Routine measuring tasks on electrical and datacom projects include making accurate measurements for installing runs of conduit and cable trays; positioning hangers; and marking locations for switches, wall boxes and lighting fixtures.

The compact spring tape measure has been a basic measuring tool for more than six decades. It began to replace folding wooden measuring sticks in the 1940s. The spring-loaded measuring tape actually has been around much longer. The first measuring tool with a spring-loaded design was patented by Alvin J. Fellows in 1868.

Even though laser measuring tools with alignment capabilities are becoming more widely used on electrical projects, there always will be a need for a basic measuring tape. Tapes for professionals continue to be improved to make them easier to use, more versatile and more durable than those available only a few years ago.


Improved manual tape measures

Klein Tools’ offset power-return rule’s calculation features offer quick and easy reference on the job site when measuring three-bend saddles and offset bends without complicated calculations. It has a nonslip rubber grip, dual-end hook for attaching to con-duits and automatic tape lock.

Greenlee Textron’s new stainless steel click-lock tape measures have a tough, impact-resistant ABS plastic case that is over-molded for added protection. One-inch, double-sided tape can be read from above or below and a quick “click-lock” feature holds the tape securely in place without moving the blade.

Ideal Industries’ auto-lock feature automatically holds the tape out when extended, and the smooth retraction works with the push of a button. A built-in rubber bumper protects the blade’s end, and the ergonomic design permits the tool to be comfortably used in either hand.

Lasers change the layout process

While there always will be a need for compact tape measures, laser technology has changed the ways electricians measure and align for layouts, increasing the accuracy and speed with which such work is done.

Laser measuring tools have been widely available for more than a decade; even do-it-yourselfers can find inexpensive models at home-improvement stores and on the Internet. Laser devices for professionals have seen significant improvements, and their capabili-ties greatly reduce the time required to do complex layout work on commercial and industrial projects.

“Lasers save labor, eliminate mistakes and, consequently, improve quality, and all of these benefits save money,” said Mike Tra-montin, executive vice president of Pacific Laser Systems (PLS), which offers a broad line of laser measuring and layout products.

“Layouts are an essential part of electricians’ work,” he said. “We estimate that 25 percent of an electrician’s work week is spent on lay-outs, and with today’s labor rates, layout work simply would be too time-consuming and costly not to use laser equipment on large pro-jects.”

Tramontin said use of laser tools has increased in the electrical industry since they first appeared on electrical job sites in the mid-1990s.

“However, I would say that increased usage is relegated to commercial and industrial job site application,” he said. “Residential di-mensions for an electrician normally won’t require laser layout tools. But the complex measurements required on industrial and commercial projects and tall structures have become far too costly to do without the use of laser technology.”

Comparing laser products now available to those of two or three years ago, Tramontin said the accuracy of today’s products has been slightly improved, but ease of use, portability and durability have advanced significantly.

The first general construction uses for lasers were speeding up surveys for site preparation, road construction and similar applica-tions. Laser specialists, such as PLS, developed the first compact laser measuring and alignment tools.

Trimble, well-known for laser equipment used in surveying and highway and heavy construction applications also offers a line of meas-urement and layout tools.

Earlier this year, Trimble introduced MEP software for use with its SPS610 robotic laser station that allows one person to do lay-outs for conduit, pipe, duct and cable trays.

“Trimble MEP with the SPS610 allows the contractor to use the digital design data in the field for the accurate placement of materials,” said Pat Bohle, Trimble building construction business area manager. “Using Trimble MEP, contractors can increase productivity and accuracy to improve their layout processes.”

Leica, perhaps best known for optics, also is a long-time provider of laser instruments, including distance-measuring tools. Its new Lino L2 precision laser alignment tool was a 2008 NECA Showstopper.

Tool companies add laser products

Other well-known companies in the electrical market have added laser products. The Greenlee Textron L97 mini-magnet laser level projects a bright laser beam for aligning objects, making a variety of applications easier, including bending conduit, aligning an electrical panel box or plumbing metal cabinets. The laser target range is just over 80 yards. Three rare-earth magnets hold the tool firmly in place on metal objects.

Power tool manufacturer Bosch has a pocket-size, precision measuring tool—the Model DLR130K—for measuring length and calculat-ing area and volume. At

4 inches tall, it is promoted as the world’s smallest laser range finder.

Hilti offers laser range meters for measuring distances and calculating areas and volumes quickly; multidirectional lasers for quickly determining plumb, level and square; and rotation systems for aligning horizontally and vertically, setting slopes, and laying out 90 degree angles.

Fluke Corp., a designer and manufacturer of electronic test tools, is new to the market with 416D and 411D laser distance meters.

“The biggest change in laser measuring tools is that true laser distance meters—meters that actually use the precision of a laser to meas-ure as opposed to unreliable ultrasonic distance meters that used a laser pointer—now are available in a price range that makes sense for electricians,” said Brian Stowell, Fluke Corp. marketing manager. “Laser distance meters have gotten smaller, lighter and more accurate as their functionality has increased. Area and volume calculations now are almost standard. Accuracy of one-eighth and one-sixteenth of an inch are now really affordable and available in units that can measure hundreds of feet.”

Area and volume calculations are almost standard today with both regular Pythagorean and advanced Pythagorean functions, Stowell said.

“The latest laser tools also are easier to use,” he said. “On-screen guidance for more involved measurements, such as area, volume and Pythagorean, via flashing segments in icons, make these measurements much more foolproof. Protection against dust and water has im-proved in less expensive models, and onboard measurement memory helps avoid many of the errors that occur during paper and pencil copying of measurements.”

According to Stowell, there are several benefits to laser tools.

“Electricians and datacom techs are looking for tools to meet the requirements for faster and more accurate measurements,” he said. “Electricians are seeing how reliable, efficient and cost-effective the laser distance meters are and increasingly adopting them for mak-ing light fixture calculations, cable and wire runs, conduit measurements, outlet layout and code conformance.”

Stowell said electricians and datacom system installers also are recognizing the benefits of using laser tools for cell tower projects and solar panel applications, which involve many area calculations. The installation of medical equipment often has strict distance requirements.

There are some difficult-to-access locations on jobs where conventional equipment simply cannot be used.

“When measuring an area very narrow or the distance is long, a tape measure usually cannot be used,” Stowell said. “Another instance is when objects prevent using an ultrasonic distance meter. Finally, there is a large class of situations where access to the measurement area is prohibited, inconvenient or unsafe, including structure heights and working around hazardous equipment and environments that may be hot, moving, unstable, contaminated or energized.”

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at