Cool Tools: Fish Tapes
Published: May 2008
It is difficult to imaging attempting interior wiring projects without a fish tape, and while the basic pulling/pushing function of this tool hasn’t changed, the latest fishing tools are more versatile and much easier to use than earlier products.
“Fish tape producers are taking ergonomics seriously, while keeping the integrity of function and durability intact,” said Gardner Bender’s Christian Coulis. “Our company’s user research shows that a majority of electrical contractors look at durability of the housing; ease of use, especially rewinding; and ergonomics as the most important factors when selecting a fish tape.”
While manufacturers say steel tapes remain the most popular with electrical contractors, there are a variety of specialized products available to fit various applications. For jobs near live circuits and wet conditions, fiberglass tapes may be preferred because they are nonconductive and will not corrode.
In addition, there are tapes made of stainless steel and stranded steel. Inexpensive Nylon fish tapes also are available, but they appeal primarily to do-it-yourself users.
Fish tapes measure lengths 25 to 240 feet with many electricians preferring longer tapes. Even though the National Electrical Code (NEC) limits wire runs to 100 feet between boxes, many electricians prefer to do longer initial runs.
Fish poles have become increasingly popular in recent years for pulling wires in attics, in plenums and under flooring.
Comments about the latest fish tape models, accessories and uses follow.
KLEIN TOOLS, Vince Kendzierski, product manager: “Typically ?- and ¼-inch-wide flat steel fish tapes make up about 85 to 90 percent of sales because they are the most durable and versatile. Flat steel is flexible to navigate 90-degree bends yet rigid enough to add muscle for pulling and pushing through tight spots. Navigational tapes, such as fiberglass, nylon or spiral-wound wire, are lightweight and manage multiple bends easily, but sacrifice the pull strength and rigidity of steel.
“Case and handle durability are important factors when selecting fish tape. Quite often the case remains on the ground during pulls and is openly exposed to the rough treatment of the job site. As this product goes through this exercise maybe a dozen or so times a day, solid body construction with the right materials is critical. Fish poles offer a precise way to make short wire runs and also allow wire to be guided over obstructions. Since fish poles are rigid, flexible and extendable, they offer you more control of the tip for exact placement.
“Fish tools can be a moderately expensive investment for professionals, but there are many products available, such as replacement tips and tip kits that will extend the life of both metallic and nonmetallic tapes.”
GREENLEE TEXTRON, Ron Axon, senior product manager: “Electricians require a variety of fishing tools to complete their jobs safely, efficiently and professionally. With the growth in demand for more power, data, audio, video, security, alarm and energy-control installations, the expanded variety of fishing tools are necessary to complete this work, especially in existing construction. The choices of fishing tools available give the professional the ability to really choose the right tool for the job and complete their work faster, safer and easier.
“Fish tapes come in many different materials and cross-section profiles to facilitate fishing in conduit, walls, under carpets, subfloors and above suspended ceilings as well as around other obstacles. There are several different tape leaders that can be attached to the end of tapes to help with fishing and/or pulling. Reacher fishing rods are also commonly used in situations where there are relatively straight distances of less than 25 feet.
“A variety of factors influence the selection of a tape for a given job, among them individual preference, distance of runs, work area space, stiffness, ‘fishability,’ fishing media cleanliness and dielectric properties when in proximity to live circuits.
“Grip comfort, tape length, tape weight, tape tip design, ease of paying out the tape and ease of rewinding the tape are all important considerations when choosing a fish tape. In addition, work environment requirements must be considered, such as fishing in a hospital or clean room environment.
“The most significant changes have occurred in the area of reacher fishing with a wider variety of telescoping pole lengths and materials, more flexible rods, more rod lengths and more rod tip accessories.
“Telescoping poles and/or threaded rods are very useful above suspended ceilings, below subfloors, in crawl spaces and other places where a tape may be difficult to navigate with. They are also very useful when fishing for short distances or when trying to route a wire in an area where a person cannot fit. The popularity of reacher fishing has grown significantly with the expanded choices of telescoping poles and threaded rods and tip accessories available to choose from, including luminescent rods for dark spaces.”
IDEAL INDUSTRIES, Bruce Hartranft, business unit manager: “For general-purpose pulling and pushing, a high-grade carbon steel tape of 200 to 240 feet has all the necessary stiffness, length and tensile strength an electrician needs for navigating conduit runs. The larger the conduit dimension, the thicker and stiffer the tape needs to be to avoid jams. Whenever possible, electrical lines should be de-energized. But if it is necessary to work around hot electric lines, nonconductive fiberglass fish tapes are required.
“The variety of products available include round, omnidirectional fish tapes, and nylon jacketed stainless steel tapes that bring needed flexibility to fishing through conduit with multiple bends. These tapes have no ‘memory’ of previous pulls, even after being coiled for long periods, so they will consistently negotiate difficult conduit bends, elbows and junction boxes without kinking, and both can be pushed in either direction, which saves labor during difficult pulls.
“Stainless steel fish tapes are best when working on underground conduits serving lamp posts, signs and pumps because the conduits tend to fill with water. The stainless steel construction prevents rusting, so the tapes last longer. Likewise in coastal areas, where airborne salt accelerates oxidation, stainless tapes hold up longer.
“Wide tapes work best under carpets and in wall cavities. Additional width significantly improves the beam strength of the tape, facilitating pushing under the carpet or through fiberglass insulation. Working over suspended ceilings requires fish poles. Poles come in extendable sections and can reach over the top of the ceiling grid.
“Electricians have told us that the main drawback with fiberglass is that it will break when navigating extremely tight radius bends in conduit. We address that problem with tapes with a nonconductive core and outer nylon coating that can pass through 3-inch radius turns without breakage or jams.
“Ease of payout and retrieval of the tape is largely dictated by the case design. Cases have our inner rotating reel that smoothly and quickly retrieves tape, while also preventing the tape from kinking or scrambling. Retainers keep tape properly positioned at the opening and prevent breakage. Ergonomically redesigned handles are stronger, slip-resistant and large enough to grasp from the top or the side, even when wearing gloves.
“Fish poles simplify the installation of electrical and data cables in walls, roof voids, raised floors and suspended ceilings, as well as pulling wire in areas where insulation already is installed. Most are nonconductive and can be used with different cable and wire types.
“Wire pulling lubricant reduces the friction in cable pulling over long, tough runs and is an essential accessory. Important considerations in selecting a lubricant are compatibility with the cable type being pulled, its ‘clingability’ to the cable and its lubricity.”
GARDNER BENDER, Christian Coulis, capital equipment product manager: “The typical fish tape user looks at a variety of influences when evaluating fish tapes, including comfort, ergonomics, length, durability, ease of wind/unwind corrosiveness, conductibility, cost, flexibility, shape and strength. Many manufacturers have been making minor design changes to their fish tape housings. As well as providing more durable housings, there has been an effort to improve the handle and grip.
“Since introducing our new series of ergonomic fish tapes, we have added an easy-to-use tape winder for 100-, 125- and 250-foot models with an overmolded rubber hand grip on the ratchet. The rewind is very useful in extending the life of the fish tape as well as lowering user fatigue.
“Regarding different tape materials, standard carbon steel is a very durable, economical solution for wire pulling, corrosion-resistant plated wire is the most durable material, and there also is nonconductive fiberglass core with nylon jacket. Currently, the most popular fish tape is made out of steel, which is more economical but still very durable and flexible. The tip of the fish tape is very important, as its design reduces friction and resistance while being fed. There are fish tape wires and tips designed for different applications.
“The rigidity, flexibility and versatility of fish poles make them ideal for fishing through or up walls, over ceilings or under carpet.”
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.