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Using a multimeter

This guide starts off with the basics of a meter, proceeds to give a thorough
specification for our example meter, then explains how to make measurements, and
finishes up with some hints and notes.
The example meter that we are demonstrating is typical of many economical digital
multimeters that you can purchase, this guide will be useful for all these meters. This
guide is concentrating on how to use your multimeter. It all came about, frankly, when we
started giving away free multimeters to our design clients - and we realised there was no
easy instruction manual for a meter - all that was supplied was a list of (sometimes non-
sensical) warnings, and a specification list. Admittedly we have a specification list here, but
we tell you to ignore it if it does not make sense, and we have reduced the warnings to the
three that we think really matter.
We can supply the meter direct - but our costs are a little higher than the big retailers.
Recently the same meter has availble only in a dark grey colour case. There is also a
cheaper version in a plain rectangular case with no rubber holster - great for students, or a
second meter. We charge $9 to mail out these meters within Australia - (email for a quote if you want it sent
overseas, but honestly it probably isn't worth it, we get charged about $40+ here in Australia to ship anything
internationally).

The Basics
Powered by 9V battery
Black probe in COM, Red in VOmA (COM and 10ADC only used for high current)
Dial measurement required, connect probes to circuit, read value
DC voltage: 0.2V - 600V in x10 steps
AC voltage: 200V, 600V ranges only
DC current: 0.0002A - 0.2A in x10
DC current (high range): 10A
Resistance: 200 - 2,000,000ohms in x10 steps
hfe test (NPN/PNP transistor)
Continuity buzzer (Except on Aldi ECS820b and some newer models)
Prices: $99 down to about $20 (OR up to $200 for brand name eg Fluke)
Where to buy: Online, Jaycar, Dick Smith, Altronics, sometimes Aldi, Bunnings

Warnings
Do not rotate the dial while the meter is connected to a circuit - you may rotate it
through a current range, short circuiting the probes and damaging either the meter or the
circuit.
Respect the circuitry you are working on - If you touch exposed metal, or cause a short
circuit, or connect to high voltage, you may expose yourself to hazard - or damage the
circuit or your meter.
Measuring the short circuit current of a battery or power supply is usually not
safe - it is likely to damage the meter or battery and possibly cause the battery to overheat
so much that it may be dangerous.
You should read all the other important warnings in the instructions that come with your meter,
you may even find, somewhere, the author's favourite comical mis-translated warning:
"Do not run the equipment under water or in water shower for fun or any other reason".
Quick facts for the experts
(Please skip reading this section if it doesn't make sense to you!)
Voltage Measurement: Input impedance 1M
Current Measurement: Voltage drop 200mV max
10A Current Measurement: Voltage drop 100mV
20k,200k,2M resistance measurement: 0.35V 22uA (note this means that 20k and
above ranges will not falsely read diode drops as resistance)
200 ohm, 2k resistance measurement: 2.7V 0.6mA (note this is sufficient to dimly
light a good quality Red/Yellow/Green/Orange LED on test)
AC Voltage Measurement: Averaging only, not RMS (however responds somewhat to
change from square to sine, but small 2.0VAC reads as 1.7V)
Diode test (2k range): Not good, value shown is 2x actual fwd voltage drop
Hold switch: Holds the last measured value, as you would expect
Backlight: Illuminates the display for 5 seconds (But is anyone mad enough to try
and use the meter on a live circuit in the dark?!)
Voltage/Current reference: Internal to main AME7106Y IC
Voltage/Current calibration: Internal 200 ohm cermet preset (VR1)
Resistance: Resistance measurements are ratiometric
Battery consumption: 1.57mA typ (But 4.4mA continuity, 40mA backlight)
Battery life at 1.57mA: Standard 100-150hr typ, Alkaline 200-300hr typ
Low battery indication: 7V typ, with voltage/current accuracy lost at 6.3V
Manufacturer: Mastech MAS830L, Full meter schematic
Transistor test: 9V Vce, 220k base resistor (approx 40ua IBE), 10 Ohm load
Note 10 Amp current range is Unfused (as in most economical DVMs)
Current range protection Fuse: 200mA (20mm) no spare provided :-(
Voltage range protection: Inherent high impedance
Resistance/continuity range protection: PTC resistor
Continuity: Standard - buzzer sounds for less than 1500ohm or diode :-(
Continuity if R29=22k - sounds for less than 100 ohms, but not diodes :-)
Construction: 'Transistor radio style', Gold flashed PCB switch contacts (Note: Open
switch construction - this means keep away from moisture!)
Active circuitry: LM358, AME7106Y chip-on-board, 1N4007, 4 transistors
Probes: 18AWG 70cm long, right angle banana, one red, one black
ECS820b (Aldi meter) Differences from the above
Continuity setting missing - a pity as very useful
2k resistance measurement is 0.3V 22ua
Diode test is much improved, quite usable
Backlight is missing, (except for ECS820BL version), probably no great loss
Battery consumption is improved, 0.93ma (But still 3.76ma on 200R + diode)
Manufacturer: Was Suns ECS820
Transistor test: 3V Vce, 180k base resistor (approx 10ua IBE), 40 Ohm load
Construction : Primarily surface mount, but using nearly identical case moulding
So all in all there are some technical differences, but aside from the missing
continuity feature there is little to tell the meters apart - the rest of the information
here can really be read as applying to both the MAS830L / QM1522 or the ECS820B
Measurements for Managers
Just because you have an MBA doesn't mean you have to hire an EE to check a battery
voltage! Yep, we have collected all the relevant tricky bits together here, so you can probe
and buzz to your hearts content!
As we state above - Have the Black probe in COM, Red probe in VOmA, and dial the
measurement you want beforeyou probe the circuit.
Voltage Measurements - DC - definitely the easiest of the lot, Black probe on Ground,
Red on the voltage to measure - done. If the value reads negative, the voltage is negative
with respect to ground. If the value reads '1.' the voltage is higher than the range setting
that you have selected.
Continuity Measurement - definitely the most used setting. Dial the position, and put
the probes across the two points to be tested, with the circuit unpowered. The value
displayed is the resistance in ohms. If no connection is present, the value reads '1.' More
usefully, the buzzer sounds on low resistance, so that you can quickly probe for continuity
without looking over at the meter each time. (This feature is missing on the ECS820B)
Resistance Measurement - as for continuity, again, '1.' means no
connection or a resistance larger than the range setting that you have selected.
Voltage Measurement - AC - as for DC voltage, however AC voltage does not have a
distinct polarity. Be very careful when measuring high voltages. Just because you are
holding a meter does not mean you are now immune to electric shock. Exercise caution.
Current Measurement - DC - to measure the current flowing through a circuit you must
insert the meter in series with the circuit. This means you must disconnect a wire, and
insert the meter in its place. Normally you would connect the Red VOmA probe in the
positive direction, and the Black COM probe in the negative direction. Remove the power
from the circuit before doing this. When you have the wires secure and are sure they will
not drop off and short circuit, reattach the power. If the value reads negative, the current
flow is negative (that is, the VOmA probe has been connected in the more negative
direction). If the value reads '1.' the current is higher than the range setting that you have
selected. For currents higher than 0.2A use the 10A range.
Current Measurement - 10A DC - as for Current Measurement DC, but using the COM
and 10ADC terminals. Exercise caution - the 10A DC range is unfused, if the current
exceeds 10A damage to the meter will result. Make the measurement quickly - the
connecting leads will get warm at 10A current!
Real world Measurements
hfe Measurement - Insert the transistor in the test socket with the leads matching the E C
B postions. The display will show the approximate gain of the transistor. This function is,
frankly, pretty rarely used.
Diode Measurement - On the MAS830L Select the 2k (Or, the position). On the
ECS820B use the setting marked with the diode symbol. Connect the Red VOmA lead to the
anode (unmarked) end of the diode, and the Black COM lead to the cathode (Bar or stripe
marked) end of the diode. If the diode is good, a value representing theforward voltage
drop in millivolts will be displayed.
The ECS820B does a good job of this, the MAS830L is not very good at it, as R12 PTC is not
well selected for the design. MAS830 value displayed is approx 2x the actual voltage drop of
the diode. In any case, diodes rarely fail by exhibiting a higher forward voltage than they
should, they most usually fail by going close to short circuit. Even though the measured
value is very inaccurate, the meter is still okay for such a Go / No-Go diode test.
LEDs - Red VOmA probe to anode or longer lead, Black COM probe to cathode or flat-
marked side of package. On 200ohm and continuity settings 0.7ma flows through a
Red/Green/Yellow/Orange LED - just enough to dimly light a good quality LED. White and
blue LEDs generally will not light - they require more than the 2.7V or so supplied by the
meter.


Testing batteries
As tersely explained to the left, a battery can be tested, seperately, using a multimeter - but is
best tested (supplying power) in the equipment. This is difficult for most people.
An alternative is to buy a purpose built battery tester: This is just a meter with a resistor to draw power
from the battery, so it is tested under load, as it should be. A simple cheap battery tester is here
(For Theresa Hackett - thank you for your help)
1.5V Batteries - A Fresh battery reads 1.56V, A battery is perhaps half used at 1.35V, and
is pretty dead by the time it reaches 1.1V. (Matching figures for 9V: Full = 9.36V, Half =
8.1V, Dead = 6.6V). However, not every item is the same, and some equipment needs a
battery with low internal impedance. The amount of current a battery can deliver is not
reliably reflected by its open circuit terminal voltage. The best way to check, if in doubt, is
to measure battery voltage while the equipment is running.
Lead acid batteries - A 12V lead acid battery generally measures 13.4 to 14V while on
charge. When off charge, a full battery will be up at about 12.8V, a discharged battery at
about 11V. If a lead acid battery is in the range of 6-8V it is probably in pretty bad shape,
and over discharged, or with a shorted cell. A shorted cell makes a 12V battery pretty much
useless.
Lithium Ion batteries - Lithium Ion batteries are the newer type of rechargeable battery.
When fully charged the voltage rises to 4.2V, and at the end of charge the voltage falls to
3.0V - or sometimes down to 2.7V depending on the product. However, these batteries
need to be treated with caution. Use only the proper charger, do not short circuit, and do
not open them - Lithium incinerates on contact with water. If allowed to completely
discharge these batteries are irreversibly damaged. Despite what manufacturers may tell
you, these batteries are like any other - they will last 500-1000 charge/discharge cycles if
treated well, and that is all - then they need replacement.
The older type of rechargeable battery is Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMh) and Nickel
Cadmium (NiCd). These cells are often the same physical size as 1.5V batteries, but a
slightly lower voltage: 1.25V when charged, 0.9V when discharged. These batteries are
about twice the weight of LiIons for the same capacity. NiCd and NiMh batteries tend to self-
discharge over time, sometimes lasting only a few weeks between charges, whether or not
they are used. A good example being older NiCd cordless drills - they always seemed to
have a discharged battery when you really need them! You cannot easily replace NiCd
batteries with LiIon as they are different voltages - you need to replace the whole product,
and in cordless drills the batteries are not accessible in any case. There are LSD (Low Self
Discharge) NiMh and NiCd batteries available that largely alleviate this problem, the leading
brand is Sanyo Eneloop.
Elements/Heaters - The resistance of a heater can be calculated by first finding its rated
current, and then finding its resistance using ohms law.
The heaters current is:
Power / Voltage = Current e.g. A 1200W 240V heater uses 5 Amps.
Then the heaters resistance is:
Voltage / Current = Resistance e.g. A 240V 5A heater is 48 ohms.
Knowing an expected resistance, if the heater was measured and found to be wildly
different from these values, you would guess that it was faulty. However, the ohms law
calculations are not useful for halogen lights or transformers. The 'cold' resistance of a light
bulb is frequently as little as a tenth of its running resistance - so a 500W 240V halogen
light bulb, which you would calculate to have a resistance of about 120 ohms, actually has a
'cold' resistance that measures closer to 12 ohms.
Power supplies - please note our warning at the start of this document - it is usually quite
dangerous to measure the short circuit current of a battery or power supply - don't try it! If
a power supply is unregulated, frequently the output voltage will be up to a third higher
than its rated voltage when there is no load connected. '12V' regulated supplies for
equipment that would normally be battery operated are usually 13.4 - 13.8V, not really 12V
at all! Power supplies for digital logic are normally regulated to +/-5% or better, so you
would expect a 5V power supply to be 4.75 to 5.25V without exception.
Components in circuit - Normally you have to
remove a component from a circuit in order to reliably measure its value. For instance, if a
400 ohm relay coil had a 1N4002 diode across it, it would be quite difficult to reliably
measure either the resistance of the relay coil, or the foward voltage of the diode - any
measurement of one is likely to have the other components interfere with the reading.
Almost all circuits are like this to some degree. Most components cannot be measured in
circuit. The only thing that can be reliably be said is that you will not measure a resistance
greater than a resistor value - the circuit can only lower the resistance reading. Contacts,
because they generally read as a dead short: '0.0' are not much affected by being in circuit.
To some extent it is safe to test contacts in circuit.Ofcourse there has to be an exception: If there
are two or more contacts in parallel, and they read as continuous, you know that atleast one is closed but you cannot be
sure which (if any) of them is open.
Fast changes - If a measurement is not stable for a second or so, it is difficult to get a
reliable reading with a meter. An oscilloscope is needed for this.
Cables - Cables are easily tested with a meter on continuity setting. Usually cable faults will
either be an open circuit or short circuit. It is a rare though possible fault to have a
conductor show a significant resistance. Most often, the continuity test on a meter is used to
check if the cable pins are going to the expected place on a connector, by buzzing each
circuit in turn.
Voltage drop - A meter is the ideal tool for diagnosing voltage drop. Generally, cabling
should not drop a significant portion of supply voltage. If a nominal 12V power supply is
feeding a device through a long cable, with say 13.6V at the power supply, you would
expect to still have atleast 90% of the power (or 12.2V) available at the powered device.
Low voltage - Teamed up with Voltage drop is the droop in supply voltage that can occur
when a power supply is overloaded. Again, if a power supply is significantly lower than the
expected value (90% is a good starting point) then it is likely that the load is drawing too
much current. The only way to find this out is to use a meter.
Monitored circuits - Most alarm systems use monitored circuits - basically contacts in
series and parallel with resistors. While two wires may come back to the alarm panel,
instead of being just a closed circuit or open circuit to indicate the condition, the wires will
have two values of resistance for the two states. During installation, this is easily checked
with a meter on resistance setting, but it relies on disconnecting the wires from the panel
first so that the panel circuitry does not interfere with the measured value.

Transistor test - The hfe test on a multimeter is rarely used. However, each bipolar
transistor has the circuit equivalent of two diodes within it, and testing these is often done.
The common terminal of the two diodes is the base of the transistor - for an NPN transistor,
the two anodes are at the base. For a PNP transistor the two cathodes are at the base.
Many transistor failures will be accomanied by one or both of the diode equivalents within
the transistor failing.
Jumper leads / Crocodile clips / Test leads - Called different names in different places,
basically a 30cm length of insulated wire with a clip on each end. Two (or more) of these
make connecting a meter into a circuit a lot easier.
Low battery voltage in a multimeter - The low battery indication in the example
multimeter comes on when the battery voltage falls below 7V. It pays to replace the battery
quickly. If the voltage falls below (about) 6.3V, then voltage and current measurements are
no longer accurate. Typically, the meter will indicate that the voltage or current is higher
than it is in reality. Interestingly, resistance measurements stay accurate to far lower supply
voltages, as the resistance measurements are made ratiometrically and so compensate for
the lowered battery voltage in the meter.
Autoranging meters - Many multimeters are available with autoranging functions. Instead
of selecting the required voltage range, just DC voltage is selected, and the meter selects
the best range itself. Also meters are available that will connect to a PC to download
readings, or with functions such as capacitance, inductance and frequency measurement, all
of which are quite useful. There is also temperature, light, sound level and humidity
measurement - really the sky is the limit if you want to get a meter with extra features!
Multimeters are sometimes also referred to as DVMs, multitesters, or that-thing-in-the-
toolbox-that-I-don't-know-how-to-use
A second meter - Perhaps the most useful hint of the lot is to have a second meter. I
personally swear by it - I am constantly measuring voltage and current at the same time, or
using one meter for buzzing out a circuit board when the power is off, while the other is set
up to monitor voltages in the same board when the power gets turned on.