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How to reduce annoying Static Electricity (and distinguish it from real electricity)

How to reduce annoying Static Electricity (and distinguish it from real electricity)

Static electricity is just plain rude!  Although it can seem like someone has electrified your doorknob to play a trick on you, most likely your own body is just ridding itself of built-up static electricity.

Why and how does one accumulate that much electricity, anyway?

This topic warrants a small science lesson, so bear with us! As you walk around your house, friction will cause electrons to transfer between surfaces.  Friction on floors (especially carpet), friction between your clothing, and friction between your clothing and body will all cause transfer of electrons, usually resulting in you becoming positively charged (we tend to lose electrons).  Any kind of imbalance in electrons between two objects is basically voltage potential, so the potential continues to build until you touch something that is grounded (a metal appliance, doorknob, or another person) and BAM!  The potential dissipates immediately in the form of a spark or shock.  This means that the missing electrons are suddenly transferred back to you in a moment’s time.  Static electricity shocks are on the average 3000 volts–but very little “amps”, so although they don’t feel good, they usually do not harm you.

You may notice that static shocks in the wintertime occur more frequently or with more power.  What’s up with that?  It’s due to dry winter air.  Warmer air has more capacity to hold water vapor, which when it touches our skin can transfer electrons painlessly so voltage potential never builds up.  However, cold air has less capacity to hold water vapor, so it tends to be dry and more insulating.  That is not good for our sinuses and skin, as well as the nasty static shocks.  

If you’re concerned that it’s not actually static that is causing the shock, there are ways to tell the difference between static and real electricity.  First of all, does the object that shocked you do so every time you touch it?  Static is not constant, meaning that once the shock occurs, it takes some friction to build up the voltage potential again.  Touching the same doorknob a few seconds after a shock usually does not elicit another shock, indicating that it’s static.  Electricity, on the other hand, will cause your hand to “tingle” again every time you touch it (so don’t do this repeatedly until you can find the power source and shut it off!)  The “tingle” is actually the alternating current that powers all the appliances in the house, and it feels different from static.  You can also use a voltmeter to measure the potential between the "ground" of an electrical socket (the little round hole at the bottom of each outlet) and the doorknob. If it's real electricity, you should see about 120 volts (using the 200VAC setting) constantly (although an intermittent ground may flicker up and down). It’s not possible to measure static electricity using an ordinary voltmeter.Here are some weird and dangerous ways that real electricity can make its way to your doorknob or other metal:

  • One person found that the extension cord running under his door (which is a no-no anyway) had gotten a nick in the insulation from the door rubbing on it.  He unplugged it and there were no further shocks.
  • When doors are installed, normally there's at least one longer screw in each hinge in order to get more holding power into the door frame.  There's a chance the screw could have run into a wire, either behind the trim or in the wall (sometimes people hide wires behind trim instead of properly routing them inside the wall)
  • If there's a moisture problem in the wall, any fault in the wiring can be transmitted a longer distance to the doorknob.

Faulty wiring in the wall of a house is a serious safety issue, and even more so faulty wiring or ground problems in an RV or travel trailer.  Because these homes on wheels are insulated by rubber tires, the major way of grounding them is through the ground prong of the electrical cable.  If there is a break in the ground system and hot wires touch the frame, the potential of electrocution is very real.  In a word, if you suspect your RV has faulty wiring or ground problems, disconnect it from power and ask a knowledgeable person or electrician to examine it as soon as possible!

So, getting back to our static problem, how can you reduce the frequency and severity of these shocks?  Here are the easiest ways:

  • Check the humidity in your home and if it’s less than 50%, try adding a humidifier.  Even a kettle of water on an electric hotplate set on low (make sure to check frequently that it has plenty of water and turn it off when you leave the room) can help to alleviate static, as well as sooth your respiratory system and skin.  Adding a cinnamon stick or a few fresh herbs can add a light, pleasant scent, too!
  • Using bipolar ionizers like the Germ Defender, Upgraded Air Angel Mobile or Whole Home Polar Ionizer in your home eliminates static buildup.  Did you know that these use the same type of technology used in electronics cleanrooms to eliminate static charge?  The ions float throughout rooms in your home and help to equalize the charge wherever they touch a solid surface.  
  • Wear more natural fibers (but not silk or wool), as fibers like cotton and linen tend to build up less static charge than synthetic fibers like nylon or polyester.  Silk and wool, while they are natural, do build up static charge because they tend to insulate better than they conduct electricity.
  • Go barefoot when you can.  The practice of grounding or earthing not only avoids static shocks but also provides evidence of other health benefits.  
  • Synthetic hairbrush bristles may generate more friction and static than natural bristles such as boar’s bristles, so you may opt to change your brush.
  • Moisturize your skin and hair with lotions or conditioners to help “conduct” charges into the air.
  • Touch metal surfaces such as doorknobs with another metal first, like a key, so that the charge is not sent directly into your fingers. 

Winter doesn’t have to be so SHOCKING…now that you know where all this extra energy comes from!

Photo by Ilona Panych on Unsplash

The Science of Dust

The Science of Dust

Dust.  It’s not just harmless dirt that builds up on fan blades until we can’t turn the fan on any more for fear of clumps flying everywhere.  It’s a combination of skin cells, pollen, dead bugs, bacteria, soil, dander and various fibers. (iaq.works)  Dust also carries SVOCs, or semivolatile organic compounds, that are emitted from materials and products like plasticizers from plastic products and flame retardants from upholstered furniture. "Unlike VOCs, that you can smell and that warn you of their presence, SVOCs are called stealth chemicals. They are odorless, ride on dust, and are insidious underminers of our health, "  says Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics.  (wellandgood.com)  Then, there are the dust mites, which are microscopic organisms that feed on dust.  All in all, dust is even more disgusting than it looks!

My all-time least favorite chore as a kid was dusting.  It didn’t require a load of physical exertion, so it must have been the sheer tediousness of moving the same stuff to dust around it week after week.   We used lemon-scented Endust in the 70’s and 80’s, which actually should have made me a little giddy (it had odorless mineral spirits and 1,1,1-trichloroethane with a propellant blend of butane and isopropane, of which inhaled 1,1,1-trichloroethane acts as a central nervous system depressant and can cause effects similar to those of intoxication)...yikes!  (chemeurope.com)  Why haven’t we invented a way to keep the dust off permanently?    

I guessed the answer had something to do with static electricity.  Apparently, the “mechanism of particle adhesion” works against us in allowing dust to settle on furniture and objects in our homes.  According to Keyence.com, producer of static eliminators and ionizers, “When dust is carried on air currents generated by air conditioning and similar devices, the dust takes on a positive or negative static electric charge due to contact with various objects. Dust that has a positive electric charge will be attracted to objects that have a negative electric charge, and vice versa. The greater the amount of dust in the air, the larger the amount of dust that clings to objects within the room.

Also, if sources of dust (mainly people and clothing) are electrically charged, the dust that is generated from these sources is electrically charged as well. This attractive force generated by static electricity is known as “Coulomb force.” 

The solution to particle adhesion is to eliminate the static electricity from the object’s surface and from the air up to a few millimeters from the object’s surface.  This is easy to do using a static eliminator, which charges the air with ions.  This removes the static charge from the particles and prevents them from reattaching.  There are also lots of “anti-static” polishes on the market, however, their toxic ingredients may or may not be disclosed.

Also, the answer to dusting less also has to do with humidity.  Humidity does not reduce the literal amount of dust in your home; instead, humidity causes dust particles to adhere to one another, making them too heavy to travel through the air. Thus, dust particles are still present in your home, but the ideal humidity level makes dust particles quicker to settle and easier to clean.  

In addition, when the indoor humidity level is between 40 and 60%, dust mites are unable to thrive and spread. Dust mites prefer extremely humid atmospheres because they absorb moisture from the air in order to survive.

So, apparently there are two things that tend to keep dust (and dust mites) down to manageable levels: ionized air and the right humidity.  We fully endorse both!  Most of the HypoAir air purifying products include a bi-polar ionizer, which has the capability to kill germs at a distance by attacking them with the same ions that control the dust.  We also like to talk about keeping your home at the right humidity to fight mold growth and germ dispersion.  It’s a win-win!

With ionization and the right humidity in place, getting rid of the remaining dust should be manageable.  Cleaning experts give these tips to get the most out of your cleaning tools and time:

Get rid of feather dusters and dry cotton cloths, because they are simply flinging the dust into the air.  Also, don’t use damp cotton cloths, because they leave streaks of dust behind.  The best tool is a microfiber cloth (again, microfiber is better at holding a slight “charge” to attract dust) and your favorite all-purpose cleaner, like one of the following: 

  • HypoAir’s TotalClean, a non-toxic multi-purpose cleaner you can use throughout your home

  • Force of Nature, a non-toxic hypochlorous cleaner that can sanitize or disinfect surfaces depending on the concentration

  • Branch Basics, a non-toxic plant and mineral based cleaner

For wood surfaces, you can add some drops of a non-damaging essential oil to the spray bottle, so that wood surfaces don’t dry out and retain a nice shine. Orange oil is great for this purpose.  Since many ingredients are not disclosed on commercial dusting sprays, it may be tempting to make your own DIY dusting spray, and there are lots of recipes on the internet.  However, look at the ingredients closely, because vinegar is a key ingredient in many recipes, and it can damage many surfaces in your home.  

If an area has more dust than usual, or to avoid switching cleaning cloths too often, you can use your HEPA vacuum cleaner with a soft head attachment to “pre-dust”.  Of course, standalone HEPA filters running part-time or full-time will cut down on a lot of dust.  

Keeping the dust down in your home can lead to less allergies, sickness, and over time, better overall health because of the way ultra-fine particles can penetrate our lungs and migrate to different areas in the body.  With the right conditions (ionized air and the right humidity) and tools (microfiber cloths, non-toxic cleaners and a HEPA vacuum), regular dusting can be manageable, kind of like flossing your teeth.  Reveal the beautiful side of your home and get dusting!

Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash

The Truths about Winter Air

The Truths about Winter Air

In the southeast US, I really enjoy the coolness of fall and winter after a long hot summer.  Winter air feels fresh and clean, but why is that?  And is it always fresh and clean?  What about humidity? What about static electricity?

There are so many reasons that winter smells are different!

Our sense of smell relies on several things: odor molecules, and our noses’ smelling equipment.  

  • Molecules within air, including odor molecules, move more slowly in colder weather, so we are less likely to receive good or bad odor molecules. (wonderopolis.org
  • Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions slow down at colder temps.  Many VOCs (like terpenes) have strong smells, but less so with lower temperatures.
  • Humid air is generally better at trapping and delivering odorants through the atmosphere, and better at depositing those particles to the associated olfactory receptors. Winter air is drier and therefore delivers odors less efficiently. (seeker.com)
  • We perceive less smells in cold air because the receptors and vessels within our noses are constricted. This means two things: they move more deeply into our nasal passages, and fewer fragrant molecules can travel through them.
  • There is a nerve in the human body that gets stimulated when breathing in cold air called the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is responsible for the tingly sensations caused by spicy food and mint. This could be a reason as to why the smell of cold air is associated with “fresh” and “clean”. (tonichealth.co)

What about air pollution in the winter?

Surprisingly, air pollution can be worse during the winter than the summer!  This happens when something called an “inversion” forms.  There are several different types of inversions (which are well-explained in this video from the University of Illinois Extension), but they all involve a warmer layer of air above a cooler layer of air, restricting air movement and causing pollutants to be trapped near the earth’s surface.  For example, a city located in a valley and close to a mountain is more liable to experience temperature inversion than other cities. The cold air is denser and heavier; therefore it often slides down the mountain slope and ends up in a valley, leaving the warmer air above.  (airlief.com)  Inversions can last from several hours to several days.  

In addition to inversions, the burning of fossil fuel increases during the winter.  Industrial sources stay roughly the same throughout the year, but household heating and emissions from the vehicles are getting higher during the colder days of the winter.  In lower income countries, where it’s normal to burn garbage and coal for heating, the levels of PM2.5, carbon monoxide and other toxins increase significantly. (airlief.com)

“Stubble burning” is a practice in India during April-May and October-November each year, where farmers set their fields ablaze after harvest to clear the ground for the next crop.  It produces horrible air pollution in Delhi and other cities.  Unfortunately, lack of education on the damage to soil by burning and some profitable alternatives for the stubble cause farmers to continue the practice, despite the pollution.  (sciencedirect.com) Surprisingly, stubble burning is tolerated and even regulated in some countries like Australia and Canada (wikipedia).

(Lack of) Humidity in winter air causes dehydration

Cold air can hold less water vapor, which is the cause of lower relative humidity of winter air.  This drier air can literally suck the moisture out of your body in a myriad of ways. (performancehealthcenter.com)

  1. In cold weather, the body’s thirst response is diminished (by up to 40%) even when dehydrated. (study) This happens because our blood vessels constrict when we’re cold to prevent blood from flowing freely to the extremities. This enables the body to conserve heat by drawing more blood to its core.  Maintaining the body’s core temperature becomes more important than fluid balance, but because of this, the body is fooled into thinking it’s properly hydrated. Thus, in cold weather, we are less likely to drink water due to diminished thirst.  
  2. Our kidneys aren’t signaled by regulating hormones like they normally are to conserve water and therefore urine production increases, a condition called cold-induced urine diuresis.
  3. Nasal passages can dry out even though they feel like they are being flooded with moisture because of condensation (cold air hits warm nostril and water vapor instantly condenses!)
  4. We don’t even realize we are sweating because sweat dries quickly in cool, dry air.  The added weight of boots, heavy jackets, and layers of warm clothing help our bodies conserve heat, yet make the body work harder and may lead to producing more sweat than usual, yet this increased perspiration evaporates quickly in the cold dry air, so we often do not realize we are sweating. 

Therefore, it’s super-important that you drink as much or more water during winter than summer.

Here’s are some suggestions:

  • Don’t rely on caffeinated hot beverages to fill you up!  Drinks like coffee and hot chocolate are actually diuretics (they pull water from your body).  If you need to drink something hot to warm up, try herbal tea, hot water with lemon and honey, or warm milk.
  • Carry room-temperature water in insulated bottles so that it doesn’t chill into an icy drink.  Although drinking cold water can feel invigorating and increase alertness, it has more negative consequences in your body including thickened nasal mucus, increased blood pressure, teeth sensitivity, and headaches. (svalbardi.com)
  • Drink water before, during and after you exercise!
  • Wear layers and try to be aware when you start to sweat, to adjust them accordingly.
  • Juicy fruits and vegetables and broth-based soups can increase your hydration. 

Humidifiers should not be the first choice to increase humidity in the home.

According to energyvanguard.com, “the cause of dry air in winter is air leakage, so air sealing is the first and best way to keep your humidity from going too low.”  Because running a humidifier is not free, the newly humidified air leaks out just as fast as dry air comes in.  It’s a losing battle!  In addition, humidifiers need to be chosen and used judiciously because they can breed mold, and increase PM2.5 in the air (check out our post here).  They can also cause condensation and mold problems in the building itself.  

What about static electricity?

It’s true, shocks from static electricity are worse in the wintertime because of lower relative humidity.  Static electricity is a buildup of ions in a body, and the lack of moisture in the air allows them to stay put until you touch something that “grounds” you like a metal doorknob.    That’s because dry air is an insulator, not a conductor.  There are several ways you can reduce static electric shocks during the winter:

  • Wear more cotton clothing, because wool and synthetics tend to be insulators. Cotton absorbs more moisture from the air, though, so this can work against you in cold temperatures.
  • Leather-soled shoes will “ground” you more than rubber-soled shoes, because rubber is an insulator.
  • Dryer sheets can reduce static cling by equalizing electrons formed by clothes rubbing together, but many are not recommended to use because respiratory, developmental, endocrine, and reproductive effects. (for example Bounce Sping Fresh Dryer Sheets, ewg.org)  Amazingly, you can combat static in your dryer instead by crumpling up a few pieces of aluminum foil into balls and throwing them into your dryer with your clothes, to keep them static-free and separated. (Dryer Sheet Alternatives)
  • Use a bipolar ionizer in your home, such as the Whole Home Polar Ionizer, Air Angel or Germ Defenders.  These devices release a balance of positive and negative ions into the air, which help to equalize the charge in your body and sanitize surfaces.  It’s a win-win, which leads us to our last truth:

Winter air allows pathogens to stay afloat and viable for longer

Researchers have known since at least 2010 that epidemics of influenza almost always followed a drop in air humidity.  (study) The reasons for this are several: dry air allows the virus particles to float for longer times in the air, and since water vapor in the air may deform the virus’ surface, lack of water vapor keeps its infectious weaponry intact. (BBC.com)  According to the Sterling Chart below, (from a 1986 paper titled, Indirect Health Effects of Relative Humidity in Indoor Environments) you can see how the optimum humidity to ward off bacteria, fungus, and respiratory infections would be about 40-60%, but avoid going higher because of condensation and mold issues.  Keeping our homes sealed from the ingress of dry air and our bodies hydrated will be the best bet to landing in that zone!

Source: energyvanguard.com

After reading this article, you may be a little disappointed in winter air, but with awareness about the possibility of increased air pollution, dehydration and static electricity, you can take precautions and enjoy it just as much as any other season!

How do Electrostatic Filters work?

How do Electrostatic Filters work?

It seems like manufacturers are coming out with new filters all the time.  Filters for homes with pets, filters for allergies, filters against viruses…and on and on.   I recently ordered and replaced my HVAC filter with a brand name that was a pleated filter advertised as an “Electrostatic Air Cleaning Filter”.  I had to find out what that meant!

First of all, I thought that electrostatic filters had to be hooked up to electricity.   Actually, only some of them do.  Electrostatic filters encompass a broad range of devices, and the ones that do require electricity are usually called electrostatic air precipitators.  The principle behind these units uses elements to impart a charge to incoming air particles, and then attract them (make them stick to) an oppositely-charged plate.  These systems could be portable, or installed in your HVAC system, or be a part of a huge commercial operation (like a smokestack).   Typically these systems are powered by a high-voltage, low wattage system.  The “filter” is the entire unit, and instead of replacing any parts, the charged plates are simply washed clean. 

However, I bought a regular pleated-type replaceable filter with a large wire grid over it, presumably just to keep the filter in shape as you try to manipulate it to fit in your HVAC.  I don’t have any electricity supplied to the filter box of my HVAC.  How could this filter be electrostatic?

The answer lies in triboelectricity, also called static electricity.  As air whizzes through the synthetic fibers of the filter, the fibers become charged with static electricity.  Then they start to attract the particles of dust in the air.  Making the filter “pleated” increases the surface area of the filter over a flat filter, so that it can attract more particles.  Eventually, however, the fibers become coated with dust, and it no longer acts as an electrostatic filter, but continues to trap dust by the other methods of normal filters (we discuss those four methods here).  And, hopefully before the filter gets so full that dust starts to bypass it, it gets disposed and replaced or cleaned.  

Reusable, washable electrostatic filters are also available.  Washable filters typically have aluminum or galvanized frames and polyester filters so they can withstand repeated cleaning.  However, these typically have a lower MERV rating (only up to MERV 9), so they are not capturing the smaller particles of bacteria, viruses and mold spores that disposable filters can handle.  For more explanation on MERV ratings, check out this article

You can also make your “electrostatic” filter perform even better by using an ionizer in the same room as your filter.  Because ions are charged molecules in the air, as they collide with dust, they impart the same charge to the dust.  This “pre-charges” the dust and causes a greater attraction to the fibers of the filter.  In this 2015 study, researchers showed that unipolar ionization (as opposed to bipolar) enhanced the filtration by 40%, with a lower pressure drop than filters that remove finer particles.  

Whether your HVAC filter is electrostatic or not, the most important maintenance task is to clean or replace it regularly!  This is the only way you can ensure that the filter is capturing the most particles possible, making your air as clean and allergen-free as possible.  

Photo by Lorena on Unsplash