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Voltage Tester vs. Multimeter: What’s the Difference?

In short, the difference between a voltage tester and a multimeter is that a voltage tester is a tool used to detect the presence of voltage while a multimeter does that and more, including the ability to measure voltage (volts), current (amps), resistance (ohms) and continuity of a circuit.

But there’s still more to be learned regarding the functions, features and uses that distinguish one from the other. When do you use a voltage tester vs. multimeter? How do you check the voltage? And can you use a multimeter to do this? And finally, are there different types of electrical testers that can better aid you in job and function? We’ll answer your most burning questions and more in a concise comparison between the two. 

What Is a Multimeter?

Fluke 116 Digital HVAC Multimeter-Voltage tester vs. multimeter
Source: Fluke

The long answer is that a multimeter is an electrical measurement tool that goes above and beyond your average voltage detection. Depending on their intended function, some of the best multitesters, especially the ones designed for HVAC, come equipped with the ability to read the temperature, capacitance, frequency and inductance, among other features beneficial to professional electricians.

Types of Multimeters 

  • Analog Multimeter (VOM)– VOMs have become somewhat outdated, but they still have a couple features that have prevented them from becoming entirely obsolete. For one, they don’t require a battery for measuring voltage and current, so you never have to worry about getting an inaccurate reading because of a weakened or dying battery. 
  • Digital Multimeter (DDM) – These all just about replaced the analog multimeter. Some newer DDMs come with True RMS technology that can measure standard sine and non-sine waves with enhanced accuracy. They also provide more precise measurements of other functions with a digital readout of decimal places that can go into the hundreds of thousands. 

What Is a Voltage Tester?

Fluke 2AC Non-Contact Voltage Tester-Voltage tester vs. multimeter
Source: Fluke

Most voltage testers are only capable of detecting voltage, not current. And contrarily, they usually will not be able to tell you how many volts are present. For this reason, a voltage tester can help you find where the problem with the electrical circuit lies, but they cannot tell you if the wire or circuit has a current. The most basic of voltage testers also only detect AC voltage, so they won’t be able to alert you to live wires on devices that are battery-powered.

Types of Voltage Testers

  • Non-Contact Voltage Tester – As the name suggests, these types of voltage testers don't require you to come in direct contact with any of the electrical components that might prove dangerous to those who don’t have a technical background. Although easy to use, they usually don’t tell you how much voltage is present. 
  • Neon Voltage Tester – These voltage testers come with two leads that end in metal probes. They get their name from the neon indicator that lights up on voltage detection. These also don’t tell you how much voltage is present. 
  • Solenoid Voltage Tester – These testers detect both voltage and polarity, making them a little more sophisticated in versatility than the ones described so far. Better yet, it requires no batteries to operate. 
  • Multimeter – Yes, a multimeter makes the list because one of its primary functions is voltage detection. It just does a few other things, too.

Do I Need a Multimeter or Voltage Tester?

Whether you need a multimeter or a voltage tester will depend on what you’re doing. If you merely want to check if a home outlet or light is working, a voltage tester should suffice. 

But as the demands required for the job increase, you’ll eventually wander into multimeter territory, as they are designed to handle a wider array of advanced troubleshooting applications.

Essentially, A multimeter can replace a voltage tester, but a voltage tester cannot replace a multimeter. What it comes down to is if you need any information beyond the standard, yes, the circuit has voltage, or, no, it does not, a multimeter is going to be your tool. That’s because a multimeter has all the functions of a voltage detector in addition to readouts on current, resistance, continuity, etc. to help diagnose even the most elusive of electrical issues. 

Voltage Tester vs. Multimeter Price

If a multimeter can do everything a voltage detector does but better, why not just buy a multimeter, you ask? Well, multimeters are quite a bit more expensive because they are rigged with more measuring features and detection capabilities. For example, your average voltage detectors are between $10 and $400, whereas you can see multimeter prices easily shoot into the thousands.

Caution: Whichever detection device you decide is right for the job, you’ll still want to double-check that their certified safety rating exceeds that of what you’re testing. That being, each electrical tester has its own voltage range, even within their respective categories.