Probe a Circuit with the Power Off (EE Tip #14)

Imagine something is not working on your surface-mounted board, so you decide use your new oscilloscope. You take the probe scope in your right hand and put it on the microcontroller’s pin 23. Then, as you look at the scope’s screen, you inadvertently move your hand by 1 mm. Bingo!ComponentsDesk-iStock_000036102494Large

The scope probe is now right between pin 23 and pin 24, and you short-circuit two outputs. As a result, the microcontroller is dead and, because you’re unlucky, a couple of other chips are dead too. You just successfully learned Error 22.

Some years ago a potential customer brought me an expensive professional light control system he wanted to use. After 10 minutes of talking, I opened the equipment to see how it was built. My customer warned me to take care because he needed to use it for a show the next day. Of course, I said that he shouldn’t worry because I’m an engineer. I took my oscilloscope probe and did exactly what I said you shouldn’t do. Within 5 s, I short-circuited a 48-V line with a 3V3 regulated wire. Smoke and fire! I transformed each of the beautiful system’s 40 or so integrated circuits into dead silicon. Need I say my relationship with that customer was rather cold for a few weeks?

In a nutshell, don’t ever try to connect a probe on a fine-pitch component when the power is on. Switch everything off, solder a test wire where you need it to be, grab your probe on the wire end, ensure there isn’t a short circuit and then switch on the power. Alternatively, you can buy a couple of fine-pitch grabbers, expensive but useful, or a stand-off to maintain the probe in a precise position. But still don’t try to connect them to a powered board.—Robert Lacoste, CC25, 2013