The Shocking Truth About ESD
Whether you’re a data center technician or a couch potato, chances are you’ve encountered electrostatic discharge or ESD before. In fact, if you’ve ever dragged your feet across a rug and poked your younger sibling to give them a nice little tormenting jolt, you’ve manipulated electricity; one of the most powerful forces of nature! If you were that younger sibling, you can find solace in the fact that your torment was in the name of science.
Electricity has been around since the dawn of time and will long outlive us. If controlled, it can be used to bring our beloved technology to life or deliver that annoying shock to our siblings – but, if handled incorrectly, it can destroy these devices rendering them useless. Yes, including your sibling. Although, you’d have to drag your feet for a very long time on that carpet and somehow get past that pesky voltage threshold to deliver that kind of shock.
ESD is the discharge between two differently-charged objects when brought into close proximity. It can be as spectacular as a bolt of lightning striking a Redwood tree in the Sequoia National Park shattering it to pieces and starting a fire, or as simple as that annoying shock you get from touching that metal door handle on your way to work in the morning.
In a data center or data center type environment, ESD is something you’d almost always want to avoid. It’s the type of thing that can turn your most powerful servers into paperweights. Even on a smaller scale, it can reach anywhere between 10 and 80k volts! That’s enough to put a visible hole in a circuit board!
One of the biggest sources of ESD in data centers is in fact, our own two hands. Our skin and hair are great conductors, prone to a positive electrical charge as measured by the Triboelectric Series. An electrical charge is built up by friction between two objects where one becomes positively charged and the other negatively charged. This is a regular part of life. Chances are, there’s enough static electricity built up in you right now to destroy the computer you’re using to read this article! Luckily, the sensitive parts of your computer are protected by the chassis.
For those of us who work in data centers regularly, there are a few great options to protect sensitive hardware. My personal favorite is the ESD Standard Heel Grounder. This is a strap that goes around the bottom of your shoes with a conductive ribbon that goes into your sock, completing the circuit to provide a low impedance path for the charged particles you’ve collected away from any hardware you might be dealing with. It can be a hassle to put on and take off but it certainly gets the job done. A second option that should only be used as a fallback only if you’re pressed for time, is that you can always neutralize your electrical charge by touching a metal chassis or rack. This does the same thing by completing the circuit, but I would advise to take the time and put on the Heel Grounder as it is more effective. You can find an extensive list of ESD Grounding devices here.
Another common way you can find ESD dangers in data centers is through synthetic materials such as Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, or just about any type of food or drink container. You see, synthetic materials are prone to a negative charge. This is equally as dangerous as our positively charged hands. The answer to this issue is much simpler, DON’T BRING FOOD OR DRINKS INTO THE DATA CENTER! I know exactly how tempting it could be to bring a water bottle in, especially if you’ve got a long shift ahead of you. Data centers are extremely dry and do a great job sucking the moisture out of you, but it’s better to keep those things far away from your server racks to prevent any chance of ESD or disastrous spills. It’s just bad practice. Don’t do it.
If you ever need to store an exposed circuit board, there are ESD safe bags that are designed to keep your components safe. These bags work like magic! You can put exposed circuitry in it, and if used correctly, it acts almost like a force field from the dangers of ESD. This allows you to store and transfer devices easily, keeping them out of harm’s way. This is especially useful for those with limited storage space.
Well there you have it folks, the basics of what you need to know about Electrostatic Discharge and how to manage it in a data center environment. The most important thing is to be conscious of the risk factors of what you’re bringing into the data center. Remember to always wear your heel grounder when dealing with any of your sensitive equipment. Do this and you can avoid a very awkward conversation with your boss about why the brand new blade server card has a burn hole in its circuitry. For those who want to learn more about this, check out the links below
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