The shocking truth (and lies) about ESD

A participant in Reddit’s forum devoted to networking asked: “Has anyone here ever destroyed anything via ESD (electronic static discharge)?”

Oh, yes, indeed they have, as a sampling of the anecdotes will reveal, though there were also skeptics and one fellow who told me via email “that most failures claimed to be ESD-related are probably covers for something else.”

First time for everything

I recently had a user plug an HDMI cable into a Dell E7440. He was touching the shielding and a nice big blue spark jumped from the cable to the laptop and cooked the motherboard. It was the first time in 12 years doing IT that I've ever seen something die from ESD.

A second-hand tale

I was working as a software specialist for a manufacturing company that assembled PCA boards that control water jet systems. Before my time there they said they had like a 85% return rate on all controller boards! They built a clean room for that department, you had to de-charge yourself before entering the room by standing on a metal plate and pressing a button (from memory 5 years ago now) wear anti-static jackets, those total shoe covers and hair cover things that look like grandmas shower cap. After these measures the fail return rate dropped to like 15% (so I was told).

Even at home

I once zapped my home's thermostat when I was attempting to change the temperature setting. The LCD went blank and refused to come back on. I ended up replacing the unit. About a week later, the controller circuit board on my furnace failed. I'm guessing it was related to the static, but I have no proof.

Despite precautions

I was always conscious to ground myself to the rack after getting up out of my chair. I'd receive a nice little zap, then proceed with touching the servers. After doing this a good 50 times, I proceeded to ground myself, then made a few steps and touched the end of an ethernet cable, and felt the slightest of zaps. Later after completing the reconfiguration, I discovered that I only had network connectivity to half of the VMs on one of my hosts. Quite odd. The host had two network uplinks to the switch and VMware was performing it's magic of load balancing the vm's network connectivity between the two uplinks. Link lights appeared good. Turned out ESD had killed the switchport on the other end of the cable when I touched it.

It can be a ruse

There was one bench in our suite that was rarely used and horrible with static, we never checked why. If we had a component that was questionable, we'd pull it, make a short walk down an adjoining hall with old carpet to get a good charge and touch the bench while holding the NIC, video card, etc. A decent pop later and there was no question and was sent back for replacement.

(UPDATE, April 14: I just remembered that in 2013 I wrote a post about a crazy YouTube video titled, “Don’t worry, it’s just ESD.” The guy insisted to me then that it was not a gag.)

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