Electro Static Discharge (ESD) is a big problem for electronics. Static electricity can build up on surfaces (you, your table, your chair, your floor, etc) and when it discharges it does so with a bang. When you get a shock touching a door handle or another person after shuffling around on your carpet that shock is the result of electro static discharge between you and the object. While it's only annoying and surprising for you, it's critically bad for your electronics projects. If your workspace isn't ESD safe then you're taking chances with your ESD sensitive components. The most insidious aspect of ESD damage is that it is cumulative. Your components will continue to work but they won't work as well and any failures are likely to be inconsistent and mysterious. You can read more at sites like http://www.esda.org/
(The home page of the Electro Static Discharge Association).
The good news is that it's relatively inexpensive and simple to protect yourself from ESD damage. The key is making sure that all parts of your work bench (including yourself) are at the same electrical potential. You do this by working on a static dissipative mat (http://www.esdmat.com/
), wearing an ESD wrist strap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antistatic_wrist_strap
). Even though you're wearing a wrist strap it's important that you don't do anything to build up charge on your body. Shuffling your feet on the carpet or sitting on a synthetic fiber chair can both build significant static charge on your body.
My electronics work bench is right behind my computer and so it would be convenient to be able to swivel around from computer to work bench on my office chair. The problem for me is that my office chair is upholstered with polyester and builds static charge on my body very quickly. As a result I never use my office chair while working on the electronics bench and switching from computer to project is as a result a pain in the neck. Since I'm often programming an Arduino or other microprocessor I have to switch back and forth quite often.
The solution was to fit my chair with a static dissipative surface. My search for ESD safe chair covers brought up a number of very expensive professional options which were well outside of what I wanted to spend and so I turned my attention to making one from scratch.
I knew the surface needed to be electrically conductive and I first looked into conductive fabrics like this stuff: http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/product_info.php?products_id=9769
. The problem with that stuff is, once again, the price tag. I knew I could do better price-wise. The solution turned out to be space blanket. This stuff is polyester sheet with aluminum vapor deposited on it in a super thin layer. The aluminum layer is conductive and the stuff is super cheap; it was the perfect solution.