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How to pick the right meter

May 2013

by Ken DePue

It was an ordeal most of us went through in our youth: Mom taking us shopping and buying new clothes for school. We all remember coming out of the dressing room, only to have Mom stick two or three fingers in the waistband. She gave it a firm tug and commented, "Perfect…You'll have room to grow!"

Many apprentices new in the electrical field are soon faced with the dilemma of what they should buy for a meter. And just like the wisdom Mom always seemed to have, it makes sense to buy a meter you can 'grow in to."

When you're new in the field, purchasing your first meter can be a daunting task. Your first instinct is to buy the lowest-priced, simplest meter. But that can end up being a costly mistake. Considering that you will use the meter for many years, it makes sense to literally get more than you need.

In most cases, an apprentice only needs to use the two basic functions common to most meters; voltage and continuity. But as your experience in the trade grows, so to will the need to measure more and different things. Amperage readings become more useful in troubleshooting circuits. The need to read frequency (Hz) may arise. The ability to record certain aspects (minimum, maximum and average) of a measurement may be very convenient. And considering the increase in harmonics in circuits today, True RMS capability is a feature than is almost required. You may also come across the need to measure temperature as well.

If you consider the economy of purchasing the best meter you can afford at the start of your career, it becomes obvious that buying that low-end meter in the beginning is not cost-effective in the long run. If you buy a plain, low-end meter, you will find you soon outgrow its usefulness. You need a meter to do more, so you 'move up', and spend more money. A couple years later, you've outgrown the second meter, and purchase a third one. By the time you obtain your journey-level certification, you've paid for three meters.

The 'learning curve' of each new meter can also be avoided. Once you become well versed in the functions and setting of a good, all-around meter to start with, using it becomes second nature. Before you know it, it will be turned on and properly adjusted to the correct setting without thinking, or even looking at it.

Of course, coming up with the funds to purchase this meter may pose a problem, especially if you're just starting out. But there are ways around these problems. One is to forgo some personal purchases and use that for buying a meter. (You can always buy that ipod later on!) Friends and family can always help you out with funding a portion of your purchase as a birthday or holiday gift. And, many employers may purchase a meter for you and allow you to slowly pay them back through paycheck deduction programs.

Once you realize that a good meter is not just an expense but an investment in your career, you're more likely to choose one that can do more for you in the future. And just like those pants Mom bought you, "You'll grown into it!"

Ken DePue runs Code Electric in Iowa - http://code-elec.com - and can be found commenting at http://www.electriciantalk.com and other forums under the pseudonym 480Sparky.