Whether you’re building your own computer, installing new RAM, or upgrading your PC’s components, you’ll be opening it up and touching sensitive electronics components. While doing this, you should be careful of static electricity, which can harm your computer.

You don’t have to be completely paranoid about static electricity, and there’s no need to go overboard and buy an antistatic mat. A few basic precautions are all you need.

How Static Electricity Can Damage Your PC

If you’ve ever touched something and felt a zap or rubbed a balloon against a carpet and stuck it to a wall, you’ve experienced static electricity in action.

Static electricity results from a difference in electrical charge between two surfaces. For example, if you rubbed your sock-covered feet on a carpet, your feet would scrape off electrons. The electrons give you a negative static charge, and when you touched another object — such as your doorknob — the electrons would be transferred to that object, equalizing the charge. You’d experience this as a small shock when you touched the object.

Such shocks can damage your computer’s internal components. You don’t need to worry about this when using your computer normally, but if you’ve opened your computer’s case and are touching its internal components, or are just pulling a new video card or stick of RAM out of the bag it came in, you’ll want to be sure you don’t have a static charge that will zap the components. PC components typically come in antistatic bags so they don’t get zapped during transport or while being handled.

If you do zap a component, you won’t see visible damage. But the static electricity could result in an overload — too much electricity — or short circuit that can permanently damage the components.

How to Protect Against Static Electricity

You don’t have to buy anything or go too far out of your way to prevent damage from static electricity while handling your PC’s components. These simple tips will help you avoid static electricity without any real additional work.

  • Avoid rubbing your socks against carpeted floors and pull off any wool sweaters before you get to work. Such materials can rub together and build up static electricity, which you don’t want while operating on your PC.
  • While working on your PC, leave it plugged in to a grounded outlet (in other words, a three-prong outlet). Be sure to turn its power completely off using the main power switch on the power supply, which you’ll likely find on the back of your case — not the power button you use every day. Before touching any internal components, touch a metal part of your computer case with your hand. This will ground you, neutralizing your static charge. You should now be able to work without worrying about static electricity. To be extra careful, just touch the case occasionally to keep your static charge neutralized and ensure you remain grounded. You could also keep one hand touched to the case the entire time if you were really paranoid — that would keep you grounded the entire time.
  • Be sure to take static electricity into account before touching any separate components, too. For example, if you order a new video card or a stick of RAM, ground yourself in this way before pulling the component out of its antistatic bag.
  • If you want to get fancier — maybe you’re a computer technician and you do this all the time — you can purchase an antistatic wrist strap. To use it, just place the band on your wrist and clip it to the PC’s case. This keeps you constantly in contact with the case, ensuring you remain grounded the whole time while allowing you to use both hands inside your computer.

You could go overboard and get an antistatic mat, but these tips should be more than good enough. Even an antistatic wrist strap is probably overkill for the average geek building a PC or fiddling inside it.

Some people may claim they’ve never followed any of these procedures and have never damaged any hardware. This is probably true, but they’re the lucky ones. It’s best to follow the basic safety procedures while handling hardware — it isn’t hard to give your computer’s case a quick touch before you get to work.

Image Credit: Karl-Martin Skontorp on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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