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10.4: Electrical Measuring Instruments

Ohm’s law and Kirchhoff’s method are useful to analyze and design electrical circuits, providing you with the voltages across, the current through, and the resistance of the components that compose the circuit. To measure these parameters require instruments, and these instruments are described in this section.

DC Voltmeters and Ammeters

Whereas voltmeters measure voltage, ammeters measure current. Some of the meters in automobile dashboards, digital cameras, cell phones, and tuner-amplifiers are actually voltmeters or ammeters (Figure). The internal construction of the simplest of these meters and how they are connected to the system they monitor give further insight into applications of series and parallel connections.

The figure shows photo of fuel and temperature gauges.

Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The fuel and temperature gauges (far right and far left, respectively) in this 1996 Volkswagen are voltmeters that register the voltage output of “sender” units. These units are proportional to the amount of gasoline in the tank and to the engine temperature. (credit: Christian Giersing)

Measuring Current with an Ammeter

To measure the current through a device or component, the ammeter is placed in series with the device or component. A series connection is used because objects in series have the same current passing through them. (See Figure, where the ammeter is represented by the symbol A.)

Part a shows positive terminal of a battery with emf ε and internal resistance r connected to ammeter which is connected in series to two resistors, R subscript 1 and R subscript 2. Part b shows positive terminal of a battery with emf ε and internal resistance r connected to ammeter which is connected to two parallel resistors, R subscript 1 with ammeter and R subscript 2 with ammeter.

Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): (a) When an ammeter is used to measure the current through two resistors connected in series to a battery, a single ammeter is placed in series with the two resistors because the current is the same through the two resistors in series. (b) When two resistors are connected in parallel with a battery, three meters, or three separate ammeter readings, are necessary to measure the current from the battery and through each resistor. The ammeter is connected in series with the component in question.

Ammeters need to have a very low resistance, a fraction of a milliohm. If the resistance is not negligible, placing the ammeter in the circuit would change the equivalent resistance of the circuit and modify the current that is being measured. Since the current in the circuit travels through the meter, ammeters normally contain a fuse to protect the meter from damage from currents which are too high.

Measuring Voltage with a Voltmeter

A voltmeter is connected in parallel with whatever device it is measuring. A parallel connection is used because objects in parallel experience the same potential difference. (See Figure, where the voltmeter is represented by the symbol V.)

Part a shows positive terminal of a battery with emf ε and internal resistance r connected in series to two resistors, R subscript 1 and R subscript 2. The battery and the two resistors have voltmeters connected to them in parallel.

Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): To measure potential differences in this series circuit, the voltmeter (V) is placed in parallel with the voltage source or either of the resistors. Note that terminal voltage is measured between the positive terminal and the negative terminal of the battery or voltage source. It is not possible to connect a voltmeter directly across the emf without including the internal resistance r of the battery.

Since voltmeters are connected in parallel, the voltmeter must have a very large resistance. Digital voltmeters convert the analog voltage into a digital value to display on a digital readout (Figure). Inexpensive voltmeters have resistances on the order of \(R_M = 10 \space M\Omega\), whereas high-precision voltmeters have resistances on the order of \(R_M = 10 \space G\Omega\). The value of the resistance may vary, depending on which scale is used on the meter.

Part a shows photo of an analog voltmeter and part b shows photo of a digital meter.

Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (a) An analog voltmeter uses a galvanometer to measure the voltage. (b) Digital meters use an analog-to-digital converter to measure the voltage. (credit a and credit b: Joseph J. Trout)

Analog and Digital Meters

You may encounter two types of meters in the physics lab: analog and digital. The term ‘analog’ refers to signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity, such as voltage or current. An analog meter uses a galvanometer, which is essentially a coil of wire with a small resistance, in a magnetic field, with a pointer attached that points to a scale. Current flows through the coil, causing the coil to rotate. To use the galvanometer as an ammeter, a small resistance is placed in parallel with the coil. For a voltmeter, a large resistance is placed in series with the coil. A digital meter uses a component called an analog-to-digital (A to D) converter and expresses the current or voltage as a series of the digits 0 and 1, which are used to run a digital display. Most analog meters have been replaced by digital meters.

Check Your Understanding

Digital meters are able to detect smaller currents than analog meters employing galvanometers. How does this explain their ability to measure voltage and current more accurately than analog meters?

The figure shows positive terminal of a battery with emf ε and internal resistance r connected to ammeter.

[Hide Solution]

Since digital meters require less current than analog meters, they alter the circuit less than analog meters. Their resistance as a voltmeter can be far greater than an analog meter, and their resistance as an ammeter can be far less than an analog meter. Consult Figure and Figure and their discussion in the text

Note

In this virtual lab simulation, you may construct circuits with resistors, voltage sources, ammeters and voltmeters to test your knowledge of circuit design.

Ohmmeters

An ohmmeter is an instrument used to measure the resistance of a component or device. The operation of the ohmmeter is based on Ohm’s law. Traditional ohmmeters contained an internal voltage source (such as a battery) that would be connected across the component to be tested, producing a current through the component. A galvanometer was then used to measure the current and the resistance was deduced using Ohm’s law. Modern digital meters use a constant current source to pass current through the component, and the voltage difference across the component is measured. In either case, the resistance is measured using Ohm’s law \((R = V/I)\) where the voltage is known and the current is measured, or the current is known and the voltage is measured.

The component of interest should be isolated from the circuit; otherwise, you will be measuring the equivalent resistance of the circuit. An ohmmeter should never be connected to a “live” circuit, one with a voltage source connected to it and current running through it. Doing so can damage the meter.

Contributors

Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).