Zzsssstttt! Dry winter air gives unsuspecting people a charge

December 15, 1992|By Arizona Republic

Children cower from their parents. Lovers duck kisses. Drivers tremble when they reach for the car door.

Winter, with its dry air inside and out, is static season.

Just by crossing a carpeted room, you can build up a charge of 20,000 volts. Fortunately, your skin keeps the jolt from doing any physical harm.

As every kid seems to learn by age 9, static builds up when two objects rub together, such as shoes on a carpet. They become charged as electrons move from one object to the other. In humid air, the charge drains off because water conducts electricity. In dry air, however, the static builds up until it meets a good conductor: a doorknob, a metal table or the next sucker who walks past.

The shocks are worst in winter because cold air holds less moisture than warm. And inside buildings, heating can drop the relative humidity to below 10 percent.

To avoid static, the best fabric to wear is cotton, which picks up moisture easily, says Robert Lala, development manager for Lever Bros. Co.

Wool is a potential shocker, however, and synthetics are notorious for static cling, which only gets worse when they knock around together inside a clothes dryer.

Fabric softeners, dryer sheets and anti-static sprays deposit a film on clothing that is a good conductor on its own, holds humidity and cuts down friction.

Carpets often are treated with anti-static chemicals or made with a sprinkling of anti-static fibers. Monsanto Co. puts carbon into its fibers to draw off electric charges.

Although harmless to people, static is death to computer chips. The smallest discharge can blow out their circuits. As many as half of the semiconductors returned to Motorola's division in Phoenix, Ariz., have been damaged by static, says Tom Kazor, reliability manager for the analog-products division.

Static can derail electronic light dimmers and make TV remote controls run on their own, says Walt Gerlach of the Arizona Public Service Co. To tame household static, he suggests putting a mixture of water and fabric softener in a spray bottle and misting the carpet occasionally.

Or arm yourself with a key.

Tap a metal surface with it after walking down a carpeted hall. Use it to touch the car door after building up a charge by sliding off the seat.

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