This year’s dry, wintry weather has left many Oklahomans in a shocking state of affairs — electrically speaking, that is. From home to car, at the gas pump and the computer desk, sparks are flying.

And according to the National Weather Service, there’s not much relief in sight, with no significant precipitation in the forecast.

During the winter, static shocks are more common because of the low humidity. But why does cold, dry weather cause such a shocking situation?

In the universe, there are equal amounts of negative electrical charge (electrons) and positive charge (protons), according to The two charges try to stay in balance in equal amounts at every location.

But when two materials come in contact — such as clothing sliding across a car seat — some of the charges redistribute by moving from one material to the other. One side ends up with too many positive charges and the other has too many negative.

When two unbalanced surfaces get close enough, the electrons experience sort of a fatal attraction, breaking loose and flying across the gap. The air gets so hot, it causes a flash — and a startling shock.

“It’s just like a little storm, with lightning,” said Scott Curl, National Weather Service meteorologist.

It’s annoying, and sometimes painful, but is static electricity dangerous?

It can be, said Robert Doke, Oklahoma State fire marshal, especially if a static spark happens near something flammable, like gasoline.

“Any time electricity makes a spark and gas vapors are in the flammable range, the fuel can ignite,” Doke said.

He said it would be an unlikely scenario for a spark from a wool sweater, for example, to ignite fumes while refueling — but it is theoretically possible.

And he said cell phone usage at the gas station is a legitimate danger, just as those ubiquitous e-mails have warned.

“The major thing is not to use a cell phone while fueling,” Doke said. “It can create a small spark, and if there are a lot of gas vapors leaking around the car, they can ignite.”

It’s also important not to fill up a gas can while it’s inside a vehicle, such as the back of a pickup, Doke said. “Remove the gas can from the vehicle and set it on the ground,” he said.

Inside the house, static can wreak havoc on computer equipment. Beth Menasco, co-owner of The 3 Geeks, said static can totally destroy a computer.

Most computer cases are insulated, so a shock isn’t going to hurt them if you’re just keyboarding, Menasco said. “Just touch something metal to discharge the energy,” she said.

But if you’re working on the inside of a computer, the right shock in the right place can “fry a motherboard, the CPU or the RAM,” Menasco said. People who work on their own computer hardware need to take special precautions, such as wearing a grounding wrist strap, she said.

Menasco said using an anti-static spray on carpeted areas will help, and recommended keeping a fabric softener sheet nearby to wipe computer equipment and hands.

She also recommended running a vaporizer or de-ionizer in the house to help keep the electrical charges under control.

Ray Ridlen, extension educator at the Oklahoma County/OSU Extension Service, agreed that humidity can help with static problems in the home.

“Ninety percent of the carpets sold today are nylon,” Ridlen said, “and they’re bad about creating static electricity. As the manufacturers refine nylon and come up with newer-generation carpets, they build in fibers that will eliminate static electricity and break down the charge.”

But if you can’t go out and purchase a new carpet, Ridlen said there are other steps to take.

“Adding humidity can definitely help,” he said. “And most carpet retailers sell some kind of anti-static spray. If you spray it on the rugs in the fall, it lasts until spring.”

Since a dirty carpet is less prone to creating electrical shocks, Ridlen said, homeowners have a good excuse not to have spotlessly clean floors.

Curl said there’s not much hope for relief from the dry weather and those irritating electrical shocks.

“We’re almost 11 1/2 inches below normal precipitation already this year,” Curl said, “and we don’t see any change coming up in the (weather) pattern.”

There’s a small chance of light snow coming up in the next several days, Curl said, but the temperature will also drop, and cold air holds less moisture than warm air.

“When the humidity drops extremely low, that causes the problem with static,” he said. “We need a long, steady rain to make up for our deficit, but it would take some time to catch up.”

(Alice Collinsworth may be reached via e-mail at


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