Static Sparks and Your Comfort

One of the greatest mild discomforts that millions of people go through unknowingly is static sparks. Static sparks or static electricity is the one you generate when you rub plastic pen against your hair and then you bring the pen closer to pieces of paper – the pieces of paper are attracted to the pen. Static electricity can sometimes build to very high voltages in our bodies causing great damage including death. A case in point is in football pitch in Zaire where eleven players of soccer perished leaving intact the eleven players of the opposing team. Each one of us has a certain amount of static electricity but in mild amounts and the discomfort is equally mild. Since we are not aware of it or we do not know what the discomfort is, it does not matter. But it should matter. To the few people who are aware of static electricity in their bodies, the biggest complaints they have is that static electricity causes sparks or gives them mild shocks when they touch things or even other people. Most people experience this problem in the dry weather.

When the weather is dry, it means there is very little water vapour in the air. During winter or during periods that the temperatures are high, then chances are very high that there is very little moisture in the air. In science, moisture in the atmosphere is referred to as Relative Humidity. This Relative Humidity is the ratio of partial pressure of water vapour to the saturated vapour pressure of water at a given temperature. Relative Humidity is measured by an instrument called a Hygrometer.

Dry air is a non-conductor of static electricity – it does not readily let electrons pass through it. In contrast, moist air will slowly allow static electricity or electrons leave your body and fly to the ground. This therefore means that when the air is dry and you do not touch a material that is a conductor of static electricity, then the static electricity will continue to build up in your body to thousands of volts. When you are this much charged you do not feel it but the truth is, you are a great security risk to your own life and to the safety of the others. And to those who remotely check security to airports, fuel deports and other sensitive areas, it would in addition help to look for a decent way to discharge these unsuspecting victims.

But where do the charges come from? They come from the earth or the ground. The earth is neutral with infinite positive and negative charges canceling each other. In as long as you walk bare footed, all is well. But because we must put on shoes, the soles of our shoes become the determining factor. Certain synthetic rubber soles on shoes create a lot of static electricity. Like in a magnet that has North pole on one end and South pole on the other, the synthetic sole of your shoes determines the polarity in that for every step you make, it leaves prints of positive charges on the ground and negative charges goes to your body or the vice versa. The more you move, the more charged you become. If the air is moist, then your body will slowly discharge to the moist air and to the ground. If the air is dry, then the charges will remain in your body until you get your next victim. When it is dry, first and foremost check on the soles of your shoes.

Winter or no winter, you will hear of “electric” people. These are people you will curse shaking their hands. They are people whose skin is usually very dry and, or the surface area of skin hair is very high. The dry skin, skin hair combined with the clothing material and shoes these “electric” people put on causes the buildup of static charges. One thing they should do is try to use sufficient moisturizers and lotions to control the dryness. They can experiment with different types of moisturizers and lotions until this problem is solved. Naturally what people can not understand they result to mysteries, myths and legends to explain these unfortunate situations. And do not loss sight that they may be the ones handling their babies or your baby too. If you have young children who can not be able to explain themselves when you touch them, try using a humidifier to raise the humidity in your house, plus you have to decide if to do away with your carpet. Get yourself those decorative hygrometer and thermometer that you can hung somewhere on the wall. A relative humidity under 30 percent or a temperature above 27 degrees Celsius is sufficient to warrant precaution. If your pajamas and bed sheets are the type of materials that create static electricity when rubbed together, you will be bothered with shocks all night long on a dry weather night. Try using pajamas and sheets made of non-static materials. Cotton does not seem to develop as much static electricity as some artificial fibers. And since mothers like using plastic materials on those children that wet the bed, then care should be taken to cover the plastic material with sufficient cotton material to prevent plastic coming into contact with body.

Static sparks comes with a lot of pain especially when you touch a good conductor like metal. If you drive, perhaps it would help to find if your passengers go through static electricity discomforts. In as long as you are the one holding the keys and the steering wheel, you will never realize. Your passengers do not know what it is and neither do they want to risk to sound silly. They may be suffering quietly and will never tell you. When you are in the car, you are one surface and the car seat is the other. When you sit on a synthetic or plastic car seat in dry weather, the contact between your clothes and the seat causes polarity and electrical charges of the materials are transferred between the surfaces. One surface ends up with more negative charges than positive, and has a negative charge-imbalance. The other surface has more positive charges than negative, and has a positive charge-imbalance.

In as long as you remain seated nothing happens. As long as the surfaces remain near each other, the positives and negatives cancel out, but the fact is you are a great risk to yourself and to others. But when you open the car door and step outside, you take just one polarity of charge along with you, while the car seat retains the opposite polarity. As you step out of the car, you have ten of thousands of voltage with you. Your shoes soles are poor conductor and the charges can not escape fast enough into the earth. You have to close the car door and there you get a zap – the car door is metal and good conductor, the air in between and your fingers are both poor conductors, and because of resistance differential, there is a lot of heating giving you deep hot burn on your fingertips. The guy driving handily gets these as he slowly discharges through the steering wheel and ignition key. Similarly, when there is thunder, avoid holding metallic materials otherwise you and the metallic materials will become the shortest path to the ground, and because there is great resistance differential between your hand and the metal, you will get burnt.

Get yourself a Hygrometer for your car. Whenever the relative humidity goes below 30 percent, then you have a reason to start taking care both for yourself and your passengers. Replace your synthetic plastic car seat covers with cloth or leather. Avoid the specific clothing which makes the problem worse. Things like woolen sweaters, woolen under wares and plastic raincoats.

If for some reason you will purchase gasoline or petrol in a container – perhaps for your home electric generator or for whatever reason, always make sure to place the container on the ground when filling it, otherwise the petrol fumes and static electricity will ignite fire that will burn you and the filling station.

Free things are good and many of us like them but they can turn out to be very costly. In areas where gasoline is transported by trucks, trucks do overturn and the surrounding community will gather with containers to benefit from the free fuel. With the volatile gasoline, there are lots of fumes and with hundreds of people competing for the free gasoline, chance are very high one of them will ignite static spark and then an explosion. It is a pity hundreds of souls are lost this way. And because the communities may not understand where the fire came from, they comfort themselves that one of them must have been smoking a cigarette. The next time it happens, they say, “no smoking”, but the explosion still happen.

Static electricity spark will damage electronics including cell phones and computers. Normally, when operating a cell phone or a computer, static electricity is not a problem. But if you find you are having problems with static electricity causing sparks when you touch things, it is logical to take precautions before touching even the computer keyboard. And if you are to venture into the inside of your computers, then you should have a special pad on the floor and use a grounded strap on your wrist that will discharge any excess charges from your body.

Your hair, and especially to the ladies, is a thing of the beauty. We spend a lot of our resources and time so that we can look neat and beautiful. On a dry day, after you attend your hair it can tend to fly up and separate. That is because the hair strands have the same electrical charge and like-charges will repel thus the hair flying up and separating. The solution to this problem is simply to use anti-static sprays that will eliminate this problem.

If static electricity is a serious problem to you, try using a key or a metal object and use it to touch other metal things first with it. This will cause the spark to fly from the key and not your finger. Another thing you should do is to ground yourself before touching something metal or another person. Touch poor conducting surfaces like walls or wood.

In view of the above I have considered only those small scale static electricity discomforts that may affect you. I now shall invite you to join me as I look at the dangers of large scale static electricity to man – the guys in the aviation industry places so much caution on this that a report of one thunder and they can no longer lift the aircraft.