The laser—light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation—has been ranked by some, along with the transistor and computer, among the most important inventions of the 20th century.
Narrow laser light beams are used for surgery and skin treatments, printers, military and law enforcement targeting, cutting through steel and surveying. Importantly, for interior construction by electricians and other trades, lasers help align and plumb walls, level floors, install drop ceilings, align cabinets and fixtures, and much more.
Kenan McCutcheon, associate product manager at the Empire Level division of Milwaukee Tool, Brookfield, Wis., said the use of lasers in the electrical trade is growing very quickly.
“As the total cost of lasers comes down and the functionality goes up, users are turning to laser layout solutions more and more often,” he said. “The amount of time lasers save when installing conduit, electrical boxes and other material is well worth the up-front cost.”
The two most common lasers in the electrical field are for point transfer and overhead material alignment, McCutcheon said. For example, when setting anchors or installing can lights, all layout applications are generally completed on the floor rather than on a lift or ladder. Once a point is positioned on the floor, it needs to be transferred to the ceiling. Point lasers are perfect for taking these marks on the floor and accurately transferring them to the ceiling. For overhead alignment applications, such as running pipe overhead or up the wall, line lasers are commonly used to keep everything aligned and installed accurately.
McCutcheon said lasers can help reduce manual processes and minimize the chance for human error, enabling more efficient and accurate work. Electricians can use lasers to install long lengths of material without having to take continuous measurements.
“Over the past few years, there has been a significant shift in the market from red lasers to green lasers, driven by the fact that green lasers are up to four times more visible than red lasers, making it easier to take measurements and work in brighter environments,” he said.
Green lasers, however, use up to six times the power of red lasers, which drains the batteries and drastically reduces runtime.
There also is a shift to instruments with rechargeable batteries.
Milwaukee offers five laser systems. Two lasers are powered by an M12 battery system: a green, 360 three-point-plane laser and a green cross-line and plumb-point laser. Three lasers are powered by Milwaukee’s Redlithium USB rechargeable batteries: a green cross-line and plumb-point laser, a green cross-line laser and a green three-point laser.
Ricardo Pedroso, product manager at Bosch, Farmington Hills, Mich., said a major step in the evolution of laser tools was shifting from sonar-based technology to measuring the distance of light with the use of filtering lenses.
“This can achieve an exact measurement to 1/32-inch for some tools,” he said. “Another advancement is that today there are laser range finders that are usable outside in natural light. New tools over the last few years with adjustments to the lenses make this possible, and the use of cameras in the tools to see the laser dot at extended ranges make outdoor use even more possible.”
Pedroso expects to see other laser categories also shift to green. Because lasers require a lot of power, laser tools are shifting from AAA to AA and lithium-ion batteries for extended run time.
“Laser range finders are not going to replace tape measures, but lasers save time in longer-distance-measuring applications. For an example, a long run can be measured by a laser with the press of a button. Another example where a laser is better is when measuring high ceilings, which would require additional equipment such as ladders, fall protection and likely an extra person to steady the ladder,” Pedroso said.
“Also, there are laser-range finders with built-in functions for different applications, such as area, volume and more, and the tool is able to run these calculations in real time. Several apps are available, many free, that allow measurements to be stored for creating blueprints and documenting measurements. Bosch also offers a free app, MeasureOn, which connects with Procore to enter drawings or information directly into blueprints,” he said.
Bosch offers a wide selection of laser range finders for all users and applications, from simple one-button operation tools to outdoor tools with cameras, several measuring functions, Bluetooth connectivity and extended measuring ranges.
Kayleigh Bumbarger, product manager at Hilti, Plano, Texas, said laser measuring tools today are equipped with features that allow finer tuning of location adjustments, bright green laser beams and tolerances as accurate as plus or minus 0.06 inches at 33 feet.
Electricians frequently use lasers to hang and install cable trays and conduit runs, and do fixture alignments and penetration layouts.
“We have continued to see a growing number of electrical contractors purchase lasers, and these numbers are continuing to grow,” she said. “Time is money and labor is money. We have seen customers work up to five times faster on a project when using a total station and up to twice as fast using line and rotating lasers. Time also can be saved with an easier set up of a laser and greater savings on labor costs achieved by going from a two-person to one-person job.”
Hilti laser tools range from basic distance lasers to line lasers, rotating lasers and total stations.
The Hilti Connect app can connect tools with NFC/Bluetooth View and allow user to view tool information and repair history.
Sean Silvey is a product specialist at Pacific Laser Systems (PLS), a Fluke company, Everett, Wash. He identifies several features and capabilities he believes set today’s laser instruments apart from previous models.
“Today’s products measure longer distances with better accuracy; have improved beam quality with bright, thin and crisp lines. Green lasers have better visibility; better self-leveling; are drop-tested; and have better battery life,” he said.
“A laser measuring tool allows for quick measurements, and only requires one person to do the work, where traditionally at least two people would need to be working together to take these measurements.
“Laser distance meters quickly take any needed measurements. Easily measure hard-to-access areas, such as high ceilings, without climbing a ladder.
“Laser levels make it easy to line up raceways and conduit in electrical and datacom applications. Generally, they can save half the time or more,” Silvey said.
Fluke offers two varieties of laser distance meters based on distance needed: one instantly measures distances up to 260 feet and the other up to 330 feet.
PLS offers three general laser categories:
1. Point—Bright, reliable point of reference with two models offering a choice of red or green laser
2. Level—Continuous straight-line horizontal leveling, cross lines and vertical alignment. There are a variety of self-leveling lasers offered within this category, with a choice of red or green laser
3. Rotary—Rotating lasers with advanced features and a choice of red or green lasers.
Tony Topf, senior product manager for construction solutions at DeWalt, Baltimore, said laser levels, spot lasers and distance measurers enable electricians to estimate the size of a room, install lighting fixtures and install overhead service points with more accuracy in less time.
“Electrical contractors will use line lasers for laying out vertically and horizontally, plumb horizontal cable trays; laser levels for consistent layout of electrical switches and outlets; and plumb spots used for all kinds of overhead electrical work. Laser distance measurers are used to take accurate distances within the room,” he said.
“In addition to the advancements of the DeWalt 20V Max lasers, we have made several improvements with laser distance measurers. Today’s products are more advanced in technology, capability of range, accuracy and most importantly, ease of use,” Topf said. “Laser distance measurers provide a variety of users the ability to quickly, efficiently and accurately take measurements that would otherwise be done with a tape measure.”
Topf said there are four main areas to consider when choosing lasers: distance, location, application and run time needs.
For short distances, red lasers may be a less expensive option. At distances over 25 feet, green lasers provide better visibility. Outdoors, no matter the distance, green lines are much easier to see. Regarding applications, laser plumb and level spots are much easier to see at a distance than lines.
Battery options should match anticipated run times to limit battery changes.
DeWalt currently offers more than 60 different types of laser levels. They are grouped into three categories: alkaline battery-powered units, 12V Max powered lasers and the latest 20V Max line.
Roland Grimm, Spectra Precision product manager at Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif., said while the basics of laser measurement tools are mostly unchanged in terms of distance and accuracy, compactness and robustness have been greatly improved, and integration into digital formats with apps have also been incorporated to capture the measurements.
“Use of laser measurement equipment likely is growing the electrical market because product costs for professional tools have been decreasing, making them affordable for more tradesmen,” he said.
The time laser measurement saves on a job depends on the applications and number of measurements.
“Laser savings come when one person can perform the measurement versus two. In addition to time savings, lasers reduce tape reading transfer errors and other calculation errors,” Grimm said.
Spectra Precision provides basic, professional point-and-shoot measurements with area, volume and indirect (Pythagoras functions) measurement.