Fish tapes are basic, EASY-to-take-for-granted TOols. But imagine trying to do any interior wiring job without one-pulling wire through conduit or between walls and other enclosed spaces would be difficult, time-consuming, and in some instances, impossible.

Fish tapes are available in models with “tapes” made of steel, stainless steel, fiberglass and nylon in lengths ranging from 25 to 240 feet. Manufacturers say steel tapes are popular with most electricians who prefer longer tapes, so one tool can handle any pulling job. For jobs near live circuits, in damp conditions or in areas with consistently high humidity, fiberglass tapes may be preferred because they are nonconductive and will not corrode.

Different tapes for different applications

“Choosing the right fish tape is a matter of application or use,” said Mark Benning, senior product manager at Gardner Bender. “Steel fish tapes dominate use by electricians, but it is important to realize that the conditions of the job will dictate the type of wire material required. Is the job wired with pre-existing wire runs or is it a new installation?

“Most companies offer tapes made with materials such as fiberglass, nylon or nylon- jacketed fiberglass designed for use during data-voice-video installations under carpeted areas,” Benning said. “The tip of the fish tape is also important as their design reduces friction/resistance while the tape is being fed. Certain fish-tape designs, wire and tips have been manufactured for each application.”

Jim Eisele, Greenlee Textron product manager, believes fish tape choice is a matter of pesonal preference and cost.

“Steel and fiberglass are most popular with nylon and flexible steel significantly less popular,” Eisele said. “Some users believe fiberglass is better because it is dielectric. Ease of fishing around bends, cleanliness of the tape itself, ease and speed of rewinding, and durability are important considerations.”

All components are important

Design and construction of the case are important.

“The case provides protection for the tape and eases operation and storage,” said Bruce W. Hartranft, Ideal Industries business unit manager. “Durability is the most important attribute; a case should be able to take a 10-foot drop off a ladder without breaking. Ease of pullout and pay-in is the second most important attribute; the tape should be easy to handle.”

Fish tape leaders are the flexible parts attached to the leading end of the tape to enhance a tape's ability to push around conduit elbows.

“A good leader should be highly flexible, durable and provide years of service,” Hartanft said. “Fish tape pullers are rubber pulling grips used to enhance an electrician's grip on the tape when pulling back a heavy load of wires. Rubber grips provide great tactile advantage and will not nick the tape.”

Jeff Konkle, Klein Tools product manager, said steel and stainless steel tapes are great everyday fish tapes.

“They have strong tensile strength, can be easily cut and reformed in the field, and can be pulled with fish tape pulling lineman's pliers without damaging the tape,” Konkle said. “Applications with tight bends or runs near live power require other tapes. Steel-stranded tapes and spiral-wound tapes are designed for tight and/or multidirectional bends.”

Gardner Bender's Benning said that in interviews with electrical contractors and purchasing agents, the most important fish tape features mentioned were durability, ease of rewinding and ergonomics/ comfort.

“Some companies address these factors by using high-impact ABS for durability, improved housing design for ease of rewinding and upright handles with over-molding for ergonomics and comfort,” Benning said.

Fish poles

Fish poles are becoming more popular.

“Of course, fish poles are not used in conduit, but they are especially useful for pulling electrical and VDV wires in attics, below floors and in plenums,” said Greenlee's Eisele. “Fish poles should be light in weight and retract into a convenient size.”

Benning noted that fish poles come in a variety of styles and offer flexibility with connecting rods or extend a telescoping rod for the length of the wire pull.

“They usually are used to assist in pulling VDV cabling or lower-stress electrical runs in pre-existing wall or ceiling areas,” he added. “Fish poles need to be light in weight, maintain rigidity during use and need to retract into a convenient size for transportation.”

Ideal's Hartranft said the growing popularity of poles closely indexes to the growth of Category 5e, coax, and similar communications upgrades being made to homes and offices today.

Glow-in-the-dark fish poles provide increased visibility for technicians working in dimly lit areas like crawl spaces or drop-ceiling spaces.

“For a quick charge of light, simply leave the pole in the sun while you prepare other installation equipment, and it will charge up the pole for an easier installation,” Hartranft said.

More than a pulling wire

Fish tapes today are much more than a wire enclosed in a case.

Early tape products concentrated primarily on function. Industry concerns about ease of use and recognition of the risk of injuries resulting from repetitive tasks has made ergonomics an important factor in tool design.

“Recently designed fish tapes now take ergonomics more seriously while improving performance and durability,” said Benning. “New innovations in fish tape design and accessories are being seen in order to make the job easier for electrical fishing jobs.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or