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Static Electricity Shocks

by Ron Kurtus (15 February 2009)

A major nuisance of static electricity is when you get an unexpected shock simply from touching some object after walking across the room. It is not a true electric shock but rather the pain from a hot spark jumping from your finger or other body part.

The usual cause of the static electric spark starts with a buildup of electrical charges in your body, due to rubbing your skin against clothing or other materials. When enough of those charges are present and when there is the opportunity to discharge to some conducting object, electrons will jump across the air gap, resulting in a spark.

There are several ways to reduce your chances of getting static electricity shocks or the effects of these shocks.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion



Problems with shocks

One of the biggest complaints that people have about static electricity is that it causes sparks or gives them mild shocks when they touch things or even other people. Most people experience this problem in the winter, but there are others who are are constantly getting shocks and are actually plagued by the problem.

Not a real electric shock

When you are on the receiving end of such a spark, it can startle you, as well as cause some pain or discomfort. A static electric shock is not an electric shock as you would get from high voltage AC or DC electricity. Rather, it is a shock or surprise and the pain that comes from the white hot air and the collapse of the air afterwards that causes the noise.

Examples of problems

Some of the letters we have received from people about this problem include:

The common factors in all of these cases point to dry air and materials that rub against each other to build up the static electricity. Certain materials—including dry human skin—can especially build up charges.

Some people use the shocks to amuse themselves.

Jack often would build up excess charges. He took pleasure in going up to others and touching them on the nose, giving them an unpleasant shock.

Jack had few friends.

Causes of shocks

A static electric spark will jump from one material to another when the difference in the amount of positive (+) and negative (−) charges is sufficient to cause electrons to overcome the resistance of the air gap between the two materials. The electrons heat the air for a fraction of a second, causing the spark and zapping sound.

Often caused by clothes rubbing on skin

The buildup of static electricity that can result in these static electric shocks can be caused by clothing rubbing on your skin or clothing rubbing on certain materials. Some devices and machines build up static electricity that can shock those that touch them.

The primary causes are:

Low humidity conditions can greatly increase the buildup of charges.

Generated by devices

In our immediate  environment, electrostatic charges are also generated  artificially by photocopiers, air conditioning, computers in the office and by appliances such as hair dryers, dishwashers, washing machines and cooling fans.

In the case of static electricity being caused by devices or machinery, the owners need to take steps to reduce or eliminate the problem.

Rapid movement of newspaper in the printing process can cause a buildup of charges that affect the people working on the machines. Proper grounding of those machines is necessary to avoid discomfort or injury to the workers.

Reduce or prevent the problem

The way to reduce the problem of excess static electricity is to try to get more humidity in the air, change the materials or modify their surface and ground yourself before touching things, whenever possible.

(See Reducing or Preventing Static Electricity Shocks for detailed information.)

Reduce buildup

Some things to do to reduce building up static charges include:

Be aware of materials

Be aware of certain situations that can cause the build up of static electric charges:

In these cases, try to change materials, if you can. Otherwise, you should be remember to ground yourself before touching metal or a conductor that can give you a shock.

Grounding prevents shocks

Grounding includes touching a non-conductor such as a wooden door before touching the metal doorknob, touching the doorknob with a metal key to drain off the charges or touching the doorknob with a special static shock eliminator.

Device grounds excess static electric charges in body

Device grounds excess static electric charges in body

Summary

Many people have the problem of getting a static electricity shock, simply from touching some object. The usual cause of the static electric shock is a buildup of electrical charges in your body, due to rubbing your skin against clothing or other materials. Increasing the humidity in your house, moisturizing your skin and not wearing polyester clothes are way to reduce the chances for getting a shock. Grounding yourself is the way to prevent a shock.


Protect yourself from harm


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

Humans and Sparks - Preventing painful static sparks

Static Electricity Resources

Products

Static Shock Key Rings - From Amazon.com

Books

Top-rated books on Electrostatics


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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