A multimeter or a multitester, also known as a volt/ohm meter or VOM, is an electronic measuring instrument that combines several functions in one unit. A standard multimeter may include features such as the ability to measure voltage, current and resistance. There are two categories of multimeters, analog multimeters (or analogue multimeters in British English) and digital multimeters (often abbreviated DMM or DVOM.)
A multimeter can be a hand-held device useful for basic fault finding and field service work or a bench instrument which can measure to a very high degree of accuracy. They can be used to troubleshoot electrical problems in a wide array of industrial and household devices such as batteries, motor controls, appliances, power supplies, and wiring systems.
Multimeters are available in a wide ranges of features and prices. Cheap multimeters can cost less than US$10, while the top of the line multimeters can cost more than US$5000.
Additionally, multimeters may also measure:
Digital multimeters may also include circuits for:
Various sensors can be attached to multimeters to take measurements such as:
By convention, a half digit can display either a zero or a one, while a three-quarters digit can display a numeral higher than a one but not nine. Commonly, a three-quarters digit refers to a maximum value of 3 or 5. The fractional digit is always the most significant digit in the displayed value. A 5½ digit multimeter would have five full digits that display values from 0 to 9 and one half digit that could only display 0 or 1. Such a meter could show positive or negative values from 0 to 199,999. A 3¾ digit meter can display a quantity from 0 to 3,999 or 5,999, depending on the manufacturer.
While a digital display can easily be extended in precision, the extra digits are of no value if not accompanied by care in the design and calibration of the analog portions of the multimeter. Meaningful high-resolution measurements require a good understanding of the instrument specifications, good control of the measurement conditions, and traceability of the calibration of the instrument.
Specifying "display counts" is another way to specify the resolution. Display counts give the largest number, or the largest number plus one (so the count number looks nicer) the multimeter' display can show, ignoring a decimal separator. For example, a 5½ digit multimeter can also be specified as a 199999 display count or 200000 display count multimeter.
Often the display count is just called the count in multimeter specifications. In some designs the underlying analog-to-digital converter mechanism may have more or less digits of precision than displayed.
Resistance measurements, in particular, are of low precision due to the typical resistance measurement circuit which compresses the scale heavily at the higher resistance values.
Manufacturers can provide calibration services so that new meters may be purchased with a certificate of calibration indicating the meter has been adjusted to standards traceable to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Such manufacturers usually provide calibration services after sales, as well, so that older equipment may be recertified. Multimeters used for critical measurements may be part of a metrology program to assure calibration.
Meters with electronic amplifiers in them, such as all digital multimeters and analog meters using a transistor for amplification, have an input impedance that is usually considered high enough not to disturb the circuit tested. This is often one million ohms, or ten million ohms. The standard input impedance allows use of external probes to extend the direct-current measuring range up to tens of thousands of volts.
Most analog multimeters of the moving pointer type are unbuffered, and draw current from the circuit under test to deflect the meter pointer. The impedance of the meter varies depending on the basic sensitivity of the meter movement and the range which is selected. For example, a meter with a typical 20,000 ohms/volt sensitivity will have an input resistance of two million ohms on the 100 volt range (100 V * 20,000 ohms/volt = 2,000,000 ohms). Lower sensitivity meters are useful for general purpose testing especially in power circuits, where source impedances are low compared to the meter impedance. Some measurements in signal circuits require higher sensitivity so as not to load down the circuit under test with the meter impedance.
Sometime sensitivity is confused with resolution of a meter, which is defined as measure of the lowest voltage, current or resistance that can change measurement reading. For general-purpose digital multimeters, a full-scale range of several hundred millivolts AC or DC is common, but the minimum full-scale current range may be several hundred milliamps. Since general-purpose multimeters have only two-wire resistance measurements, which do not compensate for the effect of the lead wire resistance, measurements below a few tens of ohms will be of low accuracy. The upper end of multimeter measurement ranges varies considerably by manufacturer; generally measurements over 1000 volts, over 10 amperes, or over 100 megohms would require a specialized test instrument, as would accurate measurement of currents on the order of 1 microamp or less.
Modern multimeters are often digital due to their accuracy, durability and extra features.
In a Digital Multimeter the signal under test is converted to a voltage and an amplifier with an electronically controlled gain preconditions the signal.
A Digital Multimeter displays the quantity measured as a number, which prevents parallax errors.
The inclusion of solid state electronics, from a control circuit to small embedded computers, has provided a wealth of convenience features in modern digital meters. Commonly available measurement enhancements include:
Modern meters may be interfaced with a personal computer by IrDA links, RS-232 connections, USB, or an instrument bus such as IEEE-488. The interface allows the computer to record measurements as they are made. Some DMM's can store measurements and upload them to a computer.
The first digital multimeter was manufactured in 1955 by Non Linear Systems.
Analog meters are sometimes considered better for detecting the rate of change of a reading; some digital multimeters include a fast-responding bar-graph display for this purpose. The ARRL handbook suggests that analog multimeters are often less susceptible to radio frequency interference.
The meter movement in a moving pointer analog multimeter is practically always a moving-coil galvanometer of the d'Arsonval type, using either jeweled pivots or taut bands to support the moving coil. In a basic analog multimeter the current to deflect the coil and pointer is drawn from the circuit being measured; it is usually an advantage to minimize the current drawn from the circuit. The sensitivity of an analog multimeter is given in units of ohms per volt. For example, an inexpensive multimeter would have a sensitivity of 1000 ohms per volt and would draw 1 milliampere from a circuit at the full scale measured voltage. More expensive, (and more delicate) multimeters would have sensitivities of 20,000 ohms per volt or higher, with a 50,000 ohms per volt meter (drawing 20 microamperes at full scale) being about the upper limit for a portable, general purpose, non-amplified analog multimeter.
To avoid the loading of the measured circuit by the current drawn by the meter movement, later analog multimeters use an amplifier inserted between the measured circuit and the meter movement. While this increased the expense and complexity of the meter and required a power supply to operate the amplifier, by use of vacuum tubes or field effect transistors the input resistance can be made very high and independent of the current required to operate the meter movement coil. Such amplified multimeters are called VTVM (vacuum tube voltmeters) TVM (transistor volt meter), FET-VOM, and similar names.
Meters which measure high voltages or current may use non-contact attachment mechanism to trade accuracy for safety. Clamp meters provide a coil that clamps around a conductor in order to measure the current flowing through it.
Digital meters are category rated based on their intended application, as set forth by the CEN EN61010 standard. There are four categories:
Each category also specifies maximum transient voltages for selected measuring ranges in the meter. Category-rated meters also feature protections from over-current faults.