How Multimeter Measures Voltage [Easy Explanation]

how multimeter measures voltage

Hi. Hope you are having a good life. In this post, I will share my knowledge about how a multimeter measures voltage.  You are in a situation where you need to know how to measure or test a voltage. It could be AC mains voltage in wall outlet, or across the electrical motor, or you just want to know the voltage of your car battery. There are many possible situations where you may need to measure the voltages. A multimeter is an easy tool you can use to do so.

Besides a multimeter, other methods are available too, such as an oscilloscope. But multimeter is the most cheaper way to measure voltages. In this post, I will try my best to guide you on how to use a multimeter to measures voltage (AC/DC) in following easy steps.

1. Guess the nature of your voltage

This step is pretty self-explanatory. You have to know what type of voltage you are dealing with. Is it AC or DC. For example, the voltage in a wall outlet is AC and that of a battery is DC. Most portable electronics equipment are DC powered and I recommend stick yourself around DC circuits (such as a sensor hooked up to an Arduino) only.

I am not saying you cannot measure AC voltages. I am just saying AC is far more dangerous than DC. Go slow and double check everything before you test an AC circuit.  If you really need to check how multimeter measures voltage on AC circuits, like to see an outlet is ‘on’ then use an AC tester. The only times we’ve needed to measure AC are when we’ve got an outlet that is acting funny (is it really at 110V?), or if we’re trying to control a heater (such as a hot plate). For messing with AC voltage get yourself a non-contact tester (Amazon link) rather than use a multimeter.

2. Rough Guess the range of your voltage

In the first step, you find out the nature of the voltage you are going to measure. In the second step, it is important to just roughly guess a range. This range should not be very accurate. With time I have learned that guessing a rough range is pretty useful.

For example, I want to measure car battery voltage to know if the battery is working fine or not. I know car batteries are below 15V. I do not know the exact voltage but I am sure they are below 15V With this in mind, I will select the range of the multimeter somewhere around 15V or above. This will give me accurate results straightforward. 

What if you do not make an educational rough range? The answer is still accurate results. A multimeter shows you an indication of wrong range selection. This indication continues until you select the accurate range. You will probably see the meter screen change and then read ‘1’. 1 in multimeter means “Not in Range”.  If you are not able to make a guess then always start from highest range. 

3. How multimeter measures voltage

You find out the nature of voltage and then tried to guess a proper range. Now, it is the time to make some voltage measurement or testing with the multimeter. 

Plug the probe leads into multimeter specific sockets. Plug the black probe (ground or negative lead) in COM socket. And plug the read prob (Positive) into V marked socket on the meter as shown below.

multimeter voltage measurements

Set the range on the multimeter. This depends on what type of multimeter you are using. If you are using Fluke 177 Advanced Multimeter Kit then do not worry about selecting any range. It is an auto range multimeter. Just turn the dial to the ‘V’ setting with the symbol for AC or DC as shown below. If you are using manual range setting dial meter then turn the dial to select AC or DC volts and pick a range to give the required accuracy. Remember, measuring 12 volts on the 20-volt range will give more decimal places than on the 200-volt range.

voltage measurements

Connect the multimeter parallel in a circuit under test. Remember multimeter is always connected in parallel with a circuit in order to measure the voltage. This means two probes of the multimeter (black and red) must be connected in parallel with the voltage source or any load which voltage need to be measured.

It is always good to power off the circuit under test (especially for AC main). When you powered off the circuitry. Put the negative probe (the black one) against the neutral point of the circuit or against the reference point of the wiring or circuitry. Then power On the circuit. Place the other probe(the red one) against the second point of the circuit under test.

When you are measuring small DC voltages you do not need to power the circuit off.  For example, measuring the voltage on an AA battery is simple. Connect positive (red) probe of the multimeter to the positive terminal of the battery and same goes for negative (black) probe. You will get the reading on LCD display of 1.5V. What if you interchange the probes like you connect positive probe of a multimeter to the negative terminal of a battery. And negative probe of the multimeter to the positive terminal of the battery. The reading on the multimeter is simply negative. Remember, the multimeter measures a voltage in relation to the common probe i.e. black one. How much voltage is there on the ‘+’ of the battery compared to common or the negative pin? 1.5V. If we switch the probes, we define ‘+’ as the common or a zero point. How much voltage is there on the ‘-’ of the battery compared to our new zero? -1.5V!

How Multimeter Measures Voltage

Please make sure not to short any probe. Always make sure probes are placed on two different points on the circuit under test. Shorting probes can occur if you are trying to measure voltages on PCB boards.  

In the end, you can see the results on your LCD display.

For measuring AC voltages pay very close attention to the following points: These are safety points for measuring high voltages (both AC and DC), never ever forget these points. Your life is important, I care for your life.

  • Never use damaged probes, never ever.
  • In case of measuring main voltages (high voltages), always try to power off the circuitry under test. I recommend always power it off.   
  • Never missed off with things you have no clear idea.
  • Always connect the neutral wire first to the multimeter (Put the probe of the multimeter in the neutral terminal first). If you insert the probe into a live wire first and the meter is faulty, current could flow through the meter to the neutral probe of the multimeter in your hands. If you then inadvertently touch the probe, there is a possibility of shock.
  • Always double check that probes are in the correct socket outlet on a multimeter. If you mistakenly connect the red probe into the current socket and try to measure AC main voltages, you will end in blowing your multimeter forever.  

Final words on how multimeter measures voltage

My conclusion on how multimeter measures voltage goes like, it is easy and fun when voltage levels are low. Such as measuring voltages of, Arduino pins, small resistive circuits, or other small portable electronic equipment, or AA batteries. But give great attention when you are measuring high voltages such as AC mains. A silly mistake could harm you.

It is a good practice to always buy a multimeter with at-least CAT III or IV protection when you are measuring AC voltages.

This is what I know about how multimeter measures voltage. Hope this helped you and answer your question. If you have confusion let me know in the comment section. I promise I will help you with my best knowledge.

You can also check my other post as well:

Thank you.

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