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How to avoid getting shocked by static electricity during winter

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

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During the cold, dry months, everyday actions like handling a doorknob, flipping on a light switch or touching your car’s metal frame are more likely to result in an annoying, yet harmless, jolt of static electricity shock.

Static electricity, which is the result of an imbalance of positive and negative charges, results from a charge imbalance created by certain actions, including shuffling one’s feet across a carpeted floor, said John Burkhauser, director of educational programs at Bolt Technology.

Your body picks up negative charges, making you more negative,” Burkhauser explained. “Negative and negative or positive and positive [charges] do not like to be near each other, so they push away from each other.”

Opposites attract, so as you reach for a door handle, the negative charge on your body continues to build up until there’s enough voltage to allow the charge to jump between your hand and the doorknob in the form of a spark, according to Burkhauser.

Spark


Static shock is more likely to happen in colder, drier climates because this type of air lacks the moisture needed for static electricity to find balance.

Warm air, on the other hand, holds more moisture, which is why static shock is a lot less common during summer.

“Dry, cold air is more of an insulator,” Burkhauser said. “The charge must build up to high voltage before it makes the jump to equalize the charges.”

“The voltage can range from 4,000 to 35,000 volts, but with no current,” he added.

This explains why static shock may hurt but will not kill you, according to Burkhauser.

If you find that you’re often plagued with the misfortune of getting zapped every time you touch a metal object or another person, there are a few ways you can reduce the likelihood of it occurring.

Alter your winter wardrobe

Wearing your favorite wool sweater or socks might seem perfect for keeping warm, but your chances of being shocked will rise while wearing wool and certain synthetic fabrics, including nylon and polyester. Experts recommend choosing cotton clothing instead.

Wearing rubber-soled shoes, which are powerful insulators, will also increase the likelihood of static shock and can build up static electricity in your body as you walk across a nylon or wool carpet.

Leather shoes would be a better option to avoid static shock, according to experts at the University of Birmingham.

Humidify your home

Cranking up the central heating in your home during winter can reduce humidity levels and dry out the air even further, increasing your risk of getting zapped.

“[Raising] the humidity levels by deploying a humidifier can help mitigate prolonged buildup of static charges on our bodies,” said Sai Sunil Mallineni, a research assistant at Clemson University’s Nanomaterials Center.

Burkhauser recommended aiming to maintain a humidity level of between 40 and 50 percent.

Use dryer sheets

The anti-static properties of dryer sheets balance out the electrons in your clothes with positively charged ions as they dry.

This helps prevent them from clinging together in the dryer and also reduces your chances of static shock as you wear them.

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You can also use dryer sheets in your vehicle to prevent getting zapped as you touch the metal frame, according to Burkhauser.

“If you get a nasty shock getting out of your car, rub the seat down with a dryer sheet, and that will short circuit the static buildup,” he said.

Keep touching metal

Another simple way [to prevent static shock] is to keep touching a metal object as often as possible to continuously ground built-up charges,” Mallineni said.

Although typically harmless, static electricity can pose a significant threat if it occurs at a gas station, particularly in colder climates.

To prevent it, try to avoid getting in and out of your car while you pump gas. If you have to, be sure to discharge static build-up before reaching for the nozzle.

You can do this by touching something metal, such as your car door, with your bare hand in a place located away from the nozzle, according to the American Petroleum Institute.


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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