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Even though the electronic device is powered off, isn't there a risk of doing a continuity test on connections in the middle of the circuitry ? I mean, you do apply voltage doing so - couldn't that harm the components? Or is the voltage too low?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Definitely it will depend on the voltage. If you connect mains level voltage to a part of circuit designed to run on 3 volts you screw it. \$\endgroup\$
    – sharptooth
    Jan 25 '13 at 8:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking about using a cheap multimeter. \$\endgroup\$
    – user18110
    Jan 25 '13 at 8:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Then you need to find (or deduce) the voltage it uses during continuity test. \$\endgroup\$
    – sharptooth
    Jan 25 '13 at 8:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ But even if that's 3 volts, you don't know what the circuit can handle where you need to measure. \$\endgroup\$
    – user18110
    Jan 25 '13 at 8:22
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Continuity testing of an in-circuit component is not a reliable procedure, independent of signal injection and its associated risks.

The component leads may be interconnected via other circuit elements, thus giving a false continuity result, where the component itself is actually not a conductive route.

Regarding the risks of introducing a voltage through the multimeter leads:

  • Yes, there is a risk of certain parts being damaged, especially parts that can not tolerate the 1 to 9 volts that a multimeter might deliver across the probes in continuity mode.
  • The above is especially true when the component (or other components on connected traces, which will also be affected) is not powered. Many parts can tolerate voltages when powered but not otherwise.
  • To minimize the voltage, an option is to use the multimeter in resistance mode, at the lowest resistance setting - The higher resistance scales work on higher probe voltage, going by a quick check on a couple of multimeters at my desk.
  • Note that basic multimeters often combine continuity and diode testing modes, so the voltage is at minimum sufficient to forward bias silicon diodes and perhaps LEDs. This means a voltage of 2 to 3 volts.

In summary: This is best not done unless the experimenter is open to the risk of damaging the device in question - not just the component being tested, but other parts of the board.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The higher resistance scales work on higher probe voltage With my meters, it's the opposite. The higher resistance I set, the lower output voltage is. \$\endgroup\$
    – AndrejaKo
    Jan 25 '13 at 8:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AndrejaKo Yes, that's what I had expected as well, but it seems different multimeters work differently. Odd... Food for thought anyway. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 25 '13 at 8:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suppose that if you test the circuit, and the multimeter indicates no result, the risk that something is damaged is very low, considering that there was no flow of electricity through the device ? \$\endgroup\$
    – user18110
    Jan 25 '13 at 8:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user18110 Either that, or the part got damaged right at the start of probing? :-) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 25 '13 at 8:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user18110 - what if the probe put volts across something that didn't conduct, but that doesn't tolerate that voltage? Could blow an internal connection, protection diode or similar. Plenty of 1.8v devices out there that would not welcome 3v or more from a probe. In the early research into ESD it was found that improper handling may not cause immediate failure but may drastically shorten the life of a device. \$\endgroup\$
    – John U
    Jan 25 '13 at 9:18
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Damages thru Electrostatic Charge is different, DMM can not cause damage on component under test, Specially continuity. I am in this industry for last 25 year , never come across such case.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It can damage components if the parts under test have an absolute maximum voltage rating greater than the test voltage put out by the DMM, some cheap DMM's can put out a few volts which could be detrimental \$\endgroup\$
    – Voltage Spike
    May 16 '20 at 23:53
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Even if your test voltage is 0.2V, the meter is usually isolated, so there is still the risk of electrostatic damage unless you are following proper ESD procedures.

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Late to the game.

The safe assumption is that DMM testing poses a risk to the HW under test. Rather than ask why it may be risky, the proper question should be, why isn't it?

The first things to validate are current and voltage clamps. If these are not enveloped by maximum part ratings, not just for the ref des under test, but for any component exposed to stimulus, do not test.

Autoranging also introduces potential for HW damage to components, even if not being tested directly. For instance, if you're testing a resistor with a current-source test, under autoranging, the probes will be driven to their voltage clamps prior to being placed on test points (under current-source testing, voltage is the variable being driven to deliver the specified current; in an open conditions, no current can be delivered, driving voltage to maximum @ clamp). If that voltage exceeds the rating for any component on the same net, it may be damaged. Transients are also produced when the applied current is modified to bring the test value within range.

Also, current/voltage clamp ratings for DMMs are given as steady-state values. You actually have to measure worst-case transients for any DMM to ensure HW safety, which are never part of the specs.

Another issue is latent damage; you may alter the operating lifespan of components exposed to test stimulus without ever knowing it. Your assembly may pass functional test and burn-in without any issues presenting themselves, but electrical stress can still manifest as component failure before the operational lifespan of your assembly has run its course (lawsuit pending).

In short, if you're working with deliverable assemblies rather than engneering models, you should ask yourself why DMM probing is allowable rather than the opposite. If you're a hobbyist doing some tinkering and require validation from measurement, be careful that the stimulus signal doesn't smoke your parts (not literally), or introduce the potential for altering their expected values due to electrical stress.

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