Cool Tools: Fish Tape

The purpose of a fish tape hasn’t changed over time. Just like the first enclosed coil of wire introduced more than 50 years ago, today’s fish tapes are used to pull wire through conduit, in wall space, beneath subfloors, under carpet, and through other difficult-to-access spaces.

The basic parts and design of today’s fish tapes are unchanged—a reel of wire enclosed in a protective case—but today’s tools have evolved significantly to pay out tape smoothly and retract without kinking; rugged cases have ergonomically friendly handle designs to make them easier to use while reducing wrist strain.

Tapes made of steel and fiberglass are the most widely used and come in lengths ranging from 25 to 200 feet and longer. Various accessories make pulling easier and more efficient.

Useful pulling accessories include tape leader, multiwire pulling leader, swivel ball to prevent wires from twisting during pulling, kits with new eyelets and a crimping tool to attach eyelets to tape, and carrying cases.

Wire-pulling lubricant reduces the friction in cable pulling over long runs and often can be essential to completing successful pulls. Lubricant should be compatible with the cable type being installed.

According to Doug Eichner, Greenlee’s senior vice president and general manager, Electrical Division: “There are three categories associated with fishing tools: fish tapes, power fishing devices, and reacher fishing tools. Fish tapes are the most commonly used tools in this segment.

“Many modern tapes feature rapid payout and rewind mechanisms, laser-etched distance marks, and leaders specifically designed to avoid snags and snares when fishing cable. Advancements in manufacturing technology have made it possible for laser-etched distance marks on many tapes. These markings offer better readability over the life of the tape.

“Ergonomic designs also are popular in this segment. Modern fish tapes feature overmolded hand grips, high-durability plastics, and better rewind mechanisms to reduce operator fatigue. Rapid payout and rewind mechanisms help speed the movement of the fish tape, lower operator fatigue, and improve productivity on the job site.

“Many tape cases now come with comfort handles and 360-degree uniform grips for easier handling. High-quality plastics with grip ridges also help handling and reduce the chance of slipping. Other fish tapes come with a viewing port for added visibility and easy removal of job-site debris.

“Steel and stainless steel fish tapes are the most popular materials. Stainless steel tapes resist rust and corrosion, allowing for longer tool life. Suitable for a wide range of applications, the standard, flat steel fish tapes continue to be popular. Laser-etched distance markings avoid fading over the life of the tool. These markings help electricians quickly see how far the pull will be.

“For pulls near live wires, nonconductive materials, such as fiberglass and nylon tapes, are available.

“Power fishing systems are more commonly used in new construction.These systems use powerful vacuum motors to blow pistons carrying pulling string or lightweight cables through electrical conduit.

“Reacher fishing tools include fish sticks, poles and other similar tools. These are often used for short runs behind walls and above ceilings,” Eichner said.

Dave Mueller, Klein Tools’ senior product manager, said: “The most important innovations in fish tape are the creation of nonconductive fish tape leads and laser-etched measurement markings on the actual fish tape. This process embeds the measurement markings into the tape so they won’t scratch off over time.

“Traditionaly, most electricians have preferred steel fish tapes for their ability to push long distances more easily. More workplaces require nonconductive materials to increase safety and minimize accidents on the job site, so today, more and more electricians are using resin-based fiberglass materials that are nonconductive. Fiberglass fish tapes and eyelet tips offer added protection against shock from energized sources. This is particularly useful to promote safety at job sites where power may not be shut off in the work area.

[SB]“Bendable leader materials such as spiral steel or certain plastics for nonconductivity are added to the ends of heavier duty tapes to facilitate tight turns, while still enabling long feeding distances.

“Case improvements also can make an electrician more efficient. Our 13-inch-diameter fish tape container takes in 15 percent more tape in one revolution than the standard 12-inch case,” Mueller said.

According to Mueller, varying conditions determine the type of tape needed:

• Long runs or heavy pulls require use of stiffer, more durable materials such as steel or fiberglass.

• Heavily contoured, short-distance runs require highly flexible materials such as nylon or spring steel to make all the bends and turns. Flexible leader materials enable stiff fish tape to navigate tight conduit bends.

• Plastic materials are well-suited for humid or wet environments such as regions in the South or coastal areas to eliminate corrosion concerns.

• Wide, flat tips are available for running wire under flat surfaces such as carpets.

“As previously stated,” Mueller said, “energized work sites require use of nonconductive materials to prevent sparking; plastic tips on nonconductive tape materials for total nonconductivity (steel leaders on plastic tapes still can cause shorts when coming in contact with energized locations), and distance markings on the tape determine the amount of wire pulled into the conduit as well as how much fish tape remains in the case.

“Several improvements also have been made to other types of fishing tools. Splinter guard fish rods have a protective coating on the fiberglass to prevent splinters. This protection enables an electrician to remove his or her gloves, providing better dexterity for more controlled and effective fishing.

“Overhead plenums and suspended ceilings are usually dark areas, so datacom techs and electricians want higher visibility fish rods and tips that illuminate the work area. These features make feeding cable more efficient and productive by avoiding obstacles and enabling quick visual location. New fish and glow rods have better light intensity and glow longer than previous models on the market. In addition, a fish rod tip provides an omnidirectional LED light for better visibility and longer tool life,” Mueller said.

Connie Schumann, Ideal Industries’ tools and supplies product manager, said: “The newest improvements to fish tapes include continued improvements to Blued-Steel tapes, laser footage markings, and saw-grip handles.

“The most popular tape is Blued-Steel—it’s the best-selling tape in the electrical market. Blued-Steel tapes contribute to high-performance—they push further, resist kinks, and are rust-­resistant. Blued-Steel is made of the highest grade carbon steel, and tapes come in two widths: ⅛ and ¼ inch, depending on the amount of flexibility needed. The steel is flat, provides the most column strength, and is the best choice to push through tough bends or long runs. The Bluing process extends life of the tape even in the toughest conditions.

“Electricians working in wet environments like stainless steel tapes. Food processing plants, underground conduits that frequently are moist, and coastal areas are the primary markets for stainless steel. Long life, without any rust issues, make these tapes a good choice for specific applications and environments.

“Tapes with S-class fiberglass have superior strength and flexibility without breaking, while providing a nonconductive tape for use around live circuits. Overmolding with high molecular density polyamide is used to protect the fiberglass and provides a slippery surface for easy pushing. Its round diameter provides omnidirectional pushing to sail through multiple direction bends.

“Zoom tape is round and is made of a stainless steel core with a polyamide jacket. Because of its omnidirectional nature (similar to fiberglass), this tape is great for hard-to-navigate conduit with multiple bends. However, the steel core provides more pulling and pushing strength, compared to fiberglass. Unlike fiberglass, this tape is still conductive due to the steel core.

“Tapes with superior pull and rewind characteristics permit users to work quickly. Laser markings in 12-inch increments help electricians know how much tape is in the conduit.

“A large saw-gripped-style handle provides space for even a large gloved hand. Durable cases resist damage from falls. Full-perimeter handle bands help keep out dirt and moisture, prolonging life,” Schumann said.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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