Whether its electric wire pulled through conduit or wall space or voice/data/video cable placed below subfloors or above a suspended ceiling, special tools simplify the work.
Today’s fish tapes don’t look much different than older models, but internal improvements make the tape pay out and reel in smoother.
Fish sticks and poles are made of a variety of materials, some have LED lights or cameras on the tips, and there are specialized accessories to fit varied applications. Meanwhile, pulling lubricant facilitates pulling or pushing wire through conduits.
Battery-powered fish tapes and power fishing systems using high-pressure air are other options.
Fish tapes are available in various materials housed in a donut-shaped case with handle. To fish a wire, the user extends the tape through conduit, attaches a guide string to the wire to be installed, and reels the tape, pulling the wire behind it.
Adele Hendrix, product manager at Greenlee, Rockford Ill., said the primary influence when selecting a fish tape is the material it is made of and the environments where installations will be made.
“The most common material for tape is 1/8-in. steel,” she said. “It is great for general use and is preferred over other materials because its strength and rigidity make it easier to fish and pull than other materials. Stainless steel has the same benefits as regular steel, and it is corrosion-resistant, which makes it an ideal choice for work in damp or outdoor environments.”
Wider, stronger quarter-inch steel tapes generally are used to fish under flooring or in large diameter conduit, Hendrix said.
When fishing in conduit with existing cable or near live wires, a nonconductive tape material such as fiberglass and nylon help reduce the risk of shock and can help prevent damage to any existing cable while fishing.
“Fiberglass is generally preferred over nylon because it is more rigid, which makes it easier to push through, especially when existing cables are present,” she said. “Nylon is more flexible than fiberglass, so it may be a better option if fishing a run with tight bends, but it is not ideal for long distances because of its flexibility.”
Other factors impacting fish-tape selection include measurement markings, durability, ease-of-use and ergonomic design.
“A fish case that can reduce or eliminate jams, binding and kinks is crucial to being productive,” Hendrix said. “Ergonomic comfort while fishing is a major factor, so selecting a case that is designed to help reduce musculoskeletal strain and discomfort while fishing can help reduce fatigue. The new Greenlee Reel-X has a free-spinning interior reel that eliminates binding, while lowering the force needed to feed and pull the tape from the case, reducing fatigue. Replacement fish tapes are sold with the interior reel making it easy to quickly swap out reels.”
Dan Pearson, product manager at Klein Tools, Lincolnshire, Ill., said important features of fish tapes are their length—from 25 to 250 feet—and degree of flexibility.
“Fish tapes are used to pull wires through steel conduits and run through walls, ceilings or underground to hold wire to connect to a circuit breaker panel,” he said. “Spring steel is the most common material due to its stiffness, which allows it to push greater lengths through conduit, and its cost. Stainless steel may be used in place of spring steel if the job requires added corrosion-resistance, but higher cost keeps these fish tapes at a lower demand. If a user is concerned about damaging existing wires or potentially having an electrical charge arc to the fish tape, they may prefer to use a fiberglass fish tape.”
Recently, Pearson said, fish tape cases have become more ergonomic, and manufacturers have focused on improving the user’s comfort when paying out and rewinding the tape.
Troy Marks, senior product manager at Milwaukee Tool, Brookfield, Wis., observed that, while the purpose of fish tapes hasn’t changed, there have been many technological advancements since fish tapes were introduced into the market.
“Fish tapes are made from a variety of materials, including steel, fiberglass and polyester, and selecting the right material for the application is important,” he said. “Steel fish tapes are the most common solution and provide users with more push and pull strength. Our steel fish tapes incorporate flexible blue-tempered steel, and the steel hand tool fish tapes have laser-etched markings. These tapes are ideal for straight, normal runs where other wire isn’t present.”
Milwaukee recently introduced polyester fish tapes to the U.S. market. Unlike fiberglass, polyester tapes offer increased flexibility and won’t kink. Polyester tapes are ideal for applications where wire is already present or for runs with multiple bends.
Beyond type of tape material, ease of payout and rewind is crucial when selecting a fish tape. Low-friction case designs deliver smoother operations for feed and retraction.
Long runs with multiple bends can be difficult and fatiguing, Marks said. To address that, Milwaukee Tool recently introduced the world’s first battery-powered fish tape.
“By harnessing the power of M18 Fuel lithium-ion battery technology, electricians now have a fish tape that improves efficiency by automatically feeding tape through bends and retracting it directly into the drum for a cleaner job site. Equipped with an interchangeable drum, the battery-powered tool is compatible with both steel and nonconductive polyester tapes,” he said.
Tayler Brinson, product manager, Southwire Tools, Carrollton, Ga., said there have been significant changes in the market through the use of new materials. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) material fish tapes have proven to be superior and more durable than traditional fiberglass nonconductive tapes.
He said contractors working in situations where the conduit is already filled with wire typically opt for a nonconductive fish tape as they greatly reduce the chance of nicking a conductor as the tape is being pushed or pulled through conduit.
“On jobs with longer runs of larger diameter new and empty conduit, steel fish tape is usually the product chosen,” Brinson said. “The advantage that most nonmetallic fish tapes have over steel is its low coefficient of friction, which allows the tape to glide through conduit bends much easier.”
The type of case or mechanism for holding the tape also varies, Brinson said.
Other options include smaller handheld cases, larger tubes that are easier to pay out and reel in, and floor-loaded metal reels similar to a duct rodder reel.
“Pulling grips and ‘grip-it’ to secure wire allow for quicker and safer wire installations,” Brinson said. “Grip-its do not require wire to be taped, thus taking knives out of contractor’s hands. Other accessories like flexible fish tape leaders are great addition for steel tapes due to making a more ridged steel fish tape more flexible, making it easier to push the tape through 90-degree bends.”
Southwire offers steel fish tapes ranging from 25 to 240 feet and nonconductive fish tapes ranging from 75 to 240 feet.
Fish tools and sticks
Fish tapes usually are not used for routing cabling for voice/data/video, security, alarm and control system cable because other tools are better suited.
Hendrix said fish sticks are from 1 to 6 feet long and can be connected together to create custom lengths and are good for fishing behind walls and in tight spaces. Many fish sticks also glow in the dark, which makes them easier to see. Fish poles are extendable and are available in lengths to 24 inches. They are more rigid than fish sticks and are excellent for fishing in open areas, such as above suspended ceilings.
Pearson said fish rods and poles, also called sticks, route cable for shorter distances.
“They are almost exclusively made of fiberglass,” he said, “and formed in straight, short sections that can be strung together as opposed to continuous reels. The most common use for rods is pulling wires or cables across ceilings, attics or through wall cavities. Fish rods come with the added benefit of being able to add a variety of accessories to the threaded end, such as lights, simple hooks, specialized hooks, magnets, chains, [and] whisks to help glide across obstacles and others.”
Milwaukee product manager Adam Moscherosch said his company’s fish sticks are equipped with a bright glow-in-the-dark feature, which makes them easier for users working in low-light environments. Multiple tips can be used with fish sticks, including lighted tips to improve visibility, whisk tips that easily slide over obstacles, metal bullet tips for durability when pushing through materials such as insulation, magnetic tips for easier retrieval in blind applications, and metal hooks to expedite retrieval.
Brinson said fish sticks will always be a staple item in an electrician’s tool inventory. They are suited for instances where an electrician is running wire over drop ceilings, fishing a panel or behind a wall with insulation.
“Power” fishing option
Hendrix said the power-fishing process works by attaching a piston to a lightweight fish line and inserting the piston into the conduit.
“Then the nozzle of the power-fishing system is attached to the conduit opening and will blow the piston and line through the conduit,” she said. “Power-fishing systems are the quickest way to fish but only work in a conduit run that is relatively airtight. Because of this, they are popular for underground runs and rigid conduit runs.”
Greenlee offers a self-contained unit includes everything needed to blow or vacuum fish line, poly line or measuring tape.
Cable Ferret is a combination cable-pulling tool and inspection camera and is a previous NECA Showstopper winner.
“The Ferret Wi-Fi has been purpose- designed to provide faster close-up visual inspections and fast cable pulling in dark, confined spaces,” said Therese McNaughten, global vice president and manager of marketing and brand strategy. “With its Wi-Fi hotspot, the high-resolution 720p wireless camera has built-in, adjustable bright white LEDs that allow the camera to capture and stream clear images, even in full darkness.”
Interchangeable hook and magnet attachments firmly connect to cable for pulling. Cable Ferret has an effective range of 40 feet.