Winter is starting to begin its long, slow goodbye across the Northern hemisphere (except for the UK, which is currently being smothered by some particularly bitter Siberian winds). Along with being the season of shivering and influenza, winter has yet another unpleasant shock up its sleeve, literally: It’s prime time for receiving static electric jolts.
If you’ve been wondering why you’ve turned into a human stun-gun recently, it’s not your imagination nor some superstition, there’s a perfectly straightforward explanation.
Static electricity is the buildup of electric charges on a material. An electrical charge can build up through frictional contact between two materials that are both insulators, like rubbing your hair against a balloon or your rubber-soled feet against a carpet. One object will lose electrons and have a positive charge, while the other will gain electrons and have a negative charge. The charges are desperate to balance themselves back out again, so if you touch a conductor, like a metal doorknob or a tap, the charge will discharge itself and let out a zap.
So, what’s weather got to do with this? Well, electricity finds it relatively hard to pass through air because it’s an electrical insulator. Water vapor in the air, however, conducts electricity nicely, allowing any charge that’s built up on our bodies to dissipate into the air.
The electrical imbalance tends to find it easier to make that “leap of faith” between you and a conductor in the winter months because colder air holds less water vapor than warm summer air. In the cold winter air, there’s no where for the charge to go, so it stays with us until we connect with a conductor.
Additionally, it’s also worth remembering that you are more likely to be wrapped in layers of wool, faux fur, or artificial fibers during the colder months. These materials are notorious for electrostatic stocks, especially compared to summery cotton, which is relatively non-static.
Now armed with this knowledge, there are a few things you can do to stop yourself being continuously jolted. First up, lift up those feet and stop shuffling around, just like your grandma told you. Ditch the wool clothes, if you can bear the cold, and stick to cotton clothing.
It’s also worth considering that an electrostatic zap is just electrons discharging themselves. If you frequently discharge the imbalance by making contact with a metal object, thereby stopping a buildup of charged electrons, then the shock is likely to be less severe. If it’s really bad, you could consider getting your house a humidifier that will lightly pump the air full of water vapor.
If all else fails, pray for some warm weather.