I need to keep my hard drive safe from the elements.
July 14, 2009 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Will I completely ruin my hard drive if I don't store it in an anti-static bag?

I need to mail off my laptop for repairs. I was told that I did not need to send in the hard drive with the rest of the laptop. This is great, because I'd rather not take the risk of accidentally losing everything in transit or at the hands of a wayward repair technician.

However, I can't for the life of me find any anti-static bags in the house. I need to mail off the laptop soon, so ordering anti-static bags off the internet is not an option - I wouldn't get them fast enough.

Is there another safe way to store my hard drive for a week or so, or am I out of luck? (That is, is it riskier to store the hard drive at home, NOT in an anti-static bag, than it is to leave the hard drive inside the laptop and ship the whole thing out?)
posted by pemberkins to Computers & Internet (22 answers total)
Generally, no, but don't make it worse by storing it in static-causing things, like non-static plastic bags, styrofoam peanuts, etc. A paper bag would probably be better than nothing.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:26 PM on July 14, 2009

Er, my "no" is to the above-the-fold question, if I wasn't clear.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:26 PM on July 14, 2009

It'll be fine. In my household, my dad has a habit of leaving hard drives out and about on top of his work table, usually resting on some random component cardboard box.

But yes, do try to keep it away from static-y things and magnets while you're at it.
posted by JauntyFedora at 2:33 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: Store the hard drive at home.

When you put your laptop in the mail, they might lose it or destroy it. When it gets to the repair place they might lose it (hopefully not destroy it). When its on the way back they might lose it or destroy it. Each of these steps also involves some vibration that is bad for a hard drive.

Static electricity occurs on insulators - they hold the charge in one place (what the word "static" in there is from). Anti-static bags are somewhat conductive - but with a high resistance. The fact that they conduct at all means that potentially harmful charge will not build up, since it will bleed away. The fact that they have a high resistance means that already charged things will not discharge too rapidly. I guess the danger there is not the spark itself, but if one pin on a chip discharges rapidly but the other leads do not, suddenly you have an abnormally high voltage across that component, which is what damages things. If the discharge is slower, voltage will hopefully bleed through the circuit.

I would put the hard drive naked on a wooden shelf, since it's only for a week or two.
posted by aubilenon at 2:39 PM on July 14, 2009

Oh, and the conductivity of the material matters more the more you rub against it, since friction can transfer charge (e.g., rubbing a balloon on your hair).

So no matter how badly you store it, it will be worse if you have it jostling around in a box in the mail.
posted by aubilenon at 2:41 PM on July 14, 2009

Shove it in a desk drawer and don't worry about it. Seriously.
posted by knave at 3:00 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

we always have somewhere between 5 and 20 hard drives just stacked on top of each other, sometimes even on carpet. a couple of weeks of you putting it up somewhere safe won't hurt it.
posted by nadawi at 3:03 PM on July 14, 2009

I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to destroy a laptop hard drive via static even if you tried. Anything short of shuffling around on the carpet with your socks on and then deliberately 'zapping' the circuit board with your finger should be fine.
posted by dixie flatline at 3:06 PM on July 14, 2009

It'll be fine but if it really bugs you, place it on a sheet of tin foil (or aluminum). It'll conduct all the static away.
posted by chairface at 3:47 PM on July 14, 2009

Shove it in a desk drawer and don't worry about it. Seriously.

Agreed. I've left hard drives on shelves for weeks/months, including dust buildup and stacking things on top of them, and they worked fine afterwards. Just don't (a) drop it; (b) bring any magnets close; or, (c) rub your feet on the carpet until your hair stands on end before picking up the hard disk.
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:10 PM on July 14, 2009

Wrap it in foil and don't worry about it.
posted by flabdablet at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2009

The "big fear" is that the surface-mount components will get a sudden discharge they can't handle and go poof. I have been building systems since the early 80s and not once have I ever had something go. And that's with dry winters and carpeting. That said, you wouldn't want anything with hard edges brushing on the components. Some hard drive manufacturers will bury the controller behind a piece of metal, so you don't even have to worry about that. Otherwise, if you want to mail it just wrap it in something non-conductive like paper, throw it in a box of peanuts and you'll be fine. Most hard drives are rated for something like 30 G of acceleration, and can handle post office manhandling just fine (in a box… with styrofoam).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:44 PM on July 14, 2009

You're really overthinking this. I regularly leave hard drives lying around on the floor, on desks, on a table, wherever with no problems. My cat walks on the hard drives and no problem. Is it possible it could get damaged? I guess. But you're grossly overestimating the fragility of the drives as long as you don't drop it on a cement floor or deliberately shock it.
posted by Justinian at 5:18 PM on July 14, 2009

It's probably not necessary. You would probably be just fine storing it in a drawer with your wool sweaters, honestly. I've done worse and been okay.

I've actually been surprised that the HD manufacturers have kept shipping drives in those envelopes over the years. I think it might have more to do with protecting them in the industrial environments where they're manufactured and shipped than something you need to be religious about at home.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:25 PM on July 14, 2009

The vibrations of the shipping environment can build up a static charge pretty quickly. That's why they demand anti-static bags. At home, sitting on a shelf, not a problem. If you are really worried, wrap it in tin foil.
posted by gjc at 8:58 PM on July 14, 2009

Funny. I was more concerned with mailing the laptop.
You have to package it in a large box with at least an inch threshold on all sides.
Assume it will be drop-kicked several times. Use LOTS of bubble wrap.

The most anti-static place in any home is the kitchen.
Never heard of the foil wrap. Interesting. Mentioned twice.
posted by will wait 4 tanjents at 11:08 PM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!

will wait 4 tanjents - I have infinite bubble wrap ready and waiting to mail off my laptop, so that's okay. It's being sent off for a number of physical repairs anyway, so if it takes a little more beating in transit, that'll get fixed up with everything else. I can't do anything about how they choose to package it on the way back, but hopefully that will be all right.
posted by pemberkins at 7:45 AM on July 15, 2009

Metallic foil is a bad idea because it is strongly conductive. As aubilenon noted, anti-static bags are weakly conductive.
The bags are trash at IT departments so there isn't a need to buy them if you are in a city and know someone who works at a company with an IT department.
Movement causes charge buildup. So, when working with electronics, be an efficient minimalist.
The damage caused to circuit boards by static discharge is microscopic and may not cause immediate, total failure. So it is difficult to know that careless handling is of no consequence. The damage may contribute to a future failure, an intermittent problem, or a temperature dependent problem. Often careless handling appears to have no effect. But the cost of careful handling is often small so it may be worth it to take some care.
posted by llc at 12:13 PM on July 15, 2009

Metallic foil is fine because there is no current flowing in the drive, nothing to short out. The point of anti-static shielding is to conduct any spot charges to the "plate" as a whole so the potential is lower. Doesn't matter.
posted by gjc at 6:06 PM on July 15, 2009

Electrostatic discharge (ESD) damages electronics by causing very high peak currents to flow through very small components. If a hard drive's interface pins or some part of its logic board were to come into contact with an object with a high-voltage electrostatic charge, a large peak current would flow through that point of contact until the charge on the external object and the charge on the hard drive as a whole equalized.

Because like charges repel, the charge on any conductive object will spread as far apart as possible, which puts it all on the outside. This applies to a hollow conductive object just as much as to solid ones. A piece of electronics wrapped in something conductive is a hollow conductive object, which means that the electronics inside the conductive shield can't be exposed to high peak currents via electrostatic charge equalization.

However, an item in the process of being wrapped in a conductive shield is not yet fully surrounded by that shield. If there's an electrostatic potential difference between the item being wrapped and the person or machine doing the wrapping, a discharge current will flow through the conductive shield material and into the item; and if the first part of the item touched by the shield material happens to be one that's susceptible to ESD damage and the shield material is conductive enough to translate that potential difference into a large discharge current, then damage there will be.

Antistatic bags are only weakly conductive because (a) it's easier to make weakly conductive plastics than strongly conductive ones (b) weakly conducting shielding works very nearly as well as strongly conducting shielding to prevent internal current flows inside fully wrapped objects (c) weakly conducting shielding reduces the peak discharge current caused by any given potential difference, usually to levels that will cause no damage to components.

Because so much of a hard drive is a chunky metal chassis, the chassis is the most likely place for charge to enter it when you pick it up. Even if an actual spark were to jump from your finger to the chassis as you picked up the drive, that high peak current would not be passing through a small component on the way and would not cause any damage.

In practice, to damage a hard drive by handling it you'd need to charge yourself up quite a lot with a good old shuffle across your carpet, then poke your finger into the logic board before touching the chassis. Even then there's a fairly good chance that the spark would hit a power supply pin and discharge to chassis through the PC board rather than hitting a logic pin and damaging a chip.

If you have foil in one hand and a hard drive in the other and you're in the process of wrapping the drive in the foil, your own moderately conductive body will mean that the foil and the drive are at the same electrostatic potential before they even touch. No ESD will occur as you wrap the drive in the foil. You can guarantee that absolutely by making sure that the first part of the drive that the foil touches is the chassis.

In short: if you haven't already blown the thing up purely by handling it, then you won't do any damage at all with a foil wrap, which will in fact protect it as well as possible from subsequent ESD accidents.
posted by flabdablet at 5:49 PM on July 16, 2009

Point (a) about anti-static bags is that they are cheap. Wouldn't more expensive bags be used for more expensive electronics ? If a 1000$ part needs to be protected from static discharge, then the .5$ bag would be used instead of the .2$ bag. I haven't seen this. The bag used is always the .2$ one. I don't know why this would be unless it is actually the right bag to use.
I don't follow point (b) so maybe I am misunderstanding it. I think you are saying that a strong conductor prevents a separation of charges. While true, this doesn't mitigate the consequences of a charged object touching the bagged part.
If point (c) is a point, then a strong conductor shouldn't be used for shielding.
posted by llc at 9:32 PM on July 16, 2009

I don't follow point (b) so maybe I am misunderstanding it. I think you are saying that a strong conductor prevents a separation of charges. While true, this doesn't mitigate the consequences of a charged object touching the bagged part.

I'm not saying that a strong conductor (which is bad terminology, but I hope we can both agree that it means a conductor with low resistivity) "prevents a separation of charges". In fact I'm not sure what you mean by "prevents a separation of charges".

What I'm saying is that both high-resistivity (e.g. antistatic bag) and low-resistivity (e.g. metal foil) shields will approximate a Faraday Cage sufficiently well to prevent ESD damage to components fully wrapped in them. In fact, a low-resistivity shield will theoretically work slightly better.

High-resistivity plastic films, such as you would find in a typical antistatic bag, have several advantages over metal foils for industrial use, and these advantages make them the better choice for industrial use despite their slightly worse ESD protection compared to foils.

As you note, plastic film is cheap - certainly cheaper than foil. It's also tougher than foil, so it's a better choice for shielding stuff that needs to be bagged and shipped; Faraday cage ESD protection relies on there being no holes in the cage. Also, the higher resistivity makes it less likely that equipment in the process of being bagged will suffer ESD damage during that process.* That's point (c), and it definitely is a point, but you seem to be giving it far too much weight.

Point (c) is no reason to avoid using low-resistivity shielding at all times at all places for all purposes. What it does mean is that low-resistivity conductors should not be deployed as shields if there is a significant chance of discharge between workpiece and shield at the time the shield is being applied. In general, industrial processes won't always guarantee that; careful home operators handling hard disk drive mechanisms can. The same handling precautions sufficient to avoid damaging the hard drive as you remove it from the PC will also be enough to avoid damaging it as you wrap it in foil.

*This is also the reason why professional ESD-prevention personnel grounding equipment such as wrist straps and conductive floor mats has a high resistance between the parts connected to the operator and the parts connected to ground. Even quite a high resistance - a megohm or so - is enough to dissipate standing charge quickly enough to reduce ESD risk to negligible levels; and if an operator grounded via such a high resistance should happen to touch a workpiece that has already acquired a high voltage charge, the discharge current through the wrist strap resistor will be small enough (typically milliamps rather than tens or hundreds of amps) to cause no damage.
posted by flabdablet at 8:28 PM on July 17, 2009

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