An Electrician’s Best Friend: The Best Multimeter
Multimeters, more correctly known as volt-ohm meters, are the electricians and electronic tech’s standard troubleshooting tool. With it, they can check a wide range of electronic devices, measuring voltage, current, and resistance in circuits. Those measurements are essential for effective troubleshooting of electronic and electrical circuits.
These instruments have been around for years, ever since society started using electricity to power our lives. The multimeter eliminates the need for the technician to have multiple meters to work with, making their toolbox lighter and their work easier.
While all multimeters perform many of the same functions, there are some specialty functions that are only performed by some specific models which separates higher end options from more basic models. For more information about what to look for in a multimeter, check out our list of the best multimeters in 2021 and the buyer's guide listed below.
Mastech Auto/ Manual Range Digital Multimeter
Amprobe with Non-Contact Voltage Detection Multimeter
TekPower PC based Interaced Auto Ranging Digital Multimeter
Extech Digital Mini Multimeter
Simpson 260-9SP Analog Multimeter
Triplett 630, Classic Volt-Ohm Multimeter with 25 Ranges and Functions
Hioki 3030-10 Analog Multimeter
Fluke 87V True RMS Digital Multimeter
Fluke 117 Electricians True RMS Multimeter
Fieldpiece LT17A Classic Style Digital Multimeter
Extech EX430 True RMS Auto-ranging Multimeter
The Best Multimeter Models of 2021 in Detail
For a low dollar multimeter, this one is truly amazing. It has all the features you’d find on a much more expensive multimeter, but at a fraction of the price. The meter allows you to choose auto or manual ranging, per your needs. It also measures capacitance, frequency and duty cycle. In addition, it has specific testing capability for both transistor and diodes, along with a continuity tester.
Amprobe is best known for their clamp-on amperage meters, but that’s not all they make. This multimeter from them comes at a very reasonable price. It also has a built-in non-contact voltage detection function, which allows you to verify whether electric lines, outlets, switches and devices are hot, without having to connect the meter. That’s a great timesaver and also saves having one more test device in your pouch. Finally, it has a built-in flashlight for those times when you just can’t find something, but didn't bring one with you.
This multimeter offers something a little different than most, the ability to connect it to a computer for documenting and recording test data. It is also auto and manual range selectable, allowing you to select the means of operation that will work best for your needs. In addition to standard voltage and impedance readings, it also offers capacitance, frequency and temperature test functions. When doing continuity checks, it has a buzzer that sounds to save you having to look at the meter.
This handy meter is made to fit in your pocket, so that it is easy to take with you. The case has a rubber holster for added drop protection, along with a built-in tilt stand. It is manual ranging with eight functions. In addition to the normal multimeter functions it does type K temperature readings and diode testing. It also has built-in battery test functions.
If you want the best of the best in analog multimeters, go for a Simpson. No, this isn’t Homer Simpson, it’s Simpson Electric, one of the oldest and biggest manufacturers of analog multimeters. This model, which I believe is the top of their line, carries a hefty price tag, but it has the specifications to back it up. It is designed with safety in mind, being certified to EN61010-1 to 600V, Category III for safety. It is rated up to 600 volts, 10 amps, and 200 m ohms. The meter has built-in overload protection, to prevent it from getting damaged. The mirrored scale allows accurate reading of all ranges. It comes with a padded case.
For those that don’t want to pay the high price for the Simpson, but still want a high-grade analog multimeter, Triplett puts out this model at about half the price. In addition to all the standard functions, they also have a decibel function included for use in audio work. Another unusual thing about this multimeter is that it only has a single pair of input jacks, not the three or four that other meters have. Even when you are using the meter for high amperage work, the same set of jacks are used, in order to prevent damage caused by operator error. The meter’s window is still made of glass after all these years, to protect it from chemical damage. It has diode overload protection, as well as two fuses.
This meter from Hioki is designed to be drop proof. That means you can drop it from a height of one meter, without causing it any damage. That’s pretty amazing for an analog meter. In addition to the standard readings, this one will provide LED checks, battery checks and temperature measurement, with optional probes. It measures from 0.3 to 600 volts DC, 12 to 600 volts AC, 60 microamps to 30 milliamps and 0 to 300 k ohms. Comes with a protective carrying case and a very nice set of retractable test probes.
Fluke is the biggest manufacturer of digital multimeters around. This unit provides both manual and auto-ranging capability in the same meter. It will measure voltage up to 1000 volts AC or DC, plus 10 amps, 20 amps for short periods of time. It comes with a selectable filter for accurate voltage and provides a true RMS reading for AC. An analog bar graph on the display helps see what is happening quickly, for fast changing or unstable voltage signals. It also has a built-in temperature measurement function for HVAC technicians.
I normally dont like giving two spots on a list to the same company, even less the top two spots; but I couldnt help it. Fluke truly makes excellent equipment and deserves the recognition. This meter is designed specifically for electricians, providing the functions that they need the most. It is a true RMS digital multimeter, providing the most accurate AC voltage reading. A voltage detection circuit helps quickly determine if circuits are live or not. Auto ranging helps get the reading, without having to make adjustments. It will also provide min/max/average readings for a circuit, plus measure both frequency and capacitance.
This meter by Fieldpiece provides a wide range of measurement capabilities, over and above what would be normally expected from a multimeter. It can also measure temperature, capacitance, microamps and frequency. A clamp on probe (included) allows you to measure current resistance through existing circuits. Range is manually selected directly on the setting dial. It is designed to connect directly to a series of Fieldpiece accessory heads.
This is another true RMS multimeter, providing the most accurate AC readings. It can also measure temperature, capacitance, frequency and duty cycle, in addition to the standard impedance, amperage and AC and DC voltage. The meter is auto-ranging for ease of use. It has a built-in thermocouple for surface and air temperature measurement.
While multimeters are normally considered to be in the realm of electricians and electronic technicians, they’re useful to anyone who ever works with electricity. It doesn't matter if you're repairing a car, wiring a ceiling fan, or just checking the batteries in your flashlight, a multimeter will tell you what you need to know.
The name "multimeter" comes from the idea that one meter takes the place of several different ones, performing all of their functions; that's what makes these devices so useful for troubleshooting. If technicians didn't have multimeters to use, they'd have to carry around several different meters so that they could hook the right one up when they needed it.
The basic functions of a multimeter are:
- Measure AC and DC voltage
- Measure current in milliamps
- Measure resistance in ohms
In order to do this, most multimeters have a rotary selector switch which allows the user to set it to read exactly what they want. Some modern digital multimeters are automatic, eliminating the rotary switch or limiting the number of settings available.
Analog or Digital?
Originally, all multimeters were analog; in more recent times, the analog multimeters have given way to digital display models. Even those have changed, with portable multimeters almost totally having taken over the market from the larger, digital bench multimeters. Today’s portables often have additional functions as well.
While digital multimeters are much more popular than analog ones, this doesn’t mean analog meters have become obsolete. There is one thing analog multimeters do much better than digital ones, and that’s react to voltage and impedance fluctuations rapidly. That makes them valuable for some types of tests which can’t be easily accomplished with a digital display multimeter.
For example, when checking continuity, you have to wait several seconds for a digital multimeter to give you a reading. However, the same reading happens almost instantaneously with an analog meter. For that reason alone, there is valid reason to have an analog multimeter even if you have a digital one.
Multimeters can vary extensively in price. Mostly what you are paying for with the more expensive ones is dependability and additional functions. The additions which I mentioned are available for digital multimeters, such as measuring temperature, generally only come with the higher cost ones. However, some low-cost digital multimeters are starting to add those features as well.
Some of the optional scales or ranges that you find on more expensive multimeter include:
What's Different Between a "Good" Multimeter and a Budget Multimeter?
Some multimeters have a built-in temperature reading capability. This requires using a special temperature probe which usually comes with the meter. Additional types of probes are available for special needs.
RMS AC Voltage
Since AC voltage is cyclical, the voltage measurement is actually the peak of the cycle. However, that can vary a bit. RMS stands for "root means square." It is merely a mathematical computation used for determining the actual AC voltage. This is considered to be a more accurate measurement of the actual AC voltage.
High Amperage Readings
Most multimeters only measure current in the milliamp range. A few offer a higher range, which measures up to 10 or 20 amps. This usually requires disconnecting the positive (red) lead and connecting it to a special jack. If the meter does not have this option and you try to connect it to one of these higher amp circuits, it will blow the fuse at a minimum in additional to potential for more serious damage.
Capacitance is the measure of how much electricity a capacitor can hold. Some electronic circuits also have capacitance, even if they don't have capacitors installed. Rather than utilize a separate instrument to measure the capacitance in a circuit, you can now check it with your multimeter if it has this option.
Measurement of frequency requires the ability to count the number of pulses or waves happening per second, something quite different than other measurement functions. But the clock frequency that equipment is functioning at is important for troubleshooting many modern devices.
Duty cycle refers to what percentage of the time a device is operating. This is fairly easy to tell with something like an air compressor, but extremely difficult for many smaller devices.
For any single type of measurement, establishing a range helps the meter to display the data correctly. Auto-ranging means the meter selects the range automatically and informs you on the screen of what range it has selected, thereby saving you time in setting up the meter for a particular measurement. This is especially useful when the reading is outside of the expected range as you don't have to keep changing the range yourself until the meter gives you the reading.
Graphs are something new in multimeters and only a few of the digital ones provide it. In doing so, they give you information about the reading to make it easier to understand how to apply that reading. While not useful for everything, graphing displays are extremely useful for a reading that is changing all the time.
Connection between the multimeter and the circuit to be tested is accomplished through a set of test leads, which are usually color coded red (positive) and black (negative). The most common type of connection is a 1/8" diameter "banana plug" which is easy to connect and allows for quick change-out to a wide variety of other types of leads. Some compact multimeters use "pin plugs" rather than banana plugs, which are only about 1/32" in diameter.
The leads which come packaged with the meter may not be all that good, so you might want to buy some better ones. The major difference is the tips themselves, how sharp they are, and how far they extend out of the plastic handle. The longer they are, the easier it is to use them.
There are also leads available which come with clips to connect more permanently to the item you are measuring to facilitate measurement, especially in cases where it feels like you need three hands.
Multimeters are sensitive to shock, especially analog ones. Many manufacturers provide cases or rubber overmolding to protect their products from the inadvertent spills that happen in life. This is not an unnecessary extra, but rather insurance to help ensure a long life for your meter.