Static Season Has Returned

We’ve all done it. We’ve all earned the scathing look and the whine of discomfort because we just accidentally static shocked our child. You always feel just a little bad, unless of course you did it on purpose, in which case you are trying very hard not to smile. But in all things there is a teaching moment and shocking the hooey out of your child is no exception. It’s a great time to talk about static electricity. What is it, what causes it, and how you can prevent it? Most GeekMoms will likely already have Googled it after about the thousandth time they shocked themselves getting out of the car, but just as a very basic review, here goes.*

A student plays with Science Museum Oklahoma's Van De Graaf Generator at a local baseball game.

Static electricity is generated when surfaces are rubbed together transferring electrons from one surface to the other. As excess electrons build up an electric charge is created. Since electricity is always seeking to be grounded the first opportunity it gets to head to terra firma, it will take. Unfortunately for us, humans are terrific conductors of electricity and, thanks to gravity, are very often grounded. This means when you touch a surface that is teeming with too many electrons these charged molecules travel through your body to the ground. SNAP! You get a shock!

Static electricity is painful and annoying but not harmful in any real way. It makes your hair do dumb things on dry mornings and your laundry a sticky crackly pile of fabric if you forget the dryer sheet, but it can’t do any real damage. Static electricity is measured in voltage. Roughly defined this is how many of those rogue electrons move from Point A (charged surface) to Point B (you). Current, measured in amperage, is what is deadly. Think of it like a river. You can swim in the Mississippi River if you wanted to. (Especially if studying communicable diseases) The water, in theory, won’t hurt you. It’s just water. Now if you were to take all the water in the Mississippi River and force it through a garden hose, then the water would hurt you. A lot. The water itself is still water but now it is traveling at a much higher speed. The speed of the water is now dangerous, not the amount of water or even the water itself. Voltage measures the amount of electricity. Amperage measures the current or speed the electricity is traveling. When you get a static shock the electrons are lazily hopping from surface to you. Now if you were to stick a fork in an electrical outlet, those electrons are being violently and rapidly forced to that point. They would then be violently and rapidly forced through you. That would be bad.

The Tesla Coil at Science Museum Oklahoma generates over 20,000 volts of electricity.

Ever wonder why static seems to be a bigger problem during the winter? Its because the winter, for the most part, is less humid. Humidity, or high levels of water molecules in the air, diffuses the electrons much better. It also acts as a barrier between those surfaces rubbing together and less electrons are allowed to build up. But in the dry winter months, electrons get too friendly from time to time and you get a nice surprise.

The best way to avoid static electricity is to pick up your feet when walking but even this isn’t fool proof. Unless you are okay with walking around like a robot, even the friction from your clothing is capable of generating static electricity. The best way to avoid the melodramatic yelps of pain from your children is to remember to discharge yourself before picking up Junior. Yes, its painful but aren’t your kiddos worth it?

*Remember this explanation is broken down into the basics. There is more to static, electricity, voltage and amperage, but for the purposes of chatting with the kids this is simplified but accurate to the best of my knowledge.

The GeekMom blog is captained by Jenny Bristol and Corrina Lawson, and supported by a brilliant team of writers. Since launching in 2010, we’ve created a robust community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.