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This essential tool will save you a fortune as you  can diagnose electrical faults accurately and fast — here’s how to use a multimeter.

Buy a good multimeter and it’ll be one of the most versatile pieces of kit in your classic Ford toolbox for years to come. If you don’t have one you could be at the mercy of guessing and prolonged diagnostics. They’re not expensive and good basic digital meters start from around £20.

The most important things to look for in a multimeter are a good-quality, durable unit with a protective case or holder that will stand up to the garage environment. Long leads are essential for use around the vehicle (look for leads of approximately one metre), in addition to a large, clear display.

The question is, how do you use it productively and what can it tell you? This beginners guide will help you find your way round the most common features of a typical digital multimeter, how to make common measurements and how to interpret the readings. So read on and become a multimeter master. 

how to use a multimeter

Measuring Voltage (DC)

Voltage is a measure of the system ‘pressure’ — you need this to push the current around. To measure it, connect the leads to the pictured jack sockets. Select the range — between 10-20 volts. If the meter is capable of auto ranging, just select DC volts.

how to use a multimeter

Now connect the leads. For negative-earth cars, black lead to a good earth, red lead to the test point. For positive-earth cars, it’s the other way round. Here, we’re measuring across the battery.

how to use a multimeter

You’re now connected, so you can observe the reading. The display will show the voltage potential at the test point. The test point should show a voltage reading similar to battery volts.

how to use a multimeter

Resistance (Ohms)

Any current-carrying conductor will have some resistance to current flow. This is measured in ohms. To measure the resistance of the primary circuit of a coil, remove and/or disconnect the coil. Connect the meter leads to the jacks for resistance measurement.

Select ohms on the dial. If necessary select the correct range — for an ignition coil, the reading will be quite low.

The meter applies a voltage to the component and measures the current flowing through it. From this, the resistance can be established. The reading for our ignition coil is 3.3 ohms, which is correct.

Current (DC amps)

Current is electrons flowing down a cable. The unit used is amps. Most digital meters can measure up to about 10 amps, enough for smaller devices. We’ll measure the current in the radiator fan relay circuit. The meter must be connected into the circuit.

Set the meter range to amps — highest range first if not auto ranging. Connect the leads to the correct jacks on the meter. Note that often there’s a separate jack for measuring current at 10 amps.

Energise the circuit and note the reading on the display. For lower current readings, most meters are capable of reading milliamps (one thousandth of an amp) with the appropriate range selected.

Continuity test

This enables you to establish an open or closed circuit between the meter probes – useful for switches and suchlike. If there’s a closed circuit, the buzzer will sound; open circuit equals no sound. Select ‘continuity test’ on the dial.

Before going any further, test the meter — join the leads together and make sure the buzzer sounds, or the meter reads zero.

Connect the test piece. If the circuit’s completed, the buzzer will sound and your bulb, fuse, or switch is OK.

Diode check

This can be useful for jobs such as checking rectifier packs employed in alternators. To do this, the rectifier must be removed from the alternator itself. Connect the meter leads to the correct jacks and select diode test on the dial.

A diode is an electrical one-way valve, so the meter works similar to continuity-check mode — you check the diode to see that current flows in one direction only.

For each diode, connect the meter leads one way then the other to ensure that you get open-circuit and closed-circuit readings respectively.

The dwell reading relates to the amount of time the contact breaker points are closed. This indicates if the points gap is correct without having to remove or disturb the distributor. Variation in the dwell reading with speed indicates a worn distributor.

The multimeter leads are connected to the coil negative/points side and earth respectively.

Start the engine and monitor the dwell reading — vary the engine speed and look for variations.

Tachometer

For an engine-speed reading, the meter measures the time difference between ignition pulses. Connect the clamp around an HT lead, then connect the clamp cable to the appropriate jack on the meter and set the range/function switch.

Start the engine. The meter should display engine speed accordingly. If you get no reading, check that the clamp’s fully secured around the HT lead.

how to use a multimeter

The tech guide first appeared in the December 2018 issue

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