I'm trying to compare a voltmeter and instrumentation amplifier which both measures voltage. Below in Figure 1, Figure 2 and Figure 3 I made these diagrams to ask my question. Basically a device(on the left side in diagrams) has two output terminals A and B. It also has its own ground called SGND. Voltage at terminal A with respect to SGND is 1000.5V and voltage at terminal B with respect to SGND is 995.5V. So the voltage difference between A and B is 1V. So we have a device which has 1V differential and 1000V common mode voltage:


simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

At Figure 1 this device is coupled to an instrumentation amplifier which has its own ground called AGND. Now because SGND and AGND are connected by a wire(I explicitly connected these grounds with a blue wire), then the instrumentation amplifier will see that huge common mode voltages at node A and B as 1000.5V and 999.5V, which will damage it.

At Figure 2 the device is coupled to a voltmeter terminals. But now the voltmeter's COM/ground is not connected to SGND of the device. This means the voltmeter will not see the common mode voltage but only will measure the differential voltage.

Finally at Figure 3 the same device is coupled to the same instrumentation amplifier just in the same way as the voltmeter. Which means at Figure 3 the terminals A and B are coupled to the instrumentation amplifier inputs but AGND and SGND are not connected as in the voltmeter case. I deliberately gave different colors to these disconnected grounds at Figure 3.

Here is my question:

1-) It seems the voltmeter already rejects the 1000V common mode voltage plus it doesn't blow up. But in Figure 2 the amplifier is in danger because of the common mode voltage. So why is an instrumentation amplifier not built in the same way as a voltmeter is? I don't know the inner workings of a voltmeter, so what makes it inferior to an instrumentation amplifier even though it rejected the common mode voltage in Figure 2?

2-) At Figure 3, I cut the connection between SGND and AGND and I read this causes bias currents not to return to the source and the instrumentation amplifier will not work correct. But why doesn't this issue appear in voltmeter's case even though it also has the same way of 2-wire connection.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is that a hand made instrumentation amplifier or a IC with all things built in? I used the AD524 a lot, but had to buffer its inputs with JFET or CMOS op-amps. If you build an IA by hand, a lot of nuisance errors can get in the setup. \$\endgroup\$
    – user105652
    Mar 22, 2018 at 4:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why does figure 3 not work correct? Did you actually build it? Remember that on the simulation, you can have only one ground. So you will have to put in op amps with power connections and put in a power supply, to get a correct result. And then, measure voltages between points, not with SGND. \$\endgroup\$
    – Indraneel
    Mar 22, 2018 at 4:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Indraneel In Figure 3 the base currents trying to go inside the amplifier does not have return path, so they cannot flow and bias the transitors. The inAmp will saturate if "in real" AGND and SGND are not connected. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1245
    Mar 22, 2018 at 10:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sparky256 This was a theoretical question. Im not gonna bulit an inAmp. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1245
    Mar 22, 2018 at 11:43

3 Answers 3

  1. Your voltmeter is floating and battery operated. The same cannot be said for the instrumentation amp. I have measured up to 32 KV with an instrumentation amp, but with 1 gigaohm probes that divided the input by 10,000.

  2. I would not say that a voltmeter is inferior. It may not be as fine tuned as a instrumentation amp can be. Since it 'floats' using battery power it rejects common mode voltage and noise.

  3. SGND and AGND are basically the same thing. One is signal ground and the other is the analog ground ref for the instrumentation amp. For accuracy and common mode rejection it should have a short path to SGND, using wide traces.

At Figure 3, I cut the connection between SGND and AGND and I read this causes bias currents not to return to the source and the instrumentation amplifier will not work correct. But why doesn't this issue appear in voltmeter's case even though it also has the same way of 2-wire connection.

  1. Once again by cutting the gnd link, SGND and AGND, you are letting the common mode input 'float' to whatever voltage it wants to, especially with high impedance instrumentation amps combined with AC outlet leakage currents, mostly capacitive.

  2. Once again the meter is battery powered and floats better because it has no other ties to the circuit. There are no spurious noise or currents with a hand held meter. The reading it gives you is the truth.

  3. What can dominate AC outlet powered equipment is capacitive leakage by conventional transformer or by a switch-mode transformer. Capacitive leakage can be 100 pF or more. It is not a shock hazard as the leakage current is normally 100 uA or less and 50 uA or less for medical equipment. However instrument inputs can detect such leakage either as a common mode error, which should cancel out if the same for both (+) and (-) inputs. If the inputs do not have a common signal ground return of the same impedance then errors can get into the readings. Open (float) the input probes to detect errors that should not be there. Short them together to check for DC offset errors. Short them to signal ground to check for common mode errors.

  4. Sometimes with AC powered equipment an isolation transformer helps with jitter and other unbalanced common mode noise, by adding another layer of isolation from the AC outlet. Use a good DVM to compare instrument probe noise or DC offsets to Earth ground. If a signal source does not have balanced impedance for both inputs, errors can occur. Jitter is a sign of noise getting into the instrument as an unbalanced signal.

But in Figure 2 the amplifier is in danger because of the common mode voltage.

  1. Instrument amps are often protected by high value resistors and common ground resistors that divide the input by 10:1 or 1,000:1, then set the gain of the amp to make up the loss. This protects them when measuring high voltage, either single ended or as a common mode voltage where you measure current flow.

  2. For that reason it pays to buy top grade DVM's like the Fluke 87 III series, and do yearly calibrations, to check against the instrument amps. You can question wall powered circuits common and differential stray voltages and currents, but not a precision DVM.


Leakage current can buld up a charge on floating instruments. This can pose a risk to damage between AGND and Earth GND. This risk is serious on 600V busbars due the stored energy that can follow an arc to a floating DMM. Doe this reason, ARC FLASH protection gear must be worn when measuring BUSBARs with MVA short circuit capacity. But for small energy sources the risk is small. Nevertheless, leakage can damage high impedance floating instruments.

So what you are neglecting in your question is any sources of leakage , surface creapage, H-Field loop induction or stray capacitance to AC E Fields to Earth Ground that may induce a large CM voltage fault on the INA. If however, this is taken care of, by opto islators and careful air gap PCB layout, for the class code of contamination, no problem .

I have measured up to 200kV on a scope but that used C cap voltage transformer about 3m tall.

You are neglecting power supply leakage currents which are only rated at the insulation voltage . With this the induced CM voltage would blow the INA unless you could control it well below input bias current and guarantee the power source free of CM transients from insulation charges.

Draw a current source from stray leakage and power source into your input impedance and include device under test stray leakage current. Then analyze the CM voltage .

So there are better methods for measuring HVDC and HVAC and this not possible unless you can eliminate all stray sources and use battery power with optical telemetry or resistive voltage divider’s with suitable HV ratings and creapage gaps.

Not shown in your "Logic Diagram" are your power sources in Fig 3 (&1) and the insulation rating and stray reactance between SGND and AGND. This makes all the difference between a safe remote measurement (that goes nowhere for now) and one that can kill if an arc flash occurs even with a DMM, if the grid source can deliver > 100A or 100kW and cause spontaneous combustion if the insulation breaks down. But if you had a Optoisolator on the output to get a an analog or digital reading, then the output can be translated from the 1kV CM voltage to near Earth low voltage levels.


1)&2) Because you can make-it yourself to be the same. Connect B input to AGND to and make sure there is no or very small leakage current between AGND and SGND and it is the same. The voltmeter has an input connected to it's internal ground the same way. Don't stick to names, ground is just a convention , a reference for something, rename B as GND and SGND as V-, does it look the same? Does it make any sense to connect V- to AGND?

Why an instrumentation amplifier is better?

I named Ri1..Ri4 the internal impedance of V2, V3 and V5, V6. We suppose that some parasitic current is flowing form V- to AGND through Zl. Ri1..Ri4>>Rv, Rp1, Rp2 >> Zl


simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

In the voltmeter configuration the parasitic current takes the shortest path through Ri2, V3, V1 and add an error due the voltage drop on Ri2.

In the second schematic it will flow through both paths Rp2 Ri3 and Rp1 Ri4. If Rp2 = Rp1 and Ri3~=Ri4 the voltage drop on Ri3 and Ri4 will compensate in differential mode giving a more accurate value.

Notice that the leakage current through Rp2 and Rp1 will add a common mode voltage , higher for higher resistors, this is a trade-off between the internal impedance and maximum common mode voltage supported. Of course, if Ri3 and Ri4 are very small you can just connect one input to AGND and not use polarising resistors at all.

Your schematic as is cannot work , is missing two resistors, one from OA8 output and R6 to OA7- and R9 and the second from OA6 output and R7 to OA7+ and R10.


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