Improving Electrical Testing Safety with Wireless Datalogging

Electrical testing requirements vary greatly for professionals in the power, telephone, fiber optics and cable television (CATV) industries.

Jan 1st, 2010
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Electrical testing requirements vary greatly for professionals in the power, telephone, fiber optics and cable television (CATV) industries. Whether working for a utility, a municipality or as a contractor in the business, one thing remains relatively constant: chances are that when it comes to performing essential electrical testing and monitoring, nine times out of 10, the person is reaching for his or her digital multimeter (DMM).

Advances in design, functionality, safety and accuracy have improved the usefulness and value of the DMM tremendously. Increased selection in the marketplace has also led DMM manufacturers to push innovation to increase the versatility and value proposition of their testers and meters.

Still, take a scenario where the need to monitor or datalog readings over a period of time is necessary. It is soon discovered that several perennial safety problems persist with even the latest and greatest test equipment. In many cases, for example, the proximity to hazardous voltage or dangerous, moving components is inevitable. In essence, the person is as close to dangerous connections or components as his test leads permit. Monitoring readings can be dangerous. The technician can step away to safety if he initiates datalogging, but he is limited to reviewing readings after he has retrieved the DMM following the monitoring period.

In some cases, a technician might wish to clone himself to get the job done right. Consider a situation where a remote task is required, such as opening or closing a breaker, activating equipment to simulate a typical load or flipping a remote switch. In most of these cases, to monitor or datalog resulting trends on one's DMM, the help of a second person is needed. At some job sites, this is a non-issue if other workers are nearby. But in the power and triple-play worlds, many technicians are working on their own at relatively remote or isolated locations, and these kinds of tests may impose the need for an assistant.

From a convenience and versatility perspective, many technicians add the processing power of a laptop to make datalogging more sophisticated and useful. The downside is that if testing is needed at a number of spots at a job site, there is now extra hardware to lug around and set up repeatedly at each measurement point. The physical connection of one's laptop to the device under test is also disconcerting.

Multimeter companies have taken note of these limitations, and DMMs have officially entered the world of wireless versatility. This past fall, a major DMM maker introduced a meter with a detachable display for remote, wireless viewing. What a technician could previously read only on the fixed display of a DMM can now be read from a distance. It's a clever step in the right direction in terms of remote monitoring.

Another company's recent wireless DMM introduction takes it another step further with remote streaming of data back to a laptop or PC for realtime monitoring or datalogging. Extech Instruments, a 38-year-old test equipment company based in Waltham, Mass., recently rolled out the Extech EX540 as a new addition to its EX500 series of industrial multimeters, considered the "toughbook" of multimeters. Extech's rugged, waterproof design can withstand a 6-foot drop, making it the ideal starting point for a go-anywhere DMM.

The innovative new meter offers wireless connectivity to a laptop or PC using a USB receiver with a range comparable to Bluetooth (33 feet). The EX540 transmits real-time data for monitoring, trending and analysis (using the included software) on one of two available frequencies (433 and 914 mHz).

Now, technicians can monitor and datalog readings at a safe distance from hazardous locations. Additionally, it is easier to perform remote tasks such as powering up a device from a control panel that is not nearby. From a time-saving perspective, the EX540 permits a user to set up his or her laptop at a centralized location and then sequentially datalog readings throughout a site without relocating the laptop.

Ruggedized to industrial-duty specs, the new Extech is a true RMS DMM that, in addition to wireless datalogging, can log up to 10,000 readings internally and also read voltage, current, resistance, capacitance, frequency (with dual-range sensitivity for electrical and electronic work), duty cycle (dwell), continuity, diode testing (2.8V) and even temperature (using its Type K bead probe).

The new meter features accuracy that is a tough-to-beat 0.06 percent and it is backed by a Category IV overvoltage safety rating, protecting users even on outdoor wiring.

Technicians can now expand how they think about testing scenarios and logistics, not to mention how jobs can be performed more quickly and easily.

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