s your checklist for building a static-safe workspace.
This is the first tool I use when verifying that my working environment is ESD-safe. A ground/polarity tester plugs in to an electrical outlet and can help you verify that the outlet is wired correctly. Most of the other static-safety devices that you’ll want to use are going to rely on the your grounded outlets to dissipate charge effectively, so testing your outlets is very important. Don’t build on a shaky foundation; make sure that the outlets in your service center are properly grounded before you start working in the space.
In the field: A ground/polarity tester is also easy to carry in a mobile tool kit and can be used to verify that the outlets your users are plugging in to are trustworthy. I’ve seen a couple of instances where intermittent PC instability was eventually traced back to an improperly wired power outlet.
Covering your work surface with an antistatic mat ensures that you’ll always have a proper place to service sensitive components, even if you’re not blessed with having expensive shop furniture. The purpose of the antistatic mat is to let any residual charge flow across the mat surface and away from the items you’re working on. To accomplish that, your mat should include a ground lead that can be attached to a properly grounded outlet. While on the subject of mats, one ESD safety protocol that is important not to overlook is mat maintenance. Quality static mats will have a soapy finish to them that will help static “flow” to the ground. This finish can be maintained by using cleaners that are specially designed for antistatic mats. Taking care of your work surface will help it last longer and will more effectively protect your components.
In the field: Any tech doing on-site service that would require handing static-sensitive items should have a small mat that they can roll up and take to a remote location.
An antistatic grounding strap is used to make sure that the technician doesn’t pass any charge to the components he is working on. Grounding straps take two basic forms: the wrist strap and the heel strap. The simplest wrist straps have a lead that ends in an alligator clip, so you can ground yourself directly to a machine’s chassis. Other wrist strap systems are designed with a lead that can be connected to a grounded bench mat. Heel systems rely on the premise that the tech will have a grounded floor mat to stand on.
In the field: A wrist strap system will be easier to take on the road with you, if only because you won’t have to worry about carrying a floor mat.
These three items are the core of any static-safe work environment. There are some other things you should have on hand before beginning serious work with static sensitive components, though. First, stock up on static-shielded bags of various sizes to use for storing components. Second, a ground wire with alligator clips at both ends is useful for grounding specific components or tools to your work area. Finally, get some training on electrical safety. Devices intended to protect your computer components from electrostatic discharge can actually put technicians at risk when used in the wrong situation.
Make sure you’re never grounded when you work on plugged-in equipment or when you handle high-voltage components that have not been discharged. Be particularly wary of CRTs and power supplies. The capacitors in those devices can pack a nasty charge, even after being disconnected from current. Remember, your static-safe work area will protect your components, but it’s your training and your caution that will ensure your health.