Targeted beams of laser light play a vital role in many aspects of our daily lives. We depend on lasers for countless applications—at supermarket and department store checkouts, for the music CDs and movie DVDs we watch, and for advanced surgery technologies. Package shipments and inventory controls in businesses and industries could not function without laser light beams.

Lasers are not new to construction applications, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that electricians discovered their value for quickly making accurate measurements for layout work. Today, compact, easy-to-use laser tools help electricians make instant reference points for conduit runs; cable-tray installations; positioning hangers; aligning locations for wall boxes, switches and light fixtures; transferring floor markings to ceilings; and most other leveling or alignment jobs.

Accuracy and saving time are the primary benefits of using laser devices.

“We estimate that 25 percent of an electrician’s work week is spent laying out material. Layout is an essential part of the work day,” said Mike Tramontin, executive vice president of Pacific Laser Systems. “With today’s labor rates, some electrical layout work is too time-consuming and costly not to use laser tools. Lasers save labor, eliminate mistakes and, consequently, improve quality—all saving money.”

To illustrate this point, Tramontin repeats the story told to him by an electrician who had spent a week using conventional methods to lay out half the vaulted ceiling of a large church.

“Then he discovered the laser tool and finished the other half in four hours,” said Tramontin. “A church or other building with a high vaulted ceiling that requires a number of light fixtures is simply too time- and labor-intensive without a laser.”

The laser tools most often used for electrical and datacom construction include the following:

  • Line lasers can be used for 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 recognize the laser’s “dot” at great distances, even when it is invisible to the human eye.
  • Laser range meters facilitate longer measurements and those 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.

Although the ways electricians use lasers remain basically the same, tools have evolved since the last ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR report on this tool category, providing users more options to fit various job requirements.

“Laser tools available today are better designed and offer higher utility on the job,” Tramontin said. “Current models perform more multiple functions for application layouts—for example, a compact tool that emits both horizontal and vertical references can be used in bright indoor lighting conditions and outside in sunlight. We have greatly expanded our product line with the addition of rotating lasers, lasers to lay out 90-degree angles and compact tools that emit the longer reference lines, both horizontal and vertical.”

Chera M. Ellis, Greenlee Textron director of marketing, said mini-magnet laser levels that project a beam make a variety of applications easier, including bending conduit, aligning an electrical panel box or plumbing metal cabinets.

“These levels,” she said, “provide the electrical worker with a laser that has a range of just over 80 yards.”

Hilti USA measuring systems product manager David Lecompte said current laser tool models are smaller and easier to use and offer increased accuracy and performance through improvements in technology.

“Some of today’s measuring tools,” Lecompte said, “can automatically perform mathematical calculations, including square feet, volume and indirect measuring using the Pythagoras function. Depending on the tool, accuracy is anywhere from +/– 1/8 inch to 1/25 inch. Some recent tool models have fewer buttons, and many improvements have been made in the accessories to use with the tools, and the calculation functions on the measuring tools are easier to understand—all make operating the tools easier for the user.

“In addition, measuring tools are beginning to incorporate software technology that allows them to interact with computers and handheld PCs. Measurements can be taken and turned into real life drawings of rooms, floor plans, buildings, etc.,” he said.

Time savings offered by laser tools vary with the kind of measurements being performed, the number of people available to take them and the equipment needed.

“For example,” Lecompte said, “a great deal of time can be saved in taking measurements from a floor to ceiling, dealing with hard-to-reach areas or long distances that conventionally require two people. Point and line lasers greatly improve effectiveness as they replace the plumb bob, square and the level water hose, which are time consuming and sometimes cumbersome instruments to be working with. For these more complex types of situations, we generally see laser products reduce time for measurement/layout by a quarter to half over the conventional tools, depending on the tool.”

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

“For example,” Lecompte said, “if you needed to measure the length of a wall, but there was an obstacle that would prevent you from using a tape measure, that measurement could be taken with a laser range meter because you don’t have to physically touch the surface you are measuring.”

Are users finding new ways to take advantage of the benefits of laser tools?

“The best way to think about that,” Lecompte said, “is to look at a building and recognize everything in it has to be in a certain place. All of that placement can be made with a laser.”

As a result, laser devices are well accepted in the electrical and datacom industries.

“Lasers are routinely used by electricians for layouts on commercial and industrial jobs, less frequently for residential construction,” Pacific Laser’s Tramontin said. “Electricians who do residential work may not be able to justify the cost, except in high-end homes.”

However, it appears likely that smaller contracting companies and individual electricians will turn to laser tools. Also as the technology advances, the tools become easier to use, and as more manufacturers enter the market, costs go down because of increased availability.   EC

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