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A Communicator Reprise: February 2012

I’m sometimes surprised when a fellow ham asks a troubleshooting question and they have no knowledge of simple voltage, current or resistance measurement. When instructing the Basic course I used to spend a fair bit of time on series and parallel circuits and the means to make basic measurements, and there are several questions in the question bank that test these skills. I use my multi-meter several times a week, to check for a short, open circuit or even whether a dry cell battery requires replacement. This month we’ll look at the meters themselves… next month the basics of how to use them.
Multi-meters or multi-testers, also known as a VOM (Volt Ohm Meter) is an electronic measuring instrument that combines several measurement functions in one unit. They are inexpensive and very handy tools for measuring what is going on in a circuit and will offer Voltage, Current and Resistance ranges adequate for home use. Most new multi-meters are digital. Until recently, digital multi-meters were expensive, and some lab quality instruments still are, as much as $5,000. For as little as $10 you can purchase one on-line or on sale at Canadian Tire. The average home user can get by with a basic model. 


The first moving-pointer current-detecting device was the galvanometer in 1820. These were used to measure resistance and voltage by using a resistor bridge, and comparing the unknown quantity to a reference voltage or resistance. While useful in the lab, the devices were very slow and impractical in the field. These galvanometers were bulky and delicate. By adding a series or shunt resistor, more than one range of voltage or current could be measured with one movement.

Multi-meters were invented in the early 1920s as radio receivers and other vacuum tube electronic devices became more common. The invention of the first multi-meter is attributed to British Post Office engineer, Donald Macadie, who became dissatisfied with having to carry many separate instruments required for the maintenance of the telecommunications circuits. Macadie invented an instrument which could measure amperes, volts and ohms, so the multi-functional meter was then  named Avometer. The meter comprised a moving coil meter, voltage and precision resistors, and switches and sockets to select the range.
Any meter will load the circuit under test to some extent. For example, a microammeter with full-scale current of 50 microamps, the highest sensitivity commonly available, must draw at least 50 microamps from the circuit under test to deflect fully. This may load a high-impedance circuit so much as to affect the circuit, and thereby give a false low reading.

To eliminate loading, Vacuum Tube Voltmeters (VTVM) were used for voltage measurements in electronic circuits. The VTVM had a fixed input impedance of typically 1 megohm or more, usually through use of a vacuum tube input circuit, and thus did not significantly load the circuit being tested. Modern digital meters and some modern analog meters use electronic input circuitry to achieve high-input impedance—their voltage ranges are functionally equivalent to VTVMs. Before the introduction of digital electronic high-impedance analog transistor and field effect transistor (FETs), vacuum tubes were commonly used. 

How Does It Work?

An un-amplified analog multi-meter combines a meter movement, range resistors and switches. For an analog meter movement, DC voltage is measured with an internal series resistor connected between the meter movement and the circuit under test. If no resistors were used, the excessive voltage or current would quickly burn out the small wires that make up the meter coil. A set of switches allows greater resistance to be inserted for higher voltage ranges. As an example, a meter movement that required 1 milliamp for full scale deflection, with an internal resistance of 500 ohms, would, on a 10-volt range of the multi-meter, require 9,500 ohms of series resistance. Why? Remember Ohms Law, R = E / I or 10 volts divided by .001 amp which equals 10,000 ohms. The meter has an internal resistance of 500 ohms so we must add series resistance of 9,500 ohms to obtain a full scale reading. Now any voltage between 0 and 10 volts will produce some proportional deflection of the meter and this value can be read from the scale.  

For analog current ranges, low-resistance shunts are connected in parallel with the meter movement to divert most of the current around the coil. Again for the case of a hypothetical 1 mA, 500 ohm movement on a 1 Ampere range, the shunt resistance would be just over 0.5 ohms.

Moving coil instruments respond only to the average value of the current through them. To measure alternating current, a rectifier diode is inserted in the circuit so that the average value of current is non-zero. 

To measure resistance, a small dry cell within the instrument passes a current through the device under test and the meter coil. Since the current available depends on the state of charge of the dry cell, an analog multi-meter usually has an adjustment for the ohms scale to zero it, to compensate for the varying voltage of the meter battery. In the usual circuit found in analog multi-meters, the meter deflection is inversely proportional to the resistance; so full-scale is 0 ohms, and high resistance corresponds to smaller deflections. The ohms scale is compressed, so resolution is better at lower resistance values. Inexpensive analog meters may have only a single resistance scale, seriously restricting the range of precise measurements. 

Resolution of analog multi-meters is limited by the width of the scale pointer, parallax, vibration of the pointer, the accuracy of printing of scales, zero calibration, number of ranges, and errors due to non-horizontal use of the mechanical display. Accuracy of readings obtained is also often compromised by miscounting division markings, errors in mental arithmetic, parallax observation errors, and less than perfect eyesight. Mirrored scales and larger meter movements are used to improve resolution; two and a half to three digits equivalent resolution is usual and adequate for the limited precision needed for most measurements.

Analog meter movements are inherently much more fragile physically and electrically than digital meters. Many analog meters have been instantly broken by connecting to the wrong point in a circuit, or while on the wrong range, or by dropping onto the floor.
On the favourable side, Analog meters are able to display a changing reading in real time, whereas digital meters present such data in a manner that's either hard to follow or more often incomprehensible. Also a digital display can follow changes far more slowly than an analog movement, so often fails to show what's going on clearly. 
Analog meters are also useful in situations where its necessary to pay attention to something other than the meter, and the swing of the pointer can be seen without looking at it. This can happen when accessing awkward locations, or when working on cramped live circuitry.

Analog displays are also used to very roughly read currents well above the maximum rated current of the meter. For this, the probes are just touched to the circuit momentarily, and how fast the pointer speeds towards full-scale deflection is noted. This is often done when testing state of charge of dry batteries.
The ARRL handbook also says that analog multimeters, with no electronic circuitry, are less susceptible to radio frequency interference, important if working on radio gear.

Digital Meters

The first digital multi-meter was manufactured in 1955 by Non Linear Systems. Modern multi-meters are often digital due to their accuracy, durability and extra features. In a digital multi-meter the signal under test is converted to a voltage and an amplifier with electronically controlled gain preconditions the signal. A digital multi-meter displays the quantity measured as a number, which eliminates mechanical errors. Measurement enhancements available include:
Auto-ranging, which selects the correct range for the quantity under test so that the most significant digits are shown. For example, a four-digit multi-meter would automatically select an appropriate range to display 1.234 instead of 0.012, or overloading. Auto-ranging meters may include a facility to 'freeze' the meter to a particular range, because a measurement that causes frequent range changes is distracting to the user. Other factors being equal, an auto-ranging meter will have more circuitry than an equivalent, non-auto-ranging meter, and so will be more costly, but will be more convenient to use. An other reason to 'freeze' the range is that this somewhat avoids 'hunting' which is a situation where the meter continuously switches between two neighbouring ranges as when the instrument is in the low range, the value is too large but too small in the larger range.
Auto-polarity for direct-current readings, shows if the applied voltage is positive (agrees with meter lead labels) or negative (opposite polarity to meter leads).
Sample and hold, which will latch the most recent reading for examination after the instrument is removed from the circuit under test.

Current-limited tests for voltage drop across semiconductor junctions. While not a replacement for a transistor tester, this facilitates testing diodes and a variety of transistor types.

As you can see, not all meters are created equally and the choice depends upon your needs. For general home use however, a $10 digital multi-meter will accomplish most tasks with the least possibility of damage to the circuit or the meter.

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