YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – We have all been there: the weather is miserable outside, so you have been sitting around watching an episode of “The Office” you have seen at least seven times. You decide that now is the time to get up and head to the kitchen for a snack.
Everything is just as it should be. You have some leftover pizza in the fridge, and you are going to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. You shuffle across the carpet and into the kitchen. You reach for the refrigerator door handle and ZAAAAP! You are electrocuted by your ole’ nemesis static electricity.
If you are anything like me, you vow that this will never happen to you again. However, also like me, you are not even sure what causes static electricity. Also, why in the world does it seem to happen more often in winter? Well, fear not, I am going to have all the answers for you today. In fact, you might even find some of the information *shocking*. All right, enough of the bad jokes.
You can blame static electricity on matter
Unfortunately, static electricity is not something that humans can eliminate. It is something that will always be present in our daily lives. That is because humans, and objects surrounding them, are made up of matter.
Matter – a physical substance that everything in the world is made of; not mind or spirit (Oxford Dictionary)
More specifically, matter is comprised of atoms like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etc. All atoms are comprised of three types of smaller particles: a proton (a particle with a positive charge), a neutron (a particle with a neutral charge) and an electron (a particle with a negative charge). You can see a visual description of an atom below.
Typically, the electrons and protons in an atom balance out. This is the reason why most objects you touch or pick up do not shock you.
However, relative to protons and neutrons, electrons are tiny and are almost insignificant in mass. Therefore, shuffling your shoes on a carpet or rubbing against an object can give electrons enough energy to leave their atoms and attach to other objects.
Remember when you got up to get that leftover pizza in the fridge? Walking across the carpet created enough energy for the electrons to leave your body and attach to other objects. Therefore, you are left with more protons than electrons, which makes you positively charged.
These electrons that leave your body will usually accumulate on an object nearby like the door handle of the refrigerator. This gives the door handle a negative charge.
These differences in charge are called charge separation. However, nature is always trending toward balance and this charge separation does not last for long.
When you reach for the fridge door handle, the electrons that accumulated on the door handle quickly move back to your body and deliver a shock to you called static discharge. Below is a great video that explains the basics of static electricity.
Why is this phenomenon worse during the winter?
Alright, you now have learned the mechanism for static electricity. Why does this phenomenon seem worse during the winter? Is it actually worse during the winter?
The answer is yes.
Warm air can hold more water vapor than cold air. This is why it often feels humid during the summertime — because the air is holding more water vapor.
Water vapor has another property in addition to the humid feeling; it attracts the excited electrons that are created when you move around. Therefore, there is less opportunity for these electrons to accumulate on other objects and less opportunity for static discharge.
During the winter months, the cold temperatures limit the capacity of the atmosphere to hold water vapor. Thus, the freely moving electrons are more likely to accumulate on objects around you and the static discharge (or the ZAP) is much more likely.
Is there a way to stop static discharge?
There are some very particular items that you can buy to prevent static discharge that I won’t get into.
However, one of the simplest ways to prevent static discharge is to run a humidifier in your house. This will add more water vapor to the room and decrease the chances of static discharge.
I hope you learned about static electricity today and I hope you can prevent shocks in the future!