How to Avoid Static Electricity and Other IAQ Problems this Winter

Why Winter Is Prime Time for Static Electricity

So why is winter so bad for static electricity? Well, without getting too technical, static electricity can be defined as the buildup of electric charges on the surface of objects. When electrons move from one surface to another, the surfaces are both insulators, one has a positive charge while the other has a negative one. If one of these charged objects then touches a conductor (like a piece of metal) then the charge neutralizes itself which causes a static shock.

The dry air of winter is a big insulator and you also have various other insulators in your home like the soles of your shoes or your decorative carpet in the living room. Your body builds charges moving around your home and sometimes the only way they’re neutralized is through touching your doorknob and creating a shock.

Heres Why Static Electricity is Worse in the Winter

A positively- or negatively-charged object will continue to hold its charge until it comes into contact with an object with the inverse charge. When electrons are unable to transfer freely, these charges build up, intensifying the effects of static electricity.

Conductors keep electrons moving, which reduces the likelihood that objects will build up charges, whereas insulators prevent electrons from passing through, allowing objects to become charged enough to create static electricity.

One of the most common conductors we encounter is water. Since water allows electrons to travel freely, it’s less likely for static charges to build up in an environment where water is present. This is why static electricity is rarely an issue in the summertime — humid summer air holds more water than dry winter air.

The key here is humidity, not necessarily temperature. While it is true that warm air naturally holds more water than cold air, water vapor is often removed by our furnaces in the process of heating the air in our homes during the winter. This dry air creates an ideal environment for static charges to build up, leading to those dreaded static electricity shocks each time you flip the light switch.

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How Can Static Electricity Be Controlled?

  • Wear shoes with leather soles or cotton instead of wool socks
  • Avoid wearing clothing made of wool, opt for one made of cotton instead
  • Use furniture covers to cover your furnitures such as those made of natural fibers as synthetic ones accumulate more static charge
  • Use a humidifier to increase the humidity of the air in your home and workplace
  • Use an anti-static hand lotion or try your best to keep your hands moisturized
  • Place anti-static mats on the floors and work surfaces
  • Ground yourself before touching machinery and other sensitive equipment

Insulators, Conductors,andtheTriboelectricEffect

Materials can be classified as either insulators or conductors (of electricity, heat, etc.). Conductors are made up of atoms that allow electrons to flow freely from particle to particle.  If a conductor becomes charged, the charge is quickly distributed across the entire surface of the object through the movement of electrons.   In contrast, insulators are made up of atoms that restrict the flow of electrons from atom to atom.

A list of common insulators and conductors of elec
A list of common insulators and conductors of electricity
Abridged Triboelectric Series of Common Insulators
Abridged Triboelectric Series of Common Insulators

Even though the atoms within insulators restrict the flow of electrons, insulators can still become charged.  

However, when an insulator becomes charged, the charge remains localized to one region within the material.  The charge will build up in an insulator rather than spreading through the material and diffusing as the same charge would in a conductor.

When two materials are rubbed together, the friction generated by the rubbing causes electrons to jump from the atoms of one material to atoms in the other material.  Consequently, one material will become positively charged while the other material will become negatively charged. This phenomenon is called the triboelectric effect (“tribo” means relating to friction).

Flyaway hair due to static electricity
Flyaway hair due to static electricity

Scientists have compiled a list of materials arranged by how likely each material is to become positively or negatively charged due to rubbing. An abridged form of this Triboelectric Series of some common insulators is shown in the figure above.  

If two of the insulators from the list are rubbed together, both objects will become charged. The item higher on the list will become positively charged, while the item lower on the list will become negatively charged.

This explains why you get flyaway hair when you pull off a wool sweater. As the wool rubs against your hair when you remove your sweater, your hair becomes positively charged while your sweater becomes negatively charged. Oftentimes, your hair will seem “drawn” to the sweater. This is because opposite charges attract, and the electrons from the sweater seek to travel back to the atoms of your hair in order to restore a neutral charge.

Static Electricity in the Workplace

Static electricity causes two main workplace concerns:

  • The ignition of flammable materials or atmospheres, which can cause fires endangering employees
  • Harm to sensitive electronic components and equipment

What You Can Do About It

If you’re thinking, “What’s so bad about static electricity? I can live with it.” You’re wrong. Static electricity is just a symptom of a dry home which also causes various other problems like:

  • Longer cold and flus which are harder to get over
  • Dry furniture that leads to cracking and chipping
  • Dehydrated hair, skin, and nails
  • Exacerbated respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis

The easiest thing to do is install a humidifier. We’re no stranger to excess levels of humidity here in Florida so we run into a lot of homeowners who have a very negative connotation with the word “humidity.” Humidity is actually a big ally in your home comfort in winter. Humidity insulates your body and allows you to feel warmer at cooler thermostat settings. Humidity keeps your family members comfortable and healthy at a lower cost. If you’re shocked all winter long by various surfaces and have irritated sinuses, dry skin, and sore throats, make sure you address the indoor air quality of your home. It impacts your daily life much more than you might think.

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