What is a Multimeter? Where to Use It and When

What is a Multimeter? How to Use It? Do You Need One?

Multimeter
Multimeter. Photo 4Volvos Pixabay

What is a Multimeter?

A multimeter or Volt-Ohm meter, is a device used to measure voltage, current and resistance. Multimeter might be analog type multimeters or digital multimeters, depending on the type of circuit being used. Normally, these hand-held devices are very useful to detect faults or provide field measurements at a high degree of accuracy. They are one of the preferred tools by electricians to troubleshoot electrical problems on motors, appliances, circuit, power supplies, and wiring systems.

Analog multimeters are becoming obsolete as they are being replaced by digital multimeters.

Analog Multimeters

Analog multimeter is based on a micro ammeter that moves over a scale. Analog multimeters although cheap, can be very difficult to read accurately, and they must be handled carefully, because of you drop the meter, you are likely to damage it. Analog multimeter are not accurate as a digital meter, when you are trying to use it as a voltmeter; however, analog multimeters are great detecting slow voltage changes, as you will the see the needle moving over the scale.

The best way to use an analog multimeter is when it is set as an ammeter, due to their low resistance and high sensitivity, with scales down to 50µA.

Digital Multimeters

Digital multimeters are designed for electronics engineers, so many multimeters, might contain features that probably you will not need ever. Digital meters will provide their output on a LCD screen, and might cost more than analog multimeters.

By turning the central knob, you will be selecting the appropriate type of measurement you will me making. For example when it is set to 20V DC, it means that 20 volts will be the maximum voltage that can be measured, normally ideal for all circuits that you will build. If you would like to measure smaller voltages then you should set your digital multimeter to the 2V or 200mV selection.

The digital multimeter is better when it is used as a voltmeter, because it resistance is much higher, 1 M or 10 M, compared to 200 for an analogue multimeter on a similar range. Occasionally, a digital multimeter will show voltage present when a circuit should not be energized. The question is whether it's real and potentially dangerous voltage, or merely 'Ghost Voltage.' This kind of voltage is caused when energized circuits and non-energized wiring are located in close proximity to each other.

Multimeter Functions

Multimeter are capable of providing several measurements and tests; however most multimeters can record the following:

  • Alternating Voltage,
  • Direct Voltage
  • Alternating Current
  • Direct Current
  • Resistance in Ohms
  • Capacity (farads)
  • Conductance (Siemens)
  • Decibels
  • Duty cycle, measure as a percentage
  • Frequency (Hz)
  • Inductance (henrys)
  • Temperature Celsius or Fahrenheit, only certain models and with special equipment

Other sensors could be attached to multimeters making them able to record measurements of:

  • Light level
  • Acidity
  • Alkalinity
  • Wind Speed
  • Relative Humidity

Many multimeter manufacturers have additional features that can be added when you are purchasing your new device, so be sure to read and verify your needs so you can end up with the proper equipment.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Multimeter?

If you are not an electrician and are looking into buying a new tool, you must be aware of the following items prior to making that investment.

  • Pricing- You can get one at your local hardware store but you need to know that if not calibrated, you will then need to do that at least once a year. Pricing can range from $40 all the way to $800 depending on the functions and type. Normally cheaper ones are not calibrated.
  • Features- Consider buying one with a neat LCD display, and if possible an auto-ranging one, that is able to detect multiple voltages. Digital are more accurate than the analog ones.
  • Brands- So, which one is the best multimeter out there? It all depends, on what you want to do with it, how frequent you are going to use it and the type of measurement that you want to get from it, so think wisely before buying the tool.