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A voltmeter is an instrument used for measuring the electrical potential difference between two points in an electric circuit. Analog voltmeters move a pointer across a scale in proportion to the voltage of the circuit; digital voltmeters give a numerical display of voltage by use of an analog to digital converter.

Voltmeters are made in a wide range of styles. Instruments permanently mounted in a panel are used to monitor generators or other fixed apparatus. Portable instruments, usually equipped to also measure current and resistance in the form of a multimeter, are standard test instruments used in electrical and electronics work. Any measurement that can be converted to a voltage can be displayed on a meter that is suitably calibrated; for example, pressure, temperature, flow or level in a chemical process plant.

General purpose analog voltmeters may have an accuracy of a few per cent of full scale, and are used with voltages from a fraction of a volt to several thousand volts. Digital meters can be made with high accuracy, typically better than 1%. Specially calibrated test instruments have higher accuracies, with laboratory instruments capable of measuring to accuracies of a few parts per million. Meters using amplifiers can measure tiny voltages of microvolts or less.

Part of the problem of making an accurate voltmeter is that of calibration to check its accuracy. In laboratories, the Weston Cell is used as a standard voltage for precision work. Precision voltage references are available based on electronic circuits.


Analog voltmeter

  • The red wire carries the current to be measured.
  • The restoring spring is shown in green.
  • N and S are the north and south poles of the magnet.

A moving coil galvanometer can be used as a voltmeter by inserting a resistor in series with the instrument. It employs a small coil of fine wire suspended in a strong magnetic field. When an electric current is applied, the galvanometer's indicator rotates and compresses a small spring. The angular rotation is proportional to the current through the coil. For use as a voltmeter, a series resistance is added so that the angular rotation becomes proportional to the applied voltage.

One of the design objectives of the instrument is to disturb the circuit as little as possible and so the instrument should draw a minimum of current to operate. This is achieved by using a sensitive ammeter or microammeter in series with a high resistance.

The sensitivity of such a meter can be expressed as "ohms per volt", the number of ohms resistance in the meter circuit divided by the full scale measured value. For example a meter with a sensitivity of 1000 ohms per volt would draw 1 milliampere at full scale voltage; if the full scale was 200 volts, the resistance at the instrument's terminals would be 200,000 ohms and at full scale the meter would draw 1 milliampere from the circuit under test. For multi-range instruments, the input resistance varies as the instrument is switched to different ranges.

Moving-coil instruments with a permanent-magnet field respond only to direct current. Measurement of AC voltage requires a rectifier in the circuit so that the coil deflects in only one direction. Moving-coil instruments are also made with the zero position in the middle of the scale instead of at one end; these are useful if the voltage reverses its polarity.

Voltmeters operating on the electrostatic principle use the mutual repulsion between two charged plates to deflect a pointer attached to a spring. Meters of this type draw negligible current but are sensitive to voltages over about 100 volts and work with either alternating or direct current.

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