A multimeter determines capacitance by charging a capacitor with a known current, measuring the resulting voltage, then calculating the capacitance.
Warning: A good capacitor stores an electrical charge and may remain energized after power is removed. Before touching it or taking a measurement, a) turn all power OFF, b) use your multimeter to confirm that power is OFF and c) carefully discharge the capacitor by connecting a resistor across the leads (as noted in the next paragraph). Be sure to wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
To safely discharge a capacitor: After power is removed, connect a 20,000 Ω, 5-watt resistor across the capacitor terminals for five seconds. Use your multimeter to confirm the capacitor is fully discharged.
For a correct measurement, the capacitor will need to be removed from the circuit. Discharge the capacitor as described in the warning above.
Note: Some multimeters offer a Relative (REL) mode. When measuring low capacitance values, the Relative mode can be used to remove the capacitance of the test leads. To place a multimeter in Relative mode for capacitance, leave the test leads open and press the REL button. This removes the residual capacitance value of the test leads.
Troubleshooting single-phase motors is one of the most practical uses of a digital multimeter’s Capacitance Function.
A capacitor-start, single-phase motor that fails to start is a symptom of a faulty capacitor. Such motors will continue to run once operating, making troubleshooting tricky. Failure of the hard-start capacitor for HVAC compressors is a good example of this problem. The compressor motor may start, but soon overheat resulting in a breaker trip.
Single-phase motors with such problems and noisy single-phase motors with capacitors require a multimeter to verify properly functioning capacitors. Almost all motor capacitors will have the microfarad value marked on the capacitor.
Three-phase power factor correction capacitors are typically fuse protected. Should one or more of these capacitors fail, system inefficiencies will result, utility bills will most likely increase and inadvertent equipment trips of may occur. Should a capacitor fuse blow, the suspected faulty capacitor microfarad value must be measured and verified it falls within the range marked on the capacitor.
Some additional factors involving capacitance are worth knowing:
Reference: Digital Multimeter Principles by Glen A. Mazur, American Technical Publishers.
For more information on the basics of Digital Multimeters, see our online course available at the Fluke eLearning Center.
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