I Don’t Get I.T.: PC Killers – ESD, EMI, & RFI

During my BSIT studies, I realized I was force-feeding myself loads of information to get through the courses and keep my 3.8 GPA.  As a result, my understanding of basic I.T. concepts went out of the window.  I could regurgitate plenty of information, but I couldn’t tell you the root of HOW or WHY.  So, I decided to blog about I.T. Basics.  My aim is to offer elementary-level backbone information a fourth-grader can understand, so anyone can build their tech knowledge.

Any questions, comments, concerns — feel free to comment.  I also take kindly to constructive criticism and if you have an I.T. question, ask away and perhaps you’ll see a future post about it!


 

WOC Phone/Laptop

The ability to repair your own PC is an awesome skill to have, but that skill is useless if you don't know to take basic safety precautions.  Let's be real - just about anyone can become a pro-PC-repairer in their spare time thanks to Google... but being unaware of ESD, EMI, and RFI could wipe your data and/or destroy important components on your machine.


Electrostatic Discharge (ESD)

ESD is rated as the greatest PC killer by Mike Meyers, author of the CompTIA A+ Certification Exam Guide that I am so lovingly trudging through, at the moment.  If you've ever been shocked by a doorknob while walking through your house in socks, then you've experienced ESD.  You can get a pretty serious shock from a PC if you just open it up and start rummaging through bits and pieces, but that isn't the worst part.  The worst outcome of ESD is having your PC components destroyed.

Sure, as time goes, manufacturers have begun integrating ESD precautions in the components they churn out.  And sure, if you ask around or do a quick Google, you'll find a plethora of folks who have either never been shocked, or have been shocked but report 0 PC damage.  That's great for them, but just like the airline safety speech... just because most planes fly just fine, and you can meet plenty of pilots and stewards who have never been in a crashing plane, doesn't mean you skip the safety measures.

What causes ESD?

Electrostatic Discharge happens when two objects with different amounts of static/potential electricity come into contact with each other.  Just like you and the doorknob, the discharge happened because when the two of you made contact, ya'll tried to gain common potential - meaning the doorknob and your hand were each trying to get on the same level as far as stored energy goes.

Your environment can determine the likelihood of ESD.  Generally speaking, the cooler and dryer the climate, the more likely ESD can/will occur.  Keep in mind, too, that just because you don't FEEL or SEE it doesn't mean it didn't happen!

Protecting Yourself & Your PC from ESD

You've heard of grounding yourself, right?  When it comes to working on a PC, you want to ground yourself TO the PC.  This just means you and whatever PC parts you're in contact with are staying on the same level of potential electricity.

Anti-Static Wrist Wraps/Straps

The most common mode of grounding in the PC tech field are anti-static wrist wraps.  These wraps just look like a less-fancy FitBit with a black elastic strap, a metal plate against your wrist, a black wire, and an alligator clip at the end.  The tech just needs to put this around their wrist and clip the other end to something metal in the PC.  This will get you and your PC on the same potential electricity level.

Blue Anti-Static Wrist Strap on Yellow Background With Curly Cord Leading to Alligator Clip

Anti-Static Mats

What happens to the static electricity in a component when you pull it out of the PC and place it to the side?  Its potential isn't going to match you and the machine anymore, is it?  Anti-static mats usually come in a combo pack with an anti-static wrist band, but you can also get them separately.

The mat, like the wrap, has resistors in it that ebb the flow of the electricity.  The mat will usually come with a wrist strap attached so when you place the PC and components on the mat, everything will stay on even playing field.  No shocks, here!

Blue Mat with PC Tower and Various Computer Components on Top

Anti-Static Bags

These can either be separately purchased or saved from PC components you bought.  Ever notice how everything PC you buy comes in a bag?  Separately wrapped?  Yeah, those are anti-static bags and a good tech will stock up on these from everything they buy.  If you consider the fact that when PC pieces are purchased, the consumer probably takes it straight home and uses it, manufacturers make sure everything is properly packaged so static is a non-factor.  This is great for techies, but also awesome for newbies, right?  They may not be aware to watch for ESD.  The anti-static bags help to eliminate that issue.  You'll notice them looking pink or like chrome.

PC Component in Pink Anti-Static Bag

Other Anti-Static Options

Here are a few links that will show examples of devices techies can use to help eliminate an ESD scare (I have zero affiliation with these brands nor am I important enough for them to even know who I am):

There are sprays, testers you should use to make sure the resistors in your safety equipment are still working, mats, straps... a whole plethora of protection items.

llustration Showing Person Using a Can of Spray

I Have No Anti-Static Tools Handy! WHAT DO I DO?!

Relax.  Even the most seasoned pros will find themselves in situations where their tools of the trade are unavailable.

  1.  Make sure the PC is unplugged (GOLDEN PC-REPAIR RULE, HERE!)
  2.  Touch the power supply (the box you can see internally that is at the back of the on/off switch you can see externally) periodically to make sure the potential electricity between the two of you stays the same.

The anti-static tools are just to make the process easier, so less thinking goes into the PC repair.  Don't fret if you can't get your hands on any of the fancy stuff.


 

Electromagnetic Interference (EMI)

Not nearly as detrimental to your PC as EST, EMI can still permanently damage PC components and totally erase some data.  There is no list of tools to magically assist you in dealing with EMI - just your universe-given common sense.  Some PC components will lay victim to EMI more than others to include:

  • Thumb/Flash Drives
  • CRT Monitors
  • Floppy Disks
  • Hard Drives

The hardest part of dealing with EMI is realizing what is actually a magnet - it may surprise you.  For example, keep your phone and speakers away from these components.  Yes, they contain magnets!

A Graph Displaying the Electromagnetic Radiation Wavelengths

How Does EMI Work?

Keeping this simple, there are many different categories of EMI including natural sources (lightning, for example) and man-made sources (like the magnets in a phone).

The simple explanation?  Everything that sends out and receives signals has the potential to grab or send signals to and from the wrong devices.  Just because two things are not the same, and are not aiming for each other, does not mean those signals won't get mixed up (or blocked altogether).  EMI occurs when signals within the electromagnetic spectrum get jumbled, basically.  These overlapping signals can get lost!

I keep things simple, here, but if you want a far more in-depth explanation of EMI, head to this link for more (no affiliation)!

***Let's keep in mind, though, that much of the home-EMI worry comes from the days of tube monitors and floppy disks.  As tech has progressed, these worries have become more and more minimal.  In all truth, you'd need a pretty serious magnet sitting on top of your laptop for any scrambling or damage to come of it.  However, many still hold to the, "Better safe than sorry!" mindset.

EMI is any interference in the electromagnetic spectrum.  However, if the frequency of the interference falls into the radio frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum, it is then called Radio Frequency Interference.  Some will interchange both terms, depending on your learning source.  Again, I keep things simple, here, but for a more in-depth look at EMI vs RFI, click here.


 

Radio Frequency Interference (RFI)

As explained, RFI is any interference that falls into the radio frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum.  If you've ever heard static and/or clicking in your cell phone, that qualifies as RFI.  Keep in mind, though, that the interference didn't have to come from a radio source to have affected your device!  With all the signals flying around, things overlap.

Devices that Emit Radio Waves:

  • Baby Monitors
  • Microwaves
  • Cordless and Cellular Phones
  • Radios... haha

Good News: Your Device is Probably Protected!

Most electronic devices are manufactured with RFI in mind.  Therefore, the creators build the devices as self-shielding.  The other good news?  It is very unlikely RFI will ruin anything... its just really annoying and be painful to listen to!  If you can, keep devices that emit or receive radio signals away from each other.  Also, be weary of frequencies.  Cordless phones and baby monitors, for example, share the same frequency ranges, so they can actually block each other's sending and receiving!  Again, though, as tech advances and we are aware of things that cause issue, each generation of devices is usually better off at protecting itself than the last.


 

This is so much to remember! How do I shield my PC from ALL of these things at once?!

Don't worry - manufacturers play it safe by packaging everything under the assumption that whoever is purchasing and using it doesn't know what they're doing.  That means that all the stuff you have to dig through when opening your new component has that in mind!

Have you ever opened a box holding your new laptop and noticed it had a pink bag over it?  It was coated with a protective film to combat static!

An Open P.C. Tower Showing Internal Components

Those metal bags fight all three of the killers we talked about - RFD, EMI, and RFI.  BUT, as Mike Meyers warned me, those protective measures are useless once the bag is opened and you've fumbled with it.  So, now that you know, why not run out and grab a mat/wrap combo?!


 

*Bonus Safety Tip: Physical Mishaps

Taking proper precaution against getting shocked is completely useless if you physically destroy your device.  No RFI needed, there!

A Broken Keyboard

Physical Safety Tips:

  • Check your local regulations if you're attempting to do PC repair in a professional manner - some local governments require certain safety equipment and have certain environmental rules surrounding what you may or may not be doing.  Even though this tip may not directly affect the physical safety of your actual device, be aware.
  • Keep cables organized.  Nothing can screw up an office or an operation more than wires that are bundled, crisscrossed, and all over the place.  People are liable to trip, pull the wrong cords, attach the wrong things... you name it.  Always practice good cable management.
  • The classic - lift with your legs, NOT with your back.  Seems obvious, but accidents happen.  Also, if something is just too heavy, ask for help or use a dolly.  Don't try to Hulk everything to show off.
  • Check the weight of anything you are stacking, mounting, or putting on top of something else.  If it needs a stud, find a stud.  If the desk is too weak to hold three monitors and a keyboard, get a new desk or lose a monitor.  Don't be lazy - it is incredible how often PCs are absolutely destroyed because something fell apart strictly due to weight issues.
  • DON'T BURN YOURSELF!  Electricity means heat, yall!  Don't start grabbing pieces out of a freshly-opened, just-turned-off tower.  Do I even need to elaborate on this?
  • UNPLUG. THE. PC. BEFORE. WORKING. ON. IT.  I don't care about the likelihood of getting shocked... don't do it.
  • Don't wear jewelry.  We could sit here and go piece by piece, explain why you're better off not taking the chance... blah blah.  But to keep it simple, just don't.
  • I don't know why this even has to be said but... don't put your finger in the fan.
Jumbled Cords

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Get I.T.: PC Killers – ESD, EMI, & RFI”

    1. Thanks, George!
      I thought so, too!
      Many newbies are worried about doing something wrong to a computer via the software without realizing they can ruin it physically before even messing with anything else!

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