Leadership

Video: Build a static-safe workspace for computer repair

Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is a threat when repairing computers. Bill Detwiler gives you a checklist for building a static-safe workspace.

Even if you're not strictly in support, most IT pros find themselves cracking open machines from time to time, even if it's just for family and friends. And when you do, it's always a good idea to perform system surgery in a static-safe environment. During this episode of TR Dojo, I'll give you a checklist of tools for building a static-safe workspace.

You can also test you knowledge of computer repair safety on the following quiz.

For those of you who prefer text to video, you can click the Transcript link that appears below the video player window or read William Jones' article, "Is your service bench static safe?," on which this episode is based.

You can also sign up to receive the latest TR Dojo lessons through one or more of the following methods:

About

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 supp...

55 comments
BoDudleysqt
BoDudleysqt

I got nothing against smokers, I smoke, but these electronic lighters. U should not smoke, eat or drink while doing surgery! Yes well heres a device that uses esd to work and will kill most components. I have seen a repair tech take his ground strap off while holding a ram module. Then lighting up using said electroBic place the ram down and walk out for a smoke break. Guess if the ram worked when he got back? No he killed a 2gig module and can't understand how.

JonathanPDX
JonathanPDX

Third Paragraph: "Even a small static discharge can damage computer ...small investment. So here's a quick" A quick what? It just stops there and continues on with the next paragraph. Must have been static shock! ;-)

hcgriffith
hcgriffith

Tip: Take a standard PC power cord and cut off the plug end. Then, cut back the hot and neutral wires and, using a rewirable plug, connect only the ground (after sliding a long piece of green shrink tube on the wire). Now you can plug in with no chance of contacting any voltage and still be sure the chassis is grounded.

vickaprili
vickaprili

Thanks for your tutorial Bill. I recently saw a video tutorial on system unit construction by a major memory manufacturer on the internet, and NO anti static procedures appeared to be used.They definitely were not mentioned prior to construction. Thanks for highlighting the importance of these procedures.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

Covered more material. Been easier to read through. I know IT guys are geeks, but most of them read fairly well. Given the mind set of video this clip is not very informative for that reason.

john3347
john3347

If it was mentioned in the video, I missed it, but a poster here mentioned that certain clothing and carpet material (nylon perhaps the biggest offender)generates static electricity in the body as a result of normal movement. One should avoid working with static-sensitive items while working on a carpeted floor. Linoleum or hardwood make better (safer) floor surfaces for any electronic repair area. In an unrelated environment, nylon underwear has been blamed on static discharges when fueling an automobile. (generated as the individual slides across the seat to get out of the auto) One should always touch a metal part of the automobile or a grounded sign post, etc. before touching the fuel nozzle itself.

bbrunder
bbrunder

Liquid fabric softener (preferably unscented) mixed with water and put in a spray bottle makes an excellent anti-static spray. Mix 1 part softener to 10 parts water and spray any fabric surfaces.

alan
alan

I object to "directly" within "The simplest wrist straps have a lead that ends in an alligator clip, so you can ground yourself directly to a machine's chassis." That would be lethal. I have never poked inside a 240 volt power supply whilst wearing a wrist strap, but I never worried about forgetting to take it off because there was always a series resistor. If I had made a mistake the resistor would have cut the lethal shock down to a mild tickle - it would not have punished me. The resistor protected me, but did not impede the discharge of any static. Regards Alan

nerijus.navickas
nerijus.navickas

@home it is enough to avoid synthetic carpets and electrostatic clothes as well as follow simple rule: before touching internal components touch a computer case.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I didn't even watch the video and ace'd the little test. One of the biggest problems I've run across is finding an adequate ground source to clip a strap to. Many homes I've been in in the last couple weeks didn't have a three prong outlet for a power strip. I had to move things into the kitchen and use a cold water pipe. In some homes, the kitchen and the bathrooms are the only places to find a grounded outlet. This can be a real hazard when power cords get swapped polarity and metal cases can have a full 120 volts AC between them. (ZAP OUCH) Checking for ground busters and using the outlet checker will keep you safe and help you find a secure ground to prevent problems.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

Are you still unable to view the entire transcript? When I click the transcript link, I am able to scroll through the entire document in the transcript window.

davidsteel@btconnect.com
davidsteel@btconnect.com

I would still issue a note of caution here, in over 40 years in electronics and computing I have on many occasions encountered badly wired commercial and domestic premises. In these environments I have encountered earths (ground) floating, in some cases several hundred volts above ?real earth?. That can really wake you up if you accidently find a working earth point. Always do a safety check on the socket you are using for your static earth.

rottw1711
rottw1711

Here, in the UK, we are fortunate enough to have switched power outlets. Whenever I have to delve into the guts of a machine, I flick the power switch then press the power button on the PC to discharge the caps. Then I'll touch the chassis. There is, of course, no substitute for correct ESD practices, but sometimes it's not always practical (at least with some jobs I've had!).

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It was referred to both in the video and in the text notes. Some geeks apparently don't read all.

derick.boe
derick.boe

Why would you ever touch the nozzle? The handle (plastic/rubber) is all you need to touch. Strange.

3_jeeps
3_jeeps

I looked very closely to the picture of the ground strap to see if it contained a resistor, but I could not identify one. Most professional grade straps do contain a resistor (100 Meg I believe).

spork66
spork66

Having done a major rewiring back home, yes you are right, about using the water pipe for grounding - This grandfathered way of wiring a 3-prong outlet into a 2 wire circuit is acceptable but not the best of course. To go along with Bill's comment about having a circuit tester, that would help you and Bill - I have a circuit tester that confirms that the wiring is correct and also supplies me a bananna plug socket for my ground strap. I am grounded, and as I work, the tester is plugged in and confirming ground and proper polarity

sar10538
sar10538

Be aware that you may have grounded yourself perfectly but what potential is the device you are working on. The device may be sitting at some high static potential if it too is not grounded and all you will do is to cause an ESD discharge with your perfectly grounded body. The better way to approach this is to make sure you are at the same potential as the item you are working on. If the item is not plugged in (good idea) ground yourself to the chassis of the item.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

The Test was all Basic Stuff But I want some of the Apprentices that I used to train to plug onto the Live side of a 3 Phase Socket then earth themselves. Cures a lot of problems that they come up with. :^0 The Double Insulated Plugs that are so commonly in use these days do lead to problems particularly if the Local Authorities [b]Do Not[/b] Legislate Earth Outlets everywhere. Even some of the Power Boards no longer have earth's on them and they are really dangerous. ;) Col

dgerhardt
dgerhardt

I used to teach an ESD course for Seagate and one thing I always taught was do not use the anti-static bag like an oven mitt. The component has to be in the bag to protect it and wrapping the bag around the component will zap it. Also keep styrofoam cups, packing and peanuts away from components as they are big static attractors. Finally, when I was a break/fix tech, I wore my anti static wrist band all the time. I started with a new company and some of non-tehnical folks thought it was a monitoring device and I was on parole!

spork66
spork66

I use a circuit tester that also supplies a bannana socket for plugging in my grounding strap - I am grounded and I can verify the wiring and confirm it as I work on the equipment

JeffWainright
JeffWainright

Not so funny when it actually happened, tho. I did my grunt time on the helpdesk for the city, and one of the more experienced techs always got the assignments to replace memory sticks or video cards. Under most conditions, replacing a memory stick is a fairly simple and painless operation. One fine day in January or February, he went up to one of the admin offices to replace a 1GB memory stick, and came back a little too soon looking and acting like he had just stepped in something gawdawful. Turns out he had left his wrist strap on his bench, and had zapped both the new stick and the motherboard in the machine he was working on. After that, the boss asked every tech where their strap was before sending us out to do anything, and I started getting most of the memory replacement assignments.

rball
rball

I've been working on computers for 15 years and have experimented with electricity for about 25 years (since I was a toddler) and have certainly had my fair share of electric shocks (which are kind of fun), but I've never had any problems with static discharge damaging a component. Ever. I mean I'll touch a chassis or metal desk before diving in *usually*, but even when I don't, I've not zapped a part. Not sure if these precautions are overkill or if it's because I live in the Pacific Northwest but alot of this seems silly. Except for the potential differences as far as getting shocked. I suppose I should be more careful about that - next time could be my last lol. Either that or I'm immune to damage from electricity. Maybe I should call Guiness.

phil
phil

What you wear is a factor when not grounded. So if you have ever heard or fealt a static zap with an outfit on, dress differently. It only takes a small mistake to zap that expensive motherboard without your strap on. Ironically the worst place I have ever seen static was in Manchester University's computer science dept in the UK. The students soon learnt the power of static with lots of silly ear zapping. That had a dry warm enviroment and loads of electrical devices and old CRTs. The tip about PSUs also holding charges is also good, as I once temporarily paralised my arm touching a PSU power pins after it had been disconnected for about 5 seconds. And that was in the old 300W PSU days, I'm sure the bigger suplies now have bigger capacitors and could do more damage.

hcgriffith
hcgriffith

I back that sentiment 100% I'm lucky to have 'inherited' a Megger. If you don't have access to one, see if you can measure a voltage (check both AC and DC)between the socket's ground/earth and a water pipe (copper, not plastic). If no voltage then check for continuity. It's no guarantee, there are crap plumbers around as well as crap electricians, but most pipes will run to a section that was grounded in the past.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

that includes the nozzle itself, handle, fuel valve, valve actuator lever, and hose connector.

SMparky
SMparky

Yep, I also know that static straps contain resistors. This is very important since if you are directly connected to ground your arm will be the path the electricity follows to the ground. Not a good idea if 1 arm is grounded and the other arm accidentally touches a live charge. It's your heart that lays in the middle of your arms and it doesn't take much current to mess with your heart. My old electronics instructor recommended working on CRT's with only one hand if possible. It was annoying but it made a lot of sense. If you did get a big zap it would travel to your foot, not through your heart. You should also have a resistor in place if you want to ground a table or bench. Your best bet though is to do some research and don't rely on message board advice. Oh, and never use a wooden board and rubber boots to move a fallen power line. It won't insulate you enough. I watched a power company demo of this with a sausage. Very scary and funny!

hcgriffith
hcgriffith

Put an ohm meter on a static strap and from one end to the other you will see around 2MegOhms. This is to limit the current, both from static discharge and from your accidental contact with a live voltage. I would say that static build up inside a chassis was nearly impossible, no shoe/carpet contact there.

capt'n Rick
capt'n Rick

i bought one to test. it is suppose to have a small radioactive particle in the wrist strap that is suppose to wick away static charges. the instructions say to put it on 20 min before using it. it uses "corona discharge effect". well i tested it and it didnt work at all. any comments? was mine just defective? at least it was fashionable!

spork66
spork66

I should have added in my last post, that another useful device to have, is a plug blade strength tester, that will confirm how good and thus how well the blades of the the outlet you are using will clip onto the plug for the computer - poor contact could be your culprit

SMparky
SMparky

Static damage isn't going to show up right away. It's like taking a wire and cutting a nick in it. The wire will still work but be narrower at that point. Electrical characteristics will change and the wire will be physically weaker. You might not see the damage for a long time, even years. When that computer starts randomly crashing or a component dies you might just attribute it to old age or wear, when it was actually damaged during installation. My boss when I first started working 20 years ago didn't believe in static damage. He assumed that if you couldn't feel a huge zap then there wasn't a problem. We were always replacing hard drives and he drove me nuts carrying motherboards on carpeted floors with no protection. When he was fired (not for that) all the mysterious motherboard issues and random crashing stopped. Newer electronic products are less sensitive to static damage but considering the headache and expense of a static damaged item there is no excuse for following proper anti-static procedures.

mamies
mamies

The ESD that you omit into the PC doesnt have to kill it straight away. It could only damage the component and you may not even know and all this will do is shorten its life expectancy. The day that you actually kill a component from not wearing one of these straps you will wonder why you didnt have an antistatic strap. I learnt the same lesson.

cjshelby
cjshelby

of the Rockies, at 6300 feet the humidity is almost non-existent. This place makes LA (where I grew up) feel like a swamp. A "quick and dirty" anti-static mat I have used is an old Terry Cloth bath towel lightly (very lightly!) dampened with water mist. I spray it with a spray mister and rub the moisture into the fabric. While not acceptable for professional use, this still works in a pinch when I need to disassemble a laptop in my basement "play room".

kevin.edge
kevin.edge

A past colleague told me that whenever he worked on PC components at home he always worked NAKED to avoid any ESD from clothing. That is not so practical in the office or on customer sites, or if you are doing any soldering!

sar10538
sar10538

I used to repair a lot of TVs when I was younger and I was trying to fault-find on an old valve (tube) chassis trying to find an intermittent fault. I was watching the screen and had my hand in the back of the set while I was wobbling the valves seeing if I could pin it down when my hand moved close to the anode cap on the CRT. It was an old set so the insulation on the EHT connection was not at it's best and I received a nice little discharge somewhere in the region of 20kV or so. Although the electric shock shook me up a bit what was worse was that the shock had caused the muscles in my arm to contract and so my arm very rapidly flexed out of the back of the TV set with the back of my hand impaling and ripping on some tags and parts of the metal chassis. We always learn by our mistakes. It wasn't the last time I've been shocked and I expect there will be more exciting events in my life despite my best efforts at taking care. It's just part of my life/hobby.

sar10538
sar10538

It's still possible that the item you are working on to be a some other potential than you. The point I was trying to make is that you need to reduce the potential difference between yourself and the device to zero to prevent ESD damage. If your sitting on top of a 33kV line servicing some item of equipment, it's better to have the item and yourself at 33kV than try to ground yourself as that will surely severely limit the life of the item and would certainly be age limiting to yourself. Look at how the line men work to understand about keeping the potential difference between yourself and the thing your working on to zero.

acami
acami

Yes, it is troue that static charges are not present inside the chassis, but the problem is YOU having these charges ready to discharge inside the chassis.

Prisoner6
Prisoner6

... Why there are holes in the blades of the power plugs? A: To let the current flow through. :) Just Joking. Actually there are dimpels in the receptical that mate with the holes in the blade. Thus making it harder to remove the plug.

jeff.allen
jeff.allen

Glad you mentioned the reliability department... In my 40 years as a tech - mainframe to laptop, I see many customers' sites. Some stick to the rules regarding static, some just pay lip service, some don't bother. The ones that have a rigid, realistic anti-static regime are by far the most reliable, and least affected by unplanned outages. It's a culture thing, and sticking to the anti-static rules, creates a habit which flows to the rest of the way things are done. When I go out in the field and work on customers' equipment, taking anti static precautions not only puts me in the correct frame of mind for the job, but it also demonstrates to the customer that I know what I am doing and I care about their equipment.

rball
rball

for that reply SparkyMaddy, I had not considered the long-term effects of careless static procedures. With the kinds of systems I'm in charge of, and the complexities of said systems, I need all the help I can get in the reliability department :-)

Julees
Julees

Any synthetic fibres in clothing always work up a charge on me. I try to wear only natural fibres. Cotton underwear, cotton top, cotton pants. My workshop has a woollen carpet, but I wear cotton sox, and shoes or sandals with synthetic soles.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Who always zaps anyone he shakes hands with because of his Synthetic Clothing. He's killed more mice and keyboards than I care to think about and I have yet to find a successful way to prevent him damaging the hardware. ;) Col

MrRess
MrRess

So then my acrylic sweater = not so good? ;-P

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

We had a 48V 200A battery bank (lead-acid cells) to provide the DC for the radio control equipment. One of the preventive maintenance routines was to check the voltage of the individual cells. Because of the precision requirement (to two decimal places), we used a digital differential voltmeter. Having never used one before, I automatically connected the leads to the high and ground inputs, then proceeded to check the voltage at the +48V end of the bank. Both the voltmeter and I survived; the test lead did not.

sar10538
sar10538

I worked for a while in a telephone exchange which had large 50V bus bars at the top of every rack (it was a strowger exchange). One day a bright young engineer dropped his No. 6 screwdriver across the bars where it gave a beautiful spray of sparks, welded itself between the bars and blew, yes blew, the main fuse so the whole exchange was basically down. Someone had to go up there with a hacksaw to remove it before the main fuse could be replaced. You can imagine the amount of paperwork that generated and barracking from the AEE.

simon
simon

Before moving into IT I worked as a repair technician, repairing TV's VCR's, Audio, etc. One day I had a rather large 1KW audio amp to repair, I needed to discharge the enormous capacitors in the PSU and rather than using the Resistor box that I normally used I decided to be lazy and use a screw driver shorted across them, as i did this there was a blinding flash and the end of my screw driver disapeared, I was able to see the spots for the rest of the day, the moral...never take shortcuts with PSU's... Frootmig....

cjshelby
cjshelby

I used to be responsible for the TV sets in a 500 bed hospital. I could easily replace a half-dozen or more CRTs in an 8-hour day. Even when I discharged the CRT, a small charge would sometimes still be present. I can't begin to tell you the number of times I swore under my breath after getting zapped!

KiloWatt1975
KiloWatt1975

You brought up exactly what should be done when replacing a Video Card. It also stores low voltage in RAM, when you have a stuck video buffer. This is when you use an external monitor, and you see a picture, frame of video or photo, still on screen after closing out of a graphic program. Having multiple video, computer, camera sources coming into my main system for video output switching to WMEncoder, I can get a stuck GPU buffer, maybe 5-6 times a month. Removing the AC, and holding the PC power button is the only way to dump the buffer. Thanks for posting this, and consider my reply a 150% endorsement of your post.

derick.boe
derick.boe

I always do that, I would never work on a power supply that I just unplugged, I always do the same thing as the above poster. which is why I didn't vote for PSU but instead RAM for when to wear the grounded wrist strap.

lmac1947
lmac1947

After unpluging the power cable from the computer, I always hit the front power button to bleed the capacitors in the power supply. If you have the case off, you can see the cooling fans start to run until the caps have bled. Also, if the LED on the mother board is on, you know the caps are still charged.

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