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Application Note 1392

Who should read Measuring rms

this application note?

The application note is for

all engineers who need to

Measuring rms values is more Figure 1 shows four common voltage

measure ac voltage. complicated than it appears at first parameters. Peak voltage (Vpk) and

glance. If it is complicated, why do peak-to-peak voltage (Vpk-pk) are

we bother? Because true rms is the simple. Vavg is the average of all the

only ac voltage reading that does not instantaneous values in one complete

depend on the shape of the signal. It cycle of the waveform. You will learn

often is the most useful measurement how we calculate Vrms below.

for real-world waveforms.

For sine waves, the negative half of

Often, rms is described as a measure the waveform cancels out the positive

Introduction of equivalent heating value, with a half and averages to zero over one

relationship to the amount of power cycle. This type of average would not

If you use a digital multimeter dissipated by a resistive load driven provide much insight into the signals

(DMM) for ac voltage measurements, by the equivalent dc value. For exam- effective amplitude, so most meters

it is important to know if your meter ple, a 1Vpk sine wave will deliver the compute Vavg based on the absolute

is giving you peak value, average same power to a resistive load as a value of the waveform. For a sine

value, root-mean-square (rms) value, 0.707Vdc signal. A reliable rms read- wave, this works out to Vpk x 0.637

or something else. If the answer is ing on a signal will give you a better (Figure 2).

something else, you may be in trou- idea of the effect the signal will have

ble, and the trouble usually happens in your circuit.

with rms measurements.

understand the different techniques

DMMs use to measure rms values, how Figure 1. Common voltage parameters

the signal affects the quality of your

measurements, and how to avoid

common measurement mistakes.

Volume

Vpk

Vavg Vrms

Vpk-pk

Time

Volume

Vpk

Vavg

Time

2

Tips for making better rms

measurements

You can derive Vrms by squaring Given the importanceand difficulty If you need to measure high-band-

every point in the waveform, finding of measuring rms, what is the best width and high-crest-factor signals

the average (mean) value of the way to proceed with your day-to-day with great accuracy, you may want

squares, then finding the square root measurement tasks? The following tips to search for one of these thermal

of the average. With pure sine waves, will help you achieve better results. models. If you are interested in a more

you can take a couple of shortcuts: contemporary instrument, you may

just multiply Vpk x 0.707 or Vavg x 1.11. find that the analog ac-to-dc converter

Tip 1:

Inexpensive peak-responding or technology offers acceptable band-

average-responding meters rely on

Understand how your DMM

width and crest-factor performance,

these scaling factors. measures rms. along with superior responsiveness.

When it comes to measuring rms If high accuracy is important to you,

The scaling factors apply only to pure you may want to investigate multi-

sine waves. For every other type of values, multimeters are not created

equal. A general understanding of the meters that use the digital sampling

signal, using this approach produces method.

misleading answers. If you are using a technology your multimeter uses to

meter that is not really designed for measure rms will help you decide if it

Peak and Averaging ac-to-dc converters

the task, you easily can end up with meets your needs. Here is a summary

Inexpensive meters, particularly

significant erroras high as 40 percent of the operational advantages and dis-

inexpensive hand-held meters, usually

or moredepending on the meter and advantages of four common multimeter

derive rms levels from either peak or

the signal. technologies. The first three operate

average values. They deliver true rms

by converting ac to dc; the last one

only for pure, undistorted sine waves.

The ratio of Vpk to Vrms known as the digitizes the analog input signal and

If you need true rms measurements

crest factor, is important to measure- then computes rms.

on real-world signals, these meters

ment accuracy. The crest factor is a are not a viable option.

measure of how high the waveform Thermal ac-to-dc converters This

peaks, relative to its RMS value. older technology for rms measure-

Analog ac-to-dc converters Many

The higher the crest factor, the more ments uses the equivalent-heating-

mid-range and high-end DMMs use

difficult it is to make an accurate ac value approach. The ac signal heats

a chain of analog circuits to compute

measurement. a thermocouple, then the dc section

the square, then the mean, then the

of the meter reads the thermocouple

square root of the mean to deliver

Two measurement challenges are output. Advantages include wide

true rms for nearly all signal types.

associated with high crest factors. The bandwidth and the ability to handle

Thanks to advances in integrated

first involves input range. Imagine a very high crest factors, meaning this

circuitry, these DMMs are small,

pulse train with a very low duty cycle approach can deliver true rms for a

accurate, and still relatively

but a relatively high peak amplitude. wide variety of real-world signals.

inexpensive.

Signals like this force the meter to

simultaneously measure a high peak The disadvantages of the thermal

value and a much lower rms value, approach are cost and lack of flexibility

possibly creating overload problems on in trading off measurement speed with

the high end and resolution problems low-frequency accuracy. For these

on the low end. reasons, the technique is not used in

the latest-generation DMMs.

The second challenge is the amount of

higher-frequency energy in the signal.

In general, high crest factors indicate

more harmonics, which can cause

trouble for all meters. Peak- and aver-

age-responding meters that are trying

to measure rms have a particularly

hard time.

3

Digital sampling This last method create very fast, effective sampling Tip 2:

uses sampling techniques similar to rates and wider bandwidths, even Understand how the signal affects the

those in digital oscilloscopes to create with fairly slow analog-to-digital quality of your measurement.

a set of data points that are sent converters. This method, however,

through an rms algorithm. only works with repetitive signals. Lets look at several different signals,

Synchronous sampling uses multiple starting with a sine wave. The crest

passes to capture a signal as shown in If accurate rms measurements are factor for a pure sine wave is 1.414,

Figure 3. Each subsequent pass is important to you and you are likely and a peak-responding meter can pro-

delayed by a small amount, and with to run into pulse trains and other vide accurate rms simply by scaling

enough passes, the signal can be digi- complicated signals, a true rms meter the value of Vpk. With a Vpk value of

tized with very high resolution. is the only solution. On the other 500 mV, we expect an rms value

hand, you can save some money with around 350 to 357 mV (the range

This technique has several advantages: a peak- or average-responding meter. accounts for the inaccuracy of the

true rms on a wide range of signals, Just keep in mind what these meters signal generator used). Sure enough,

high accuracy, and the capability to can and cannot do. a true rms meter reads the signal as

353.53 mV. A less-expensive average-

responding meter reads the signal as

Figure 3. 351 mV.

Digital sampling

Unlike the pure sine wave, the triangle

wave in Figure 4 has some higher-

frequency energy, so the crest factor of

1.732 comes as no surprise. Dividing

the peak value by the crest factor

yields an expected rms value of

roughly 290 mV. Now, the average-

responding meter starts to get into

trouble, reading the signal as 276 mV,

a 4 percent error compared to the

true rms meters reading of 288.68 mV.

the crest factor depends on the duty

2nd Trigger Point

cycle. You can get a close approxima-

tion of crest factor with the formula:

1st Trigger Point

T

CF

t

Figure 4. Measuring rms on a triangle wave where:

CF = the crest factor

T = the period of the waveform

t = the on portion of that period

4

This also is equal to the square root Figure 5. Measuring rms on a low-duty-cycle pulse train

of the reciprocal of the duty cycle. So,

for the pulse train in Figure 5, which

has a 2 percent duty cycle, the crest

factor is the square root of 50, or 7.071.

and triangles is quite simple; the

rms value is Vpk divided by the crest

factor. However, computing the ac

rms value for a pulse train is a bit

more complicated:

1-

CF

Vpk 1 2

Vrms = x

CF

rms value of our 2-Vpk pulse train

with 2 percent duty cycle in Figure 5

is roughly 280 mV. Even in this case,

which is outside its specified perfor- Figure 6. Measuring rms on a noisy sine wave

mance range, the true rms meter

reads 275.9 mV. On the other hand,

the average-responding meter reads

73 mV, a 74 percent error. This is an

extreme example, but it provides a

clear picture of what high crest factors

can do to your measurements.

the noisy, messy sine wave shown in

Figure 6. The true rms meter pegs it

at 348.99 mV, which is close to the

digital scopes measurement of 345

mV. The average-responding meter

puts the value at 273 mV, an error of

more than 20 percent. This error is

due to the limited bandwidth of the

average-responding meter. The signal

contains high-frequency energy that

the average-responding meter does

not take into account.

5

Conclusion

Tip 3: Saturation problems with high-crest- While ac rms measurements are more

Avoid common measurement traps. factor signals In addition to the prob- complicated than they might seem at

lems they cause with high-frequency first glance, a little bit of knowledge can

If an ac rms reading does not make content, high-crest-factor signals also help you deal with the complexity. If

sense, do not automatically assume can wreak havoc on your input range. you have not already done so, verify the

there is something wrong with your Think back to that pulse train with crest factor, bandwidth, and other limi-

circuitthe trouble might be in how a 2 percent duty cycle. Its 7+ crest tations noted in your DMMs data sheet.

you made the measurement. Below is factor means that the peak value is As much as possible, stay within those

a list of common traps that can affect more than seven times greater than limits.

rms measurements. We have touched the rms value. That means your meter

on some of these already, and you needs to provide adequate amplitude A quality meter used within its limits

may have run into many of them resolution for the low rms value with- should deliver consistently dependable

before. out saturating on the high peak value. measurements.

Measurements below full scale Most To make matters worse, you generally

meters specify ac inputs down to 5 do not get an overload indication

percent or 10 percent of full scale with crest-factor saturation, either. It

(some go as low as 1 percent of full is important to check your meters

scale). For maximum accuracy, mea- specifications for maximum crest fac-

sure as close to full scale as you can. tor and to refrain from exceeding

You might need to override autoscaling them.

in some cases, if a manual setting will

help maximize the input range. Bandwidth errors Signals that are

rich in harmonics can produce low-

Ac and dc coupling It is easy to over- reading measurements if the more

look this simple issue when you are significant of these components are

in a hurry. If your meter is ac coupled not included in the measurement.

(or has selectable ac coupling), it Check the instruments data sheet to

inserts a capacitor in series with the see how much bandwidth you have

input signal that blocks the dc compo- to work with. Then make sure your

nent in your signal. This may or may signals do not exceed it.

not be desirable, depending on the

signal and what you are trying to Self-heating errors High voltages

accomplish. can heat up the meters signal-condi-

tioning components, leading to offset

If you are expecting to include the measurement values. Pay attention

dc component, but the meter is ac to the maximum input voltage; if you

coupled, the results can be dramatically exceed it, give the meter time to cool

wrong. As a side note, if you need to down before making another

measure a small ac signal riding on a measurement.

large dc offset but your meter doesnt

provide ac + dc directly, you can Settling time By definition, rms

measure the ac component using ac measurements require time averag-

coupling and measure the dc compo- ing over multiple periods of the

nent separately. Then add the two lowest frequency being measured.

using rms addition: Consequently, if you are not con-

cerned about low frequencies in a

AC + DC =

ACrms2 + DC2 particular measurement and your

DMM has selectable averaging filters,

switch to a faster filter.

6

Glossary

Crest factora measure of how high the

waveform peaks, relative to its rms value

DMMdigital multimeter

distinguish meters that actually measure the

rms value, from meters that derive rms levels

from either peak or average values

value of the waveform (the negative portion

of the cycle is treated as if it were positive)

Vpk-pkpeak-to-peak voltage

Data sheetAgilent 34401A Multimeter,

pub. no. 5968-0162EN

pub. no. 5965-4971E

Data Acquisition/Switch Unit,

pub. no. 5965-5290EN

7

www.agilent.com

with all your test & measurement needs

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Printed in the USA June 11, 2002

5988-6916 EN

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