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I heard that vacuum cleaners are dangerous to use near electronic components because they build up static, and apparently, even modern components are so extremely vulnerable to static that merely sucking a bit of dust off them with a vacuum cleaner for 5 seconds can cause them to violently explode. Or so the Internet tells me.

In any case, they recommend buying a special "anti-static vacuum". This feels a bit like a scam, as I doubt the special vacuum cleaner itself is any different from a regular vacuum cleaner. Only the nozzle is different.

But this is just a guess. I wanted to know if any expert out there can confirm or deny if simply changing the plastic nozzle for a rubber nozzle is enough to make a regular vacuum cleaner "anti-statical". If not, then what else makes such a vacuum cleaner?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have edited your question on the presumption that you are asking about vacuum cleaners rather than a 'vacuum' which would be "a space devoid of matter". \$\endgroup\$
    – Transistor
    Mar 5 at 22:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Seir Im asking if it is only the nozzle that is anti static. I don't think there is anything else in a vacuum cleaner that could be made "anti-statical". If thats the case, then I can turn a regular vacuum into an ESD vacuum. But I'm no expert, so I ask. If you know, kindly answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juan Perez
    Mar 5 at 22:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Seir Thank you. If you want to post that as an answer Ill mark it \$\endgroup\$
    – Juan Perez
    Mar 5 at 23:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JuanPerez rdtsc's answer is far more in-depth. If it's possible, accept their answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Seir
    Mar 6 at 0:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ What do you need an anti-static vacuum for? Cleaning the inside of a computer? \$\endgroup\$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 6 at 1:40

3 Answers 3

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I heard that vacuum cleaners are dangerous to use near electronic components because they build up static...

This is true, in general.

Note, this is assuming the device is off and unplugged while cleaning. Never attempt cleaning on anything powered, even from batteries.

In addition to Seir's answer, the triboelectric effect comes into play when dealing with a moving vacuum-cleaner attachment and brush. Both of these can cause triboelectric-induced static fields to be created, potentially zapping sensitive components.

merely sucking a bit of dust off them with a vacuum cleaner for 5 seconds can cause them to violently explode

Highly unlikely, as long as the board is unpowered. This is probably an extension of the "blown gate" phenomenon, where sensitive MOSFET gates can literally be blown apart by a static spark. But this is on a microscopic scale, and certainly doesn't cause any noticeable explosion. If there are any claims of components blowing apart (from static electricity typical for a vacuum cleaner), these are likely fake or omitting the fact that the device was powered on. The damage is permanent and irreversible, though, whether catastrophic failure or invisible.

Components that are likely to be sensitive to ESD:

  • MOSFETs - especially physically small ones like the 2N700x series
  • IGBTs - ditto (smaller the gate capacitance --> faster the voltage rise)
  • Tantalum capacitors - a tiny surge in the reverse direction can destroy them
  • Any type of modern MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) device - microphone, DLP projector, gyroscope, accelerometer, etc.
  • Some CMOS-based ICs, older are likely more sensitive
  • Some other digital IC's - processors, microcontrollers, RAM, flip-flops, gates, etc. (Often not all pins are protected.)
  • LCD pixel connections / driver circuitry - especially small, low-power monochrome LCDs like in calculators, watches, etc.

Components that are moderately protected from ESD:

  • USB/SD/SIM Cards, anything user-accessible - usually have protection devices (TVS or transient voltage suppressors) next to these - depends on if designer implemented them or not - also cheaper boards can be more susceptible (cost-cutting)
  • Many newer-generation IC's with input clamping diodes - check their datasheets - this means that old boards in general can be more susceptible
  • LEDs - can be damaged if reverse voltage spike carries enough power (possible but unlikely just from vacuuming - can be damaged if a visible spark jumps to them.)

Components that are unlikely to be sensitive to ESD:

  • Resistors/all other capacitors/inductors - themselves are usually unaffected but can couple that energy elsewhere
  • Transistors - like LEDs but slightly more resilient.
  • Transformers, speakers, potentiometers - anything "beefy" enough that a little spark is incapable of affecting
  • Vacuum (thermionic) tubes, all other tube technology (neon lamps, etc.)

any expert out there can confirm or deny if simply changing the plastic nozzle for a rubber nozzle is enough to make a regular vacuum cleaner "anti-statical"

Well, what kind of rubber? If this rubber is conductive and is effectively grounded somehow (external grounding wire?), then the nozzle is probably safe... until you touch the body of the vacuum cleaner, or the hose, transferring charge to yourself, then touch a sensitive component, and poof - device doesn't work anymore.

That said, more electronic components recently are including ESD protection built-in. If the board you happen to be cleaning contains all ESD-safe components (and design) then it would likely be just fine using a regular vacuum cleaner. Still, there is a risk of damage (ESD protection can only do so much), so it's not 100% safe.

The bottom line is, if you want 100% guarantee of no static-electric damage, then a purpose-built anti-static vacuum cleaner is the only way to go.

Compressed air (clean and dry) is also relatively safe. I recommend blowing the dust off using compressed air (outside) as opposed to vacuuming. The aerosol cans are convenient for this, but an air compressor is usually more effective. If it must be done inside, blow the dust and use the vacuum nearby to get most of the airborne particulates; careful not to get too close with the vacuum cleaner. For extra protection you could wear an anti-static wrist strap and connect this to whatever ground the board(s) are connected to.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If I use a commmon vacuum cleaner with a grounded nozzle, and I also wear one of those grounded wristbands, do you think that should be good enough? \$\endgroup\$
    – Juan Perez
    Mar 6 at 0:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Possibly, but that is impossible to answer with any certainty. I'd say that there is still some risk; if the board is very valuable then I wouldn't take chances with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – rdtsc
    Mar 6 at 1:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JuanPerez You happen to have a metal nozzle that will fit the vacuum? That's pretty rare. \$\endgroup\$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 6 at 2:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ The blown gate effect can cause components to literally explode, if the component is electrically powered. For example, if you blow the gate of a MOSFET controlling the low-side or the high-side switch on a (half-)bridge, this may create shoot-through and flow the power FETs. You are right that you shouldn't be able to explode components using only the power provided by ESD. BTW: +1 for explicitly mentioning the 2N700x series devices as sensitive. These are the only ones I managed to kill by improper ESD handling yet. You might add that BJTs are quite insensitive to ESD, too. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 6 at 9:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point Michael; I assumed everybody would know to power the device off first, but you're right - blowing a gate while powered up could indeed cause components to fail violently. Added a note to this effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – rdtsc
    Mar 6 at 17:40
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ESD vacuum cleaners aren't a scam. Static discharge from a regular vacuum cleaner can definitively damage sensitive electronics.

It's not only the nozzle. The whole housing is made out of ESD materials, which are electrically conductive and have antistatic properties.

Take this as an example. Every component with that yellow ESD logo is made out of ESD materials.

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even modern components

This is very much a "yes, but..." situation. Could you be eaten by a shark? Yes, but probably not in a lake in Kansas. :) You are absolutely right to think that this is a scam, and here's why.

Individual components are very static sensitive

The thing with static shocks is that you very briefly get a very high amount of current. Older components didn't really care about this too much, because they were chunky and they could ride out the sudden surge. But as components got smaller, they got more vulnerable. (Think of the difference in thickness between mains wiring and fuse wire.) We also started using CMOS which is inherently more vulnerable.

Manufacturers recognized this, and started putting protection on component inputs, but that's really a last-ditch effort. The electronics industry started taking ESD (electrostatic discharge) seriously, and yields dramatically improved. If you're working on electronics assembly, you absolutely will want an anti-static vacuum nozzle.

But assembled electronic devices are not

Electronic devices are designed to live in the real world with us. That means they must be designed to withstand any reasonable static shock which they could receive. That design can be overloaded by a severe event like a lightning strike, sure, but nearby vacuum cleaners aren't even close to doing it.

Could electronic devices exist which can't deal with it? Sure (although you'd almost have to intentionally try to make it so). But then they're faulty by design, and by definition if they can't deal with it then they're a PoS which you should return and get a refund on if you can. And practically speaking, this means you bought some cheap rubbish from a dodgy Far East company via an equally dodgy seller. No reputable electronics manufacturer would ever sell anything that can't deal with something as basic as this.

Bottom line? Keep using your regular vacuum around your PC, TV and hifi. They simply don't care what nozzle you've got on it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would be hesitant to use a vacuum directly inside of an opened computer case. I still do it, but I'm hesitant. \$\endgroup\$
    – MooseBoys
    Mar 6 at 9:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MooseBoys Inside the case you have a little more reason to be cautious, but components in a circuit are inherently fairly well protected by being in a circuit. Not perfectly so, but it does make them orders of magnitude less vulnerable. BTW, I'd have to wonder what environment your PC is in, if it needs a carpet-type vacuum, and actually I'd be worried about that level of suction damaging more fragile parts like fan blades. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 11:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the answer, though now I have conflicting answers about whether using the vacuum cleaner to clean the PC components is safe or not. I think I'll not do it for now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juan Perez
    Mar 6 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JuanPerez It would help us if we knew what you were trying to clean. If you're vacuuming the outside of PCs and monitors, you're fine with a regular vacuum. If you're vacuuming inside, you might possibly want an anti-static one to be safe, but you also wouldn't be using anything like a domestic vacuum; and actually normal practice there is to use a compressed air spray canister instead. The main time you'd want an anti-static vacuum is for fume extraction when soldering; but then you'd need to know a lot more about ESD safety than you currently do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Mar 6 at 19:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Graham yes, i wanted to clean the inside. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juan Perez
    Mar 8 at 23:18

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