Voltage drop tests a powerful diagnostic for electrical woes

Voltage drop as a theory and voltage drop testing are often ignored because the test and its usefulness are often misunderstood. Let's clear up that misunderstanding.

The definition of drop

Voltage is electrical pressure; current (amperage) is the flow of electrons. Each conductor of electricity, whether copper, silver or gold, resists the flow of electrons a certain amount. Naturally, some conductors resist electron flow more than others (copper has more resistance than gold).

As electrons pass through a resistance, which can be a section of wiring, a bulb, switch, or solenoid, some electrons are lost trying to make it through the resistance. When this happens, there's a difference in the potential of the electrons at each end of the resistance, just like at the battery terminals. This difference in potential can be read on a voltmeter connected in parallel as the amount of voltage drop across that part of the circuit.

The amount of voltage drop depends on the length, size, material and temperature of the resistance. As the voltage readings go higher, it indicates a higher resistance and increased opposition to electron flow.

Outclassed ohmmeters
An ohmmeter is a great tool in its own right and we're not suggesting that you toss yours out. It's just that there are several reasons voltage drop works better in a working circuit.

First, ohmmeters only push milliamps (thousandths of an amp) of current through a resistance in order to get a reading. This comes nowhere near the current that may be flowing in some circuits — the starting circuit, for instance.

To help this sink in, consider a battery cable with half of its strands cut. If you took your ohmmeter and checked the resistance of the cable, you would find that it's OK. Then, try to run the starter with your voltmeter connected across the bad section. The starter will crank slowly because the cable impairs needed current flow. Whatever voltage can't make it through the cut will be shown on your voltmeter.

The next reason your ohmmeter isn't as good as a voltage drop test relates to the first reason. Ohmmeters are designed to take readings in unpowered circuits because the meter's internal battery provides the current. But voltage drop is always measured with the circuit working (current flowing). This gives you live readings of what's going on when the circuit is actually working without having to disconnect anything. To use an ohmmeter, the circuit must be dead and you usually have to disconnect something for attaching leads.

The last reason against ohmmeter testing shows how small amounts of resistance have an adverse affect on voltage drop. A review of ohm's law supports this claim.

The equation for ohm's law is E = I x R, where E stands for voltage, I for amperage, and R for ohms — voltage equals the amps value multiplied by the ohms value.

For instance, let's say we're dealing with a starting circuit that may have 200 amps of current flowing during cranking. Using the equation for ohm's law, we'll plug in a value of 0.01 ohms. Why such a small amount? Because it would take an extremely expensive and sophisticated ohmmeter to measure such a small amount of resistance (the ohmmeter in your tool box doesn't read to hundredths of an ohm). Now, plug in the two numbers we know to get the one we don't: 200 amps x 0.01 ohms = 2 volts. You must agree that a 2-volt drop from such a small resistance is quite amazing.

Right connections

As mentioned, the great thing about voltage drop testing is that you can take readings without breaking any connections. If you're using a digital meter, you don't have to worry much about which lead goes where. If you connect them backwards, the meter recognizes reverse polarity and displays a"-" in front of the reading, but the numbers that you're interested in will be the same.

Testing the charging circuit

First, check the insulated (positive) side of the circuit. Since the alternator is the source of voltage when the car is running, think of it that way when connecting the leads. This means the red lead goes on the alternator's output terminal and the black lead goes on the positive battery terminal. Start the engine and apply an electrical load by turning on the lights and accessories or by loading the battery with a load tester.

To check voltage drop on the uninsulated (negative) side of the charging circuit, connect the voltmeter's red lead to the battery's negative terminal and the black lead to the alternator's case and repeat the test. Remember: voltage always returns to its source, so the negative terminal of the battery has more positive potential than the alternator's case.

Starting circuit tests

To test the voltage drop in the starting circuit, first disable the engine to prevent it from starting. Connect the leads to the insulated side first. The red lead goes on the positive battery terminal and the black lead goes on the starter motor's feed terminal. Crank the engine only long enough to get a reading.

Now check the uninsulated side. Connect the red lead to the starter housing and the black lead to the negative battery terminal. Crank the engine once more to read the voltage drop on the ground side of the starting circuit.

Readings rationale

These examples only cover a test voltage drop on the starting and charging circuits, but these tests aren't limited only to those circuits. You can use voltage drop tests anywhere, but high-current circuits will have higher amounts of acceptable voltage drop than low-current circuits.

Here are some suggested maximum voltage drop values for the starting circuit:
• Connections: 0.0 volt
• Solenoids: 0.2 volt
• Starter relays (magnetic Ford type): 0.3 volt
• Cables up to 3 feet: 0.1 volt
• Cables over 3 feet: 0.2 volt

Make voltage drop testing an integral part of your diagnostic plan of attack. Partnered with a multimeter, voltage drop testing is an added powerful method for finding electrical system problems.