Community Tip: Advice On Electronic Discharge When Installing Components In Computers

03-18-2015 12:15 PM

Community member Jim Farrell got in touch with us with some advice to make sure we don’t damage our equipment when installing static sensitive components. Over to you Jim….
I wanted to offer some professional advice regarding the perils of static electricity to anyone considering doing upgrades and modifications to their electronic devices. For the sake of providing some credentials on the matter, I’ve been involved in electronics manufacturing for about 30 years now, everything from Imax projectors and sound systems to flight critical satellite components.
Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) is a very real danger to exposed electronic devices. I’ve noticed that when Pro Tools Expert shows videos of equipment modifications, the most recent being James’ upgrade to his Mac Pro Cheese Grater, the technicians doing the work did not ground themselves or provide a static free work surface for the exposed electronics. I also remember a video of Mike adding a new card to a Pro Tools PC while kneeling on his studio carpet.
There is a wealth of material on the internet about static and the damage it can do, so I won’t bore you with the extended tutorial, but I will say that the risk is a latent defect cause by the damage that static does. If you’ve ever had an intermittent or frustrating problem with a device and were not able to pin an exact cause to it, you’ve probably suffered ESD damage. Seldom does ESD render a product Dead on Arrival (DOA). The term often used is “walking wounded”. Eventually the only solution is to toss out the device and try another.
The good news is that this can be prevented and it’s extremely cheap to do so. Here are a few guidelines to consider:

  1. Work on a static free surface. That means no carpets, no glass, no fabrics of any kind.
  2. At the very least ground yourself with a proper ESD wrist strap while you are working with exposed electronics. Here’s a cost effective solution that grounds both the item being worked on and yourself. Get a grounded power bar with a power on/off switch and plug it in to the wall outlet (assuming it all has proper ground/earth connections). DO NOT TURN IT ON. Connect the device using its power cable to the power bar, again this is for a ground connection only, do not apply power. Connect the alligator clip of your ESD wrist strap to the chassis of the device under service. Never turn the power bar. You have now provided a path for the static to go to ground for both yourself and the device. Go nuts with your modification. If you don’t have an ESD wrist strap a compromise is to ensure you contact the chassis constantly while working on the modification. ESD straps cost about $10 and are available at most electronics parts stores.
  3. Having implemented #2 above, now you are safe to unpack the shiny new components you are installing, ideally they will be in proper ESD bags or containers that prevent external ESD from penetrating the shield they provide. Open the package only after completing step #2 above.

As a final note I should say that proper ESD practice is most certainly in place at Foxcon and virtually all other manufacturers where the Mac, graphics cards, RAM, iPads, hard drives, SSDs, etc. are manufactured. They understand these risks and you may even find reference to it in the owner’s manuals. I hope you find this helpful. It’s a totally preventative approach, it’s cheap, and it requires just a little discipline. It may just save you many headaches down the road.
Mike says, thanks Jim for your advice, you are right that we do get complaisant about static sensitive components. In the early days they were much more sensitive and so we were much more cautious but as they became more tolerant we have become more complaisant. So thank you for a timely reminder, for handling static sensitive components appropriately.