Time is money, and few products introduced to the electrical industry over the last several years can match the time-saving potential of laser alignment and measurement tools.

Compact, easy-to-use laser devices provide instant reference points for conduit runs, cable tray installations and positioning hangers; alignment locations for wall boxes, switches and light fixtures; transferring floor markings to ceilings; and most other leveling or alignment jobs.

With many models small enough to be carried in belt holders, laser tools can be used in restricted spaces above drop ceilings, in elevator shafts—virtually anywhere.

Planning layouts with laser tools is easier and much faster than with standard spirit levels, tape measures and plumb bobs. Time savings on a single project can more than justify investing in laser equipment.

“Approximately 25 percent of a contractor’s time can be devoted to plotting and layout,” said D. Michael Tramontin, director of marketing and distribution for Pacific Laser Systems. “Vertical layout is often challenging and time consuming, especially when operating in vaulted or irregular ceilings. Depending on the task, time savings using laser tools range from 25 to 50 percent.”

Although manufacturers may describe their products by different names, these laser tools are most often used for electrical and VDV construction.

• Line lasers provide vertically plumb, horizontally level or straight reference lines for layout and installation tasks.

• Stick or torpedo lasers project a dot that can be used to set reference points all around a room or job site.

• Multibeam lasers provide reference points for plumb, level and layout requirements.

• Rotating lasers can transfer points, level, align or layout in horizontal and vertical planes greatly increasing the efficiency for installation and alignment tasks on floors, walls and ceilings. High-end models have receivers that pick up the laser’s “dot” at great distances, even when invisible to the human eye.

• Laser range meters facilitate longer measurements and work well in difficult-to-access areas, making daily measuring tasks faster and more efficient. They also can add and subtract measurements and calculate area and volume.

Increasing your productivity

Laser tools increase productivity in several ways, said Dan Harrell, director of marketing, Zircon Corp.

“They frequently allow one person to do the job that used to require two or more workers,” he said. “And they eliminate the need to constantly set reference points and measure up or down to align objects, saving a great deal of time. If the device is self-leveled, it also does the leveling that would normally require a separate tool. There is also the added benefit of knowing that the measurements are accurate without the added time involved in checking and rechecking measurements to be certain.”

Today’s laser tools set up quickly and are easy to use, said Kevin Kolbeck, director of measuring systems for Hilti USA. “Simply turn the tool on, and it is ready for use,” he said. “Many tools now are operated with just one button, and even some of the more advanced multifunction tools are easy to operate and maintain.”

Kolbeck gave two examples of how lasers speed up typical tasks.

“With a traditional plumb bob and string,” he said, “a worker must climb a ladder or use a lift, align the plumb bob with a reference point on the floor, and then allow time for the plumb bob to settle before the reference point is identified. With a plumb beam laser, the floor reference point is marked, the tool’s reference beam is set over the point, and you immediately have the ‘up’ plumb. And a line laser can replace a builder’s level or chalk line by instantly producing a level or plumbed line on a wall.”

The capability to measure from fixed reference points including floors, walls, columns and both inside and outside corners is important for making an assessment of a project area, said Mike Yowler, senior product manager, Trimble Navigation Ltd.

“Handheld laser distance-measuring devices,” he added, “allow one electrician to measure inaccessible areas with ease and accuracy, providing an accurate way to assess requirements of conduit and other materials and prevent over or underruns, saving additional time and money.”

Easier than ever

Laser measuring tools were introduced to electrical markets in the late ‘90s, and products today are more advanced than earlier models. Ease of use and lower costs are the primary features that set today’s laser equipment apart from older models. However, today’s professional laser tools are not significantly more accurate—manufacturers say even early models were extremely accurate.

Hilti’s Kolbeck said, “Many consumer-grade tools with lower accuracy capabilities have entered the market, but professional laser alignment tools have maintained high accuracy standards. At the same time, most laser companies are striving to develop tools that are much easier to operate, and they are much more affordable.”

Laser tools have evolved to become small, handheld tools with much brighter, clearer reference points or lines, said PLS’s Tramontin. “Prices have declined to where the premium tools average $300 depending on the beam quality and accuracy.”

They also are more ruggedly built.

“In the past few years,” said Trimble’s Yowler, “laser tools have become more durable—some models can even survive drops directly onto concrete and still be precisely accurate although, of course, that is not advised. As technology continues to evolve and improve, accuracy becomes increasingly better for these units as well. Models provide quarter-inch accuracy at 100 feet, and some distance-measuring devices offer an accuracy specification up to 500 feet. Many tools also have become more compact, making them easier to carry on the job.”

Five years ago, said Zircon’s Harrell, a top-line laser required a trained professional to operate it properly. Early machines were complex and finicky, often requiring frequent adjustments.

“Whether that person was hired or trained in-house,” Harrell continued, “it was a considerable investment. Ease of use has improved exponentially. Now, practically anyone can operate even complex lasers because of intuitive user interfaces and well thought out operator instructions. And prices have fallen dramatically. Five years ago, that top-of-the-line model cost $2,000 or $3,000. Today, a top-end spinner is available for $700. Accuracy hasn’t changed dramatically because it was always very good—typically within one-eighth or one-quarter of an inch to distances of 150 to 200 feet for high-end lasers and one-quarter inch at 30 feet for line generators.”

The right tool for the job

With the choice of laser devices available, manufacturers suggest buyers carefully evaluate their needs in order select the right laser devices.

“Two of the most important considerations when purchasing a laser tool is to understand the application and desired accuracy needing to be achieved,” said Yowler. “We find that many buyers discover after purchasing a laser tool that it can be used for multiple applications they are performing, not just the one for which the tool was originally purchased.”

“Select the tool that does what you need it to do, and don’t be wowed by a bunch of bells and whistles you may never need,” said Zircon Corp.’s Harrell. “Consider buying an entry-level system and upgrade as you need additional functionality. Look for flexibility and modularity, i.e., can it be used for both level and plumb applications, can you use it easily to do floor-to-ceiling transfers?

“Strongly consider ease of use, learning curve, and how much time you are willing to invest in learning a complex machine, especially if you don’t need all of its features,” Harell continued. “Look for a company with a brand you trust. Visit manufacturers’ Web sites, prepare questions to ask sales personnel. And, of course, talk to others who have bought and are using these tools to get their real-world perspective.”

Pacific Laser Systems’ Tramontin said that laser tools should be easy to turn on and off and be easy to calibrate.

“Know what you want the laser to do, and don’t buy features that are unneeded,” he suggested. “The tool should make it easy to manipulate the points and lines of references. Self-leveling is very important for the time savings and repeatable references. Beam brightness and beam clarity at a distance are critical for commercial, industrial and some residential projects.

“Beam stability is very important—dancing beams on a job impairs accuracy and wastes time. Contractors can’t afford to wait for a dancing beam to settle or to struggle with an abstract point or line of reference.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.