Experts talk shocking science behind static electricity in dry weather

In this Tuesday, May 2, 2017, photo, a motorist prepares to select regular gas at a pump at a Chevron station in Miami. Gas prices are still quite low, historically speaking, and were fairly steady in 2017. But 2018 may be a bit more rocky, according to Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Lightning hasn’t lit the Lubbock sky in months, but other bolts have been a common sight.


Because of dry and chilly weather, static electricity has been a nuisance this winter, said Eloralee Todd, the STEM programs coordinator at the Science Spectrum.

Todd explained there is a reason people get shocked when touching metal this time of year.

“Electricity happens when electrons move freely from atom to atom,” Todd said. “Some objects hold on really, really tightly, so they don’t let it through as much; those are insulators like rubber, glass, air. Water and metal let it go through, as conductors.”

Static electricity, specifically, happens when a lot of electrons are built up and then discharged.

“We feel that in the shock,” Todd said.

When the atmosphere is more humid, Todd said, it helps to dissipate the electrons people pick up as they move around.

“Definitely, when the air is drier, the charge collects and builds up until you get zapped,” Todd said.

We see those zaps in several ways: putting a key in a lock, touching a metal gas pump, pulling clothes out of the dryer, going down a slide.

Charles Aldrich, meteorologist with the Lubbock National Weather Service, said one way to mitigate static electricity is to discharge by touching an elbow to something that could shock you first, rather than your fingertips - no surprise to most folks.

“It stings a little less,” Aldrich said.

Other suggestions found online to alleviate static include running a humidifier, using dryer sheets and wearing natural fibers like cotton.

Lubbock’s dry conditions may not last too much longer. There is a 40 percent chance of rain on Friday and a 50 percent chance that night, according to the National Weather Service.