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Make Better RMS

Measurements with Your DMM

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.

This application note will help you

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.

Vavg Vrms

Figure 2. Vavg is calculated based on the absolute value of the waveform.




Tips for making better rms
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.
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.

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.

Now lets look at pulse trains, where

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

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

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.

Computing the rms value for sines

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:

Vpk 1 2
Vrms = x

Using the formula, the theoretical

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.

Lets consider one more waveform

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.


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.

Crest factora measure of how high the
waveform peaks, relative to its rms value

DMMdigital multimeter

rms an abbreviation for root-mean-square

True rmsThe term true rms is used to

distinguish meters that actually measure the
rms value, from meters that derive rms levels
from either peak or average values

Vavgaverage voltage, using the absolute

value of the waveform (the negative portion
of the cycle is treated as if it were positive)

Vpk peak voltage

Vpk-pkpeak-to-peak voltage

Vrms the rms value of ac voltage

Related Agilent literature

Data sheetAgilent 34401A Multimeter,
pub. no. 5968-0162EN

Data sheetAgilent 3458A Multimeter,

pub. no. 5965-4971E

Product overviewAgilent 34970A

Data Acquisition/Switch Unit,
pub. no. 5965-5290EN


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Product specifications and descriptions in this

document subject to change without notice.

Agilent Technologies, Inc. 2002

Printed in the USA June 11, 2002
5988-6916 EN