Diagnose and Repair Modern Electronics: A DIY Guide: Using Test Equipment (part 1)

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Effective application of test gear is key to your sleuthing success. Especially with the oscilloscope, the settings you make while probing around a circuit determine what elements of the signals you will see and which ones you may miss. Soldering, too, can be more or less effective, depending on your technique. Let's look at each piece of basic test gear and how to use it to your best advantage.

Digital Multimeter

Digital multimeters (DMMs) are great for measuring things that don't change quickly.

Battery and power supply voltage, along with resistance and current, are prime candidates for being checked with a DMM. The instrument is less effective for observing changing voltages and currents, which look like moving numbers and are tough to interpret.


The DMM's great advantages over other instruments are its precision and accuracy.

Even a digital scope has fairly limited resolution; you can't tell the difference between 6.1 and 6.13 volts with one very easily, if at all, and measuring resistance and current is impossible with normal scope setups.

All that detail in the meter's display can get you into trouble, though, if you take it too seriously. When interpreting a DMM's readings, keep in mind that real life never quite hits the specs. Don't expect the numbers you see to be perfect matches for specified quantities. If you're reading a power supply voltage that's supposed to be 6 volts, a reading of 6.1 probably isn't indicative of a circuit fault. The same is true of resistance; if the reading is very close, the part is most likely fine. And if the rightmost digit wanders around a little bit, that's due to normal noise levels or the digitizing noise and error inherent in any digital sampling system. Remember, when a part goes bad, it's not subtle! Real faults show readings far from the correct values.

Most DMMs run on batteries, and that's a good thing because it eliminates any ground path from the circuit you're testing back to your house's electrical system.

The instrument "floats" relative to what's being tested (there's no common ground), so you can even take measurements across components when neither point is at circuit ground. If your DMM has the option for an AC adapter, don't use it. Always run your DMM on battery power. The batteries will last for hundreds of hours anyway.

DC Voltage

To check a circuit point's voltage, first you must find circuit ground. Usually, it's the metal chassis or metal shields, if there are any. Don't assume that heatsinks, those finned metal structures to which are attached larger transistors, voltage regulators and power-handling ICs, are connected to ground! Sometimes they are, sometimes they're not. In switching power supplies, the chopper transistor's heatsink may have several hundred volts on it. You sure don't want to hook your meter there.

In some devices, especially small ones like digital cameras, you may find no shields, and there's no metal chassis either. So where is ground? In most cases, the negative terminal of the battery will be connected to circuit ground, and you can use that. Particularly if you can trace it to a large area of copper foil on the board, it's a fairly safe bet. Also look for electrolytic capacitors in the 100 µf-and-up range with voltage ratings lower than 50 volts or so. (See Section 7.) Those are most likely power supply filter caps, even in battery-operated gear, and their negative terminals will be connected to ground. If you see two such identical caps close to each other, the device may have a split power supply, with both negative and positive voltages. Trace the caps' terminals and see if the negative lead from one is connected to the same point as the positive from the other. Where they meet is probably circuit ground.

If all else fails, you can use the outer rings of RCA jacks on audio and video gear.

The only way to get an alligator clip to stay put on one of those jacks is to push half of it into the jack, with the other half grabbing the ground ring. It's better to use an input jack, rather than an output, so the part of the clip sticking inside can't short out an output, possibly damaging the circuitry. You can't hurt an input by shorting it to ground.

Turn on your DMM, set its selector switch to measure DC voltage, and connect its negative (black) lead with a clip lead to circuit ground, regardless of whether you intend to measure positive or negative voltage. A DMM will accept either polarity; measuring negative voltage simply adds a minus sign to the left of the displayed value.

With power applied to the circuit under test, touch the positive lead's tip to the point you want to measure, being careful not to let it slip and touch anything else.

Many DMMs are autoranging and will read any voltage up to the instrument's ratings without your having to set anything else. Keep the probe in place until the reading settles down; it can take 5 or 10 seconds for the meter to step through its ranges and find the appropriate one.

If your DMM is not autoranging, start at the highest range and switch the range down until a proper reading is obtained. If you start at the lowest range and the voltage you're measuring happens to be high, you could damage the DMM.

If you see a nice, steady number somewhere in the voltage range you expect, it's safe to assume you have a valid measurement. If, however, you see a moving number at a very low voltage, you're probably just reading noise on a dead line, and you may have found a circuit problem. If you see a voltage in the proper range but it won't settle down, that indicates noise on the line, riding along with the voltage. Such a reading can suggest bad filter capacitors, but only when the point you're measuring is supposed to have a clean, stable voltage in the first place. Regulated power supply output points should be steady, but some other circuit points may carry normal signals that fool the DMM, causing jumping readings. To see what's going on with those, you'll be using your scope. Generally, electrolytic caps with one lead going to ground shouldn't have jumpy readings, since their reason for being in the circuit is to smooth out the voltage.

AC Voltage

You'll usually use this as a go/no go measurement. Is the voltage there or not? DMMs are optimized to read sine waves at the 60-hertz AC line frequency, so the reading doesn't mean much if you try to measure an audio signal or the high-frequency pulses in a switching power supply. Measurements are taken across two points, as with DC voltage, but in many circuits neither point will be at ground.

DMMs indicate AC voltage as root-mean-square (RMS), which is a little bit more than the average voltage in a sine wave when taken over an entire cycle. It's a useful way of describing how much power an AC wave will put into a resistive load, compared to DC power, but it’s not a measurement of the actual total voltage swing. The RMS value is much smaller than the peak-to-peak voltage you'll see with your scope.

American AC line voltage, for example, is 120V RMS and reads about 340 volts peak-to peak on a scope. (If you want to keep your scope, don't try viewing the AC line with it unless you have an isolation transformer!) For a sine wave, RMS is 0.3535 times the peak-to-peak value. For other waveforms, it can be quite different, as the time they spend at various percentages of their peak values varies with the shape of the wave. DMMs are calibrated to calculate RMS for sine waves, so the reading will be way off for anything else, at least with hobbyist grade meters.


When measuring resistance, turn off the power to the circuit! The battery in your DMM supplies the small voltage required to measure resistance, and any other applied power will incur negative consequences ranging from incorrect readings to a damaged DMM. In addition to removing the product's batteries or AC adapter (or unplugging it from the wall, in the case of AC-operated devices), it pays to check for DC voltage across the part you want to measure and to discharge any electrolytic caps that could be supplying voltage to the area under test.

Some resistances can be checked with the parts still connected to the circuit, but many cannot because the other parts may provide a current path, confusing the DMM and resulting in a reading lower than the correct value. For most resistance measurements, you will need to unsolder one end of the component. When one side of it goes to ground, leave that side connected and connect your DMM's negative lead to the ground point; it's just more convenient that way. When neither side is grounded, it doesn't matter which lead you disconnect.

Set the DMM to read resistance (ohm, or ohms). If it's autoranging, that's all you need do. Let it step through its ranges, and there's your answer. If it isn't autoranging, start with the lowest range and work your way up until you get a reading, so you won't risk applying the higher voltages required to get a reading on the upper ranges to sensitive parts. DMMs with manual ranges have an "out of range" indicator to show when the resistance being measured is higher than what that range can accept, usually in the form of the leftmost digit's blinking a "1." (If you're on too high a range, you'll see all 0's or close to it.) With a manually ranging DMM, you can get more detail by using the lowest range possible without invoking the out-of-range indicator. For instance, if you are reading a 10-ohm resistor on the 20 K-ohm (20,000 ohm) scale, you'll see 0.001. If you switch to the 200-ohm scale, you'll see 0.100 or thereabouts. If the resistor's measured value is too high by, say, 20 percent, which is a significant amount possibly indicating a bad part, it might show 0.120, critical data you'd miss by being at too high a range. Autoranging meters always use the lowest possible range, for the most detailed reading.

Resistance has no polarity, so it doesn't matter which lead you connect to which side of a resistor. If you're checking the resistance of a diode or other semiconductor, it does matter, and you must swap the leads to see which polarity has lower resistance.

The essence of a semiconductor is that it conducts only in one direction, so a good one should have near-infinite resistance one way and low resistance the other. Checking semiconductors for resistance with a DMM can yield unpredictable results, though, because the applied voltage may or may not be enough to turn the semiconductor on and allow current to pass, depending upon the meter's design. There are better tests you can perform on those parts, but a reading of zero or near-zero resistance pretty definitively indicates that the component is shorted.


Continuity simply shows whether a low-resistance path exists, and is intended as a "yes or no" answer, rather than as a measurement of the actual resistance. It's exactly like taking a resistance measurement on the lowest scale, except that many meters have a handy beeper or buzzer that sounds to indicate continuity, so you don't even have to look up. Use this test for switches and relay contacts, or to see if a wire is broken inside its insulation or a connector isn't making proper contact.

In many instances, you won't need to pull one side of the component to check continuity, as the surrounding paths will have too much resistance to fool the meter and invalidate the conclusion. There are some exceptions, however, involving items like transformers, whose coil windings may offer very little resistance and appear as a near-zero-ohm connection across the part you're trying to test. If you're not sure, pull one lead of the component. And, as with resistance measurement, make sure all power is off when you do a continuity check!

DC Current

Most DMMs can measure current in amps or milliamps. To measure current, the meter needs to be connected between (in series with) the power source and the circuit drawing the power, so that the current will pass through the meter on its way to the circuit. Thus, neither of the DMM's leads will be connected to ground. Never connect your DMM across (in parallel with) a power supply's output when the meter is set to read current! Nearly all the supply's current will go through the meter, and both the instrument and the power supply may be damaged. The meter, at least, probably will be.

Even with the meter properly connected, it's imperative that you not exceed its current limit or you will damage the instrument. For many small DMMs, the limit is 200 milliamps (ma), or 0.2 amps. Some offer higher ranges, with a separate terminal into which you can plug the positive test lead, extending the range to 5 or 10 amps.

In estimating a device's potential current draw, take a look at what runs it. If it's a small battery, as you might find in an MP3 player or a digital camera, current draw probably isn't more than an amp or so. For some devices, it's much less, in the range of 100-200 ma. If the unit uses an AC adapter, the adapter should have its maximum current capability printed on it somewhere, and it's safe to conclude that the product requires less than that when operating properly. Some gadgets state their maximum current requirements on the backs of their cases, too. When they do, they indicate the maximum current needed under the most demanding conditions- For example, when a disc drive spins up or a tape mechanism loads-and normal operating current should be less.

To take a current measurement, you need to break a connection and insert the meter in line between the two ends of it. Don't worry about test lead polarity; all you'll get is a minus sign next to the reading should you attach it backward. If you want to know the current consumption of an entire product, connect the meter between the positive terminal of the battery or power supply and the rest of the unit. If you want to measure the current for a particular portion of the circuitry, disconnect whatever feeds power to it and insert the meter there.

The DMM measures current by placing a low resistance between the meter's leads and measuring the voltage across it. The higher the current, the higher that voltage will rise. With a big current, the resistance can be very low, and there will still be enough voltage across it to get a reading. With smaller current, the resistance needs to be higher to obtain a significant, measurable voltage difference. Thus the higher ranges place less resistance between the power and the circuit. Start with the meter's highest range and work your way down. Using too low a range may impede the passage of current enough to affect or even prevent operation of the product. It also may heat up the DMM's internal resistor enough to blow it.

Current is perhaps the least useful measurement and consequently the one most infrequently performed. Now and then, it's great to know if excessive current is being drawn, but heat, smoke and blown fuses usually tell that story anyway. The more revealing result is when current isn't being drawn; that tells you some necessary path isn't there, or that the unit isn't being turned on. Especially because breaking connections to insert the meter is inconvenient, however, you won't find yourself wanting to measure current very often.

Diode Test

Some DMMs offer semiconductor junction tests, making them handy for checking diodes and certain types of transistors. The measurement is powered by the meter's battery, as with resistance measurements, but it's taken somewhat differently. Instead of seeing how many ohms of resistance a part has, you see the voltage across it. And to complete the test, you must reverse the leads and check the flow in the other direction.

Kill the power and disconnect one end of the component for this test. A good silicon diode should show around 0.6 volts in one direction and no continuity at all in the other. That lack of flow will be shown as the maximum voltage being applied, typically around 1.4 volts. ( You can check your meter's open-circuit value by setting it to the diode test without connecting the leads to anything.) If you see 0 volts or near that, the part is shorted. To verify, switch the leads and you should see zero in the other direction too. If you see 1.4 volts (or whatever your meter's maximum is) in both directions, the part is open, a.k.a. blown. If the meter indicates the normal 0.6 volts in the conducting direction but also shows even a slight voltage drop the other way around, the diode is leaky and should be replaced.

Some DMMs perform capacitance, inductance, frequency and other measurements, but most don't. If yours does offer these readings, see the sections on those kinds of meters, and the principles will apply.

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