The Basics of Electrical Measurements

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Measurements of the many quantities by which the behavior of electricity is characterized. Measurements of electrical quantities extend over a wide dynamic range and frequencies ranging from 0 to 1012 Hz. The International System of Units (SI) is in universal use for all electrical measurements. Electrical measurements are ultimately based on comparisons with realizations, i.e., reference standards, of the various SI units. These reference standards are maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States, and by the national standards laboratories of many other countries.

Direct-current (dc) measurements include measurements of resistance, voltage, and current in circuits in which a steady current is maintained. Resistance is defined as the ratio of voltage to current. For many conductors this ratio is nearly constant, but depends to a varying extent on temperature, voltage, and other environmental conditions. The best standard resistors are made from wires of special alloys chosen for low dependence on temperature and for stability.

The SI unit of resistance, the ohm, is realized by means of a quantized Hall resistance standard. This is based upon the value of the ratio of fundamental constants h/e2, where h is Planck's constant and e is the charge of the electron, and does not vary with time.

The principal instruments for accurate resistance measurement are bridges derived from the basic four-arm Wheatstone bridge, and resistance boxes. Many multi-range digital electronic instruments measure resistance potentiometrically, i.e., by measuring the voltage drop across the terminals to which the resistor is connected when a known current is passed through them. The current is then defined by the voltage drop across an internal reference resistor. For high values of resistance, above a megohm, an alternative technique is to measure the integrated current into a capacitor (over a suitably defined time interval) by measuring the final capacitor voltage. Both methods are capable of considerable refinement and extension.

The SI unit of voltage, the volt, is realized by using arrays of Josephson junctions. This standard is based on frequency and the ratio of fundamental constants e/h, so the accuracy is limited by the measurement of frequency. Josephson arrays can produce voltages between 200 ┬ÁV and 10 V At the highest levels of accuracy, higher voltages are measured potentiometrically, by using a null detector to compare the measured voltage against the voltage drop across a tapping of a resistive divider, which is standardized (in principle) against a standard cell.

The Zener diode reference standard is the basis for most commercial voltage measuring instruments, voltage standards, and voltage calibrators. The relative insensitivity to vibration and other environmental and transportation effects makes the diodes particularly useful as transfer standards. Under favorable conditions these devices are stable to a few parts per million per year.

Most dc digital voltmeters, which are the instruments in widest use for voltage measurement, are essentially analog-to-digital converters which are standardized by reference to their built-in reference diodes. The basic range in most digital voltmeters is between 1 and 10 V, near the reference voltage. Other ranges are provided by means of resistive dividers, or amplifiers in which gain is stabilized by feedback resistance ratios. In this way these instruments provide measurements over the approximate range from 10 nanovolts to 10 kV.

The most accurate measurements of direct currents less than about 1 A are made by measuring the voltage across the potential terminals of a resistor when the current is passed through it. Higher currents, up to about 50 kA, are best measured by means of a dc current comparator, which accurately provides the ratio of the high current to a much lower one which is measured as above. At lower accuracies, resistive shunts may be used up to about 5000 A, but the effective calibration of such shunts is a difficult process.

Alternating-current (ac) voltages are established with reference to the dc voltage standards by the use of thermal converters. These are small devices, usually in an evacuated glass envelope, in which the temperature rise of a small heater is compared by means of a thermocouple when the heater is operated sequentially by an alternating voltage and by a reference (dc) voltage. Resistors, which have been independently established to be free from variation with frequency, permit direct measurement of power frequency voltages up to about 1 kV Greater accuracy is provided by multijunction (thermocouple) thermal converters, although these are much more difficult and expensive to make. Improvements in digital electronics have led to alternative approaches to ac measurement. For example, a line frequency waveform may be analyzed by using fast sample-and-hold circuits and , in principle, be calibrated relative to a dc reference standard. Also, electronic root-mean-square detectors may now be used instead of thermal converters as the basis of measuring instruments.

Voltages above a few hundred volts are usually measured by means of a voltage transformer, which is an accurately wound transformer operating under lightly loaded conditions.

The principal instrument for the comparison and generation of variable alternating voltages below about 1 kV is the inductive voltage divider, a very accurate and stable device. They are widely used as the variable elements in bridges or measurement systems.

Alternating currents of less than a few amperes are measured by the voltage drop across a resistor, whose phase angle has been established as adequately small by bridge methods. Higher currents are usually measured through the use of current transformers, which are carefully constructed (often toroidal) transformers operating under near-short-circuited conditions. The performance of a current transformer is established by calibration against an ac current comparator, which establishes precise current ratios by the injection of compensating currents to give an exact flux balance.

Commercial instruments for measurement of ac quantities are usually dc measuring instruments, giving a reading of the voltage obtained from some form of ac-dc transducer. This may be a thermal converter, or a series of diodes arranged to have a square-law response, in which case the indication is substantially the root-mean-square value. Some lower-grade instruments measure the value of the rectified signal, which is usually more nearly related to the peak value.

There has been a noticeable trend toward the use of automated measurement systems for electrical measurements, facilitated by the readiness with which modern digital electronic instruments may be interfaced with computers. Many of these instruments have built-in microprocessors, which improve their convenience in use, accuracy, and reliability.

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Updated: Monday, 2013-05-06 1:59 PST