Shunts. An ammeter shunt allows the measurement of current values too large to be directly measured by a particular ammeter. In this case the shunt, a manganin resistor of accurately known resistance, is placed in series with the load so that all of the current to be measured will flow through it. In order not to disrupt the circuit, the resistance of the shunt is normally very small. The voltage drop across the shunt is proportional to the current flowing through it and since its resistance is known, a voltmeter connected across the shunt can be scaled to directly display the current value.

Shunts are rated by maximum current and voltage drop at that current. For example, a 500 A, 75 mV shunt would have a resistance of 0.15milliohms, a maximum allowable current of 500 amps and at that current the voltage drop would be 75 millivolts. By convention, most shunts are designed to drop 50 mV, 75 mV or 100 mV when operating at their full rated current and most ammeters consist of a shunt and a voltmeter with full-scale deflections of 50, 75, or 100 mV. All shunts have a derating factor for continuous use, 66% being the most common. Continuous use is a run time of 2+ minutes, at which point the derating factor must be applied. There are thermal limits where a shunt will no longer operate correctly. At 80 °C thermal drift begins to occur, at 120 °C thermal drift is a significant problem where error, depending on the design of the shunt, can be several percent and at 140 °C the manganin alloy becomes permanently damaged due to annealing resulting in the resistance value drifting up or down.

If the current being measured is also at a high voltage potential this voltage will be present in the connecting leads to and in the reading instrument itself. Sometimes, the shunt is inserted in the return leg (grounded side) to avoid this problem. Some alternatives to shunts can provide isolation from the high voltage by not directly connecting the meter to the high voltage circuit. Examples of devices that can provide this isolation are Hall effect current sensors and current transformers (see clamp meters). Current shunts are considered more accurate and cheaper than Hall effect devices. Common accuracy of such devices are ±0.1% & 0.25% and 0.5%.

A voltage divider. A voltage divider is a simple circuit which turns a large voltage into a smaller one. Using just two series resistors and an input voltage, we can create an output voltage that is a fraction of the input. Voltage dividers are one of the most fundamental circuits in electronics. A voltage divider involves applying a voltage source across a series of two resistors. We’ll call the resistor closest to the input voltage (Vin) R1, and the resistor closest to ground R2. The voltage drop across R2 is called Vout, that’s the divided voltage our circuit exists to make. That’s all there is to the circuit is our divided voltage. That’s what’ll end up being a fraction of the input voltage. The voltage divider equation assumes that you know three values of the above circuit: the input voltage (Vin), and both resistor values (R1 and R2). Given those values, we can use this equation to find the output voltage (Vout): Vout = Vin * (R2 / (R1 + R2))

Memorize that equation! This equation states that the output voltage is directly proportional to the input voltage and the ratio of R1 and R2. If you’d like to find out where this comes from, check out this section where the equaion is derived. But for now, just write it down and remember it!