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by Vince Virgilio,

EAST Training, Inc. and

Steve Bodofsky,
Steve Bodofsky Productions

Computer sensors
can basically be
divided further
into three
Figure 1: Except for some oxygen sensors, all one-wire sensors are temperature sensors. To check the signal from these
sensors, connect your positive lead to the signal wire, and
your negative lead to a ground location near the sensor.

categories,
depending on the
number of wires
they use

right wire to provide the signal


youre looking
for.
One way to
do that is by
using a schematic. But most
shops only have a
limited number
of
schematics
available. And a
Figure 2: Since most temperature sensors are Negative
corollary
to
Temperature Coefficient (NTC) sensors, the voltage signal will be
Murphys
Law
high when the engine is cold, and will drop off as the engine
indicates
the
warms up.
probability
of
your having a specific schematic is
henever we tell technicians
inversely proportional to the likelihood
that they can get more out
of that vehicle appearing in your shop
of a scope that doesnt pro(you didnt know Murphy fixed cars,
vide menus, invariably their response is
did you?).
the menus make it easier to set up and
So if you dont have the right
connect the scope.
schematic, how can you determine
While easier setup may be a somewhich wire to connect your scope or
what valid argument, connection really
meter to?
isnt. Thats because connection is simThe answer isnt all that difficult; it
ply a matter of determining what you
just depends on understanding the
want to examine, and then choosing the

W
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nature of the different sensors and actuators on a vehicle. In this article well
look at common sensors and actuators,
and see how easily you can identify
which wire is the signal wire.
To do this, were going to separate
them into sensors and actuators.

Sensors and Their Signals


Computer sensors can basically be
divided further into three categories,
depending on the number of wires they
use. With only a few exceptions, theyll
either be one-, two-, or three-wire sensors.
And as youll see, that difference,
along with its location, tells you just
about all you need to know to identify
the sensor, and determine which wire is
the signal wire.
One important rule to remember:
when checking the voltage signal from
any sensor, the harness must be connected to the sensor and the ignition on.
To check sensor resistance, the sensor
must be disconnected and the ignition
off.
GEARS April 2002

Making the Connection Part 1

One-Wire Sensors

Figure 3: Some manufacturers switch in a second


resistor in the coolant temperature circuit as the
engine warms up. This is to improve sensor resolution
at higher temperatures.

Figure 4: When
the computer
switches the second resistor into
the circuit, the
voltage signal will
jump back up,
and then swing
down again as
the engine continues to warm up.

Figure 5: The second wire on a two-wire


temperature sensor is simply the sensor
ground. To test the sensor signal, connect
your positive lead to the sensor signal wire,
and your negative lead to the sensor
ground.

Virtually every one-wire sensor in


use is some type of temperature sensor and even those are pretty rare
these days. The only exception is that
some oxygen sensors also have only
one wire. Well talk more about oxygen
sensors in the next issue.
If you do run into one of these single-wire temperature sensors, identifying the signal wire is about as easy as it
can be, since theres only one choice.
These sensors provide a varying
resistance, which changes the resistance to ground, to pull the signal voltage down as the sensor warms up. So
the signal will be a voltage thats high
when cold, and drops off as the sensor
warms up most of the time.
Connect your scope or meter positive lead to the wire coming into the
sensor, and the negative lead to a good
ground, preferably near the sensor body
(figure 1).
The signal you get will depend on
the specific vehicle youre working on.
Since nearly every temperature sensor
in use is a NTC (negative temperature
coefficient) sensor, the resistance will
decrease as the temperature increases.
So the voltage signal will also decrease
as the engine or transmission temperature increases (figure 2).
But some systems most notably
Chryslers and some GMs have a little twist to them. At a certain temperature usually about 120 F (49 C)
the computer switches a second resistor
into the circuit (figure 3). This causes
the voltage to jump, and start dropping
all over again (figure 4). This is normal; the computer does this to improve
the sensor resolution at high temperatures.

Two-Wire Sensors

Figure 6: While some schematics might indicate


otherwise, Permanent Magnet (PM) AC generators
don't really have a positive or negative side. To check
the signal, connect one lead to one sensor wire, the
other lead to the other sensor wire.

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If threaded into the water jacket or


intake manifold, two-wire sensors will
almost always be temperature sensors.
If the sensor sits down near the cam or
crankshaft, or is mounted into the side
of the transmission or transfer case, its
probably a permanent magnet (PM) AC
generator.
GEARS April 2002

Figure 7: The signal from a Permanent Magnet (PM) AC generator


will be an AC signal that varies in frequency and amplitude with
the speed of the sensor wheel, or reluctor. As the speed increases, the frequency and peak-to-peak voltage increase with it.

To identify the signal wire on a


two-wire temperature sensor:

Turn the key on, engine off.


Connect your meters negative lead
to a good ground.
Probe the wires, one at a time, with
the positive lead.

One will be ground, the other will


have voltage to it: the one with voltage
is the signal wire (figure 5). Once
youve found the signal wire, connect
your scopes positive lead to it, and
move the negative lead to the sensor
ground wire.
Permanent magnet AC generators
dont really have a signal and ground
wire: both wires provide the signal. To
check the signal, connect your scopes
positive lead to one wire, and the negative lead to the other wire (figure 6).

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Figure 8: Whether you're connecting a potentiometer or a


Ford MAP sensor, the connection procedure is still the same:
positive lead to the sensor signal wire, negative lead to
the sensor ground.

The signal will be an AC waveform


that varies in both amplitude (peak to
peak voltage) and frequency (cycles per
second), with the speed of the device
being measured (figure 7). So if its a
crankshaft sensor, the signal will
increase with engine RPM. If its a
vehicle speed sensor, itll start at zero,
and increase directly with vehicle
speed.

Effect sensor, such as a camshaft,


crankshaft or vehicle speed sensor. The
major exception to this is the Ford MAP
sensor. But the procedure for identifying the signal wire on Ford MAP sensors is the same as for a potentiometer;
heres how:

Three-Wire Sensors

CAUTION: Some two-wire AC


generators have a third terminal; this is
a ground for a shielded housing, to prevent signal errors caused by induction.
Dont confuse these sensors with threewire sensors.
Depending upon its location, a
three-wire sensor will either be some
type of potentiometer (such as a
Throttle Position Sensor) or a Hall

Turn the key on, engine off.


Connect your meters negative lead
to a good ground.
Probe the wires, one at a time, with
the positive lead.

One wire will supply power (usually 5 volts), one will be ground, and the
third is the signal wire (figure 8). As
before, once youve found the signal
wire, connect your scopes positive lead
to it, and move the negative lead to the
sensor ground wire.

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GEARS April 2002

23

Figure 9: A potentiometer, such as a Throttle Position Sensor,


will develop a continuous sweep signal as you work the sensor
through its range. Any sudden dropouts or glitches indicate a
problem with the sensor.

The signal from a potentiometer


should be a smooth voltage that varies
based on the action of the sensor (figure
9). For example, a throttle position sensor should provide about a half a volt
with the throttle closed, and should
increase smoothly as you open the throttle. At full throttle the voltage should be
slightly below reference voltage.
Once again, the exception is the
Ford MAP sensor, which creates a digital voltage signal that varies in frequency as the vacuum level changes (figure
10). But the procedure for finding the
correct signal wire is the same as for a
potentiometer: the only difference is the
signal you get.
For connecting to a Hall Effect sensor, theres one extra step in the procedure:

Turn the key on, engine off.


Connect your meters negative lead
to a good ground.
Probe the wires, one at a time, with
the positive lead.
Actuate the sensor slowly as you
probe each wire.

For example, if youre checking the


signal on a crankshaft or camshaft sensor, youll have to tap the engine around
with the starter as you check each wire;
if its an output shaft speed sensor,
youll have to turn the wheels slowly.
The object is to rotate the wheel
windows past the sensor, to actuate the
sensor, and turn the voltage on and off.
What youll find when you check
the wires to a Hall Effect sensor is one
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Figure 10: Ford's MAP sensor produces a digital signal that


increases in frequency as manifold pressure increases. At idle,
the frequency should be about 110 Hz at sea level; key on,
engine off, it should be about 159 Hz.

Figure 11: To check the signal from a Hall Effect sensor, connect your positive lead to
the sensor wire, and your negative lead to the sensor ground.

wire will have reference


voltage usually 5 or 12
volts, depending on the
sensor. Another wire will
always be ground. But
from the third wire the
signal wire you should
get a voltage signal that
switches on and off as you
actuate the sensor.
Connect your scope
or meter positive lead to
the sensor wire, and the
negative lead to the sensor
ground wire (figure 11).
Figure 12: A Hall Effect sensor creates a digital, on-off
Then operate the sensor.
signal that varies in frequency with the speed of the
This may involve starting
component.
the engine, driving the
vehicle, or turning the wheels. The sigthen there are the oxygen sensors that
nal will be a digital, on-off signal (fighave three or four wires. Well take a
ure 12).
look at how to connect and check those
Of course, there are some oddball
sensors, along with solenoids and actusensors, such as Mass Airflow sensors,
ators, in the next issue of GEARS.
which have more than three wires. And
GEARS April 2002

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