In the past, clamp meters were single-purpose testers used to troubleshoot electrical current. However, today, the modern clamp meters are versatile tools. They can troubleshoot a range of electrical variables, including voltage, capacitance, duty cycle, and resistance. They operate like typical multimeters.
With the similarities, electricians, especially beginners, find it hard to choose an ideal unit for their projects when presented with the two options. A majority can hardly figure out the few features which make a clamp meter different from a multimeter.
Having used clamp meters and multimeters to troubleshoot, repair, install and maintain various electrical systems, I reviewed each test tool to help you settle on the most suitable unit for your electrical projects.
What is a Clamp Meter?
Clamp meters were designed to diagnose electrical current. However, modern units from companies like Fluke, KAIWEETS, Agilent, Klein Tools, and Innova can measure voltage, resistance, continuity, and other electrical variables.
These testers have a characteristic cloth-pin-shaped jaw that clamps around a live wire, cable, or conductor to detect current.
There are two types of clamp meters—a current transformer and a Hall Effect clamp meter. The current transformer model measures AC in commercial supply lines, while the Hall Effect model measures the AC and DC of general-purpose electronic equipment.
Why is a Clamp Meter better than a Multimeter?
Electricians prefer clamp meters over multimeters for various reasons. One, the clamp meter eliminates the hassle of cutting into a cable to insert test leads. Its current sensor can detect electrical current without touching the conductor directly.
Two, clamp meters let you troubleshoot conductors without cutting off the power supply. This capability makes it great for troubleshooting electrical systems in essential facilities like hospitals, laboratories, schools, or industries where minimal power disruption is needed.
Three, clamp meters can handle currents of 600 amperes and high transient voltages without an issue. They are ideal for testing electrical current in high-power systems that could blow up a multimeter.
Choosing the Right Clamp Meter
Clamp meters are not created equal. Some models are designed to enhance your safety when handling dangerous electrical transients. They will offer several years of service alongside expediting the process of troubleshooting.
Others are the complete opposite. They are less durable, less accurate, and unsafe. Fortunately, you can avoid the substandard clamp meters by taking the following buying ideas into account.
Buy a Clamp Meter with a Reasonable Current Rating
Clamp meters operate within a specified current rating, which is the maximum current that the meter will withstand. Some meters are designed to handle a current of 100 amperes, while high-end units can handle a current of up to 2500 amperes. Go for a meter that can handle the electric current of systems you intend to diagnose.
Buy a Meter With a Suitable Voltage Rating
Like current, clamp meters have a maximum voltage limit that they can withstand. For this reason, you should buy a meter that will withstand the voltage transients from electrical systems you test, repair, install, or maintain. Many clamp meters have a voltage rating of 600V, which is sufficient to handle the transients generated from domestic and commercial electrical equipment.
Find a Durable Clamp Meter
Clamp meters are prone to abuse. At times, you might unintentionally use the jaw as makeshift pliers, or the multimeter can accidentally drop from heights. For these reasons, if you do not wish to incur frequent losses, get a unit designed to handle heavy job-site demands. Rugged units are designed from a hard plastic that can bear heavy use for several years.
Get a Meter manufactured by Reputed Brands
Brand is another factor that matters when looking for a good clamp multimeter. Most of the rugged, accurate, and safe units are produced by reputable companies like Fluke, Amprobe, Klein Tools, and Extech. These reputed companies pass their meters through a rigorous testing process to ensure that each clamp meter released to retail stores meets the required quality standards. They prioritize quality to improve customer satisfaction alongside generating more sales and profits.
What is a Multimeter?
Multimeters are electrical testers that help measure a range of electrical variables. The most basic multimeter measures current, voltage, and resistance, while advanced units measure additional electrical variables like capacitance, frequency, temperature, and diodes.
Multimeters are available in two types—digital and analog multimeters. Analog multimeters have a pointer that moves across a calibrated scale to indicate measurement values. Many analog multimeters can only measure resistance, current, and voltage.
Digital multimeters are an improvement of analog multimeters. This model of multimeters displays values on a backlit screen. They can measure additional electrical variables like capacitance, frequency, temperature, and duty cycle.
Why is a Multimeter better than a Clamp Meter?
Multimeters, more especially advanced digital models, can measure every variable of an electronic circuit. This versatility will save you from the hassle of investing in separate testing tools for various projects. You can hardly find a good clamp meter as versatile as digital multimeters.
Unlike clamp meters, multimeters are great for troubleshooting the AC or DC of electrical components in a hard-to-reach place. This feature makes them an alternative to clamp meters whose large jaws can only measure the AC/DC of easy-to-access cables.
Choosing the Right Multimeter
While all multimeters come with a marketing hype of being the best in the market, only a few will give the value they promise. Most units are flimsy, less accurate, and less safe. If you do not wish to waste your dollars on cheap multimeters, here are ideas to help you pick a good multimeter.
Look around for one with a Rugged Build Quality
Build quality dictates the lifespan of your multimeter. For this reason, if you want a unit that would serve you for years, it would be prudent to go for one made from a premium plastic material covered with a rubber holster. Such a multimeter will survive the damage occasioned by frequent falls and collisions for several years. Additionally, the multimeter of your choice should have a fuse to protect against power surges.
Go for a Multimeter with a Reasonable Energy Capacity
Like clamp meters, multimeters are rated depending on the maximum voltage transients they can withstand. CAT I-rated multimeters are designed to handle low voltages from electronic devices, and CAT II multimeters can take voltages from a single-phase AC load.
On the other hand, CAT III-rated multimeters can handle high transients from three-phase mains, while CAT IV-rated multimeters can handle voltages from utility lines. As a rule, buy a multimeter that can stand the transients from the electrical systems you intend to maintain.
Purchase an Accurate and Versatile Multimeter
A good multimeter should have the ability to measure all electrical variables because that’s what they are designed to do. It should measure voltage, resistance, capacitance, frequency, temperature, duty cycle, and current. Besides the versatility, the multimeter should offer at least 98% accuracy.
So, which is the suitable tester for the job? Each has its benefits and downsides. A clamp meter is ideal for professional electricians who troubleshoot, install, or maintain high-voltage power lines and circuits. Clamp meters are also better suited for electricians whose projects entail measuring current.
In contrast, multimeters are great for professionals, students, and DIY enthusiasts who do medium-scale electrical projects in domestic and commercial settings. The multimeter’s versatility will help diagnose several electrical variables of a circuit without needing a separate tester.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a clamp meter measure voltage and other electrical parameters? Unlike in the past, when clamp meters were regarded as single-use testers designed to measure current, today’s units are versatile. You can use them for troubleshooting additional electronic variables like voltage, capacitance, duty cycle, temperatures, and resistance. Clamp meters are as versatile as multimeters.
How do you use a clamp meter to measure AC?
Though it appears complicated, using a clamp meter to measure AC is straightforward. You will need to power on the meter and set the selection dial to AC. Press the jaw release level to open the multimeter’s jaws. Insert the conductor under test into the jaw, and close the jaw. The meters’ screen will display the amperage of the conductor being tested.
What is a multimeter used for?
A multimeter is a versatile electrical tester used to troubleshoot the voltage, current, resistance, capacitance, and frequency of various electrical systems used at home or in industries. Multimeters are helpful for electricians, students, hobbyists, and DIY enthusiasts who install, repair, or maintain various electrical appliances.
Is a multimeter better than a clamp meter?
Multimeters are equal to clamps when it comes to troubleshooting electric systems. Each unit has its strengths and weaknesses. A clamp meter is ideal for troubleshooting utility lines and electrical systems that receive high voltage, while a multimeter is suitable for general troubleshooting projects.
How do you maintain a clamp meter?
Clamp meters need no special maintenance. You will need to store them in a dry place. Handle the clamp meter properly to minimize the chances of dropping it. The impact can misalign the jaws, preventing the meter from operating correctly. Power the meter with a specified battery, and use the meter within the specified current and voltage rating.