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03/05/2019

Laser Levels 101

By ecaywood

Lino L2 laser level

To help you navigate this landscape, I've summarized some key information about laser levels to help you ask the right questions when you are doing your research. I'm using Leica Linos as a reference (as I know them best), but this information applies to laser levels in general.

Typical Laser Level Configurations and Uses:
  • Point lasers emit 2, 3, or 5 perpendicular laser points.

    Primary Use: Transfer points from floors to ceilings for laying out 90-degree walls (3,4,5 method), or for transferring height or location from wall-to-wall or floor-to-ceiling in order to run pipe or conduit.

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P5
  • Line lasers project horizontal or vertical level lines in a “fan angle” that ranges from +/- 60 degrees to more than 180 degrees.

    Primary Use: Line lasers are used to mark level lines to align objects in space (window sills in a room, upper kitchen cabinets, chair rail, electrical switch boxes, etc.).

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L2
  • Combo lasers are exactly what you expect, a combination of lines and points.

    Primary Use: Both layout and transfers. The best of both: Send the crew out with a combo laser and they’ll have all the tools they need. Our combo lasers are denoted by the number of lines and points the tool projects (e.g. L2P5 – 2 Lines and 5 Points).

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L2P5G
  • 180° line lasers are similar in concept to line lasers but have wider fan angles (often >180°). These lasers often have larger "windows" to emit the laser light, making the housings slightly larger than compact line lasers.

    Primary Use: Great for flooring installations or layouts in larger spaces. These are particularly well suited to installing things like commercial drywall. By setting the laser in the corner of a room, the large fan angle allows the laser to project a level horizontal or vertical line around the entire room, and the feet are designed to straddle track.

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L4P1
  • Multi-line lasers SImilar to 180° lasers, except multi-liners project more than one level plane at a time. The downside is their cost and larger size.  Like the combo lasers, multi-line lasers are specified by the number of horizontal and vertical planes as well as projected points. The planes of a multi-line laser will intersect forming a "point" on a surface, so most multi-line lasers have only 1 true "point," the laser plumb down on the ground.

    Primary Use: Large areas where both layouts and transfers are needed and/or when multiple crews are at work on the same job. Better multi-line lasers come with a receiver and remote control. The ML180 (pictured) features the XCR catch, which is both a receiver and remote control in one unit.

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ML180
  • Rotating lasers While a line laser can also work outdoors up to ~100' range with a laser detector, they are primarily designed for interior use. If you are working mostly outdoors, then a rotating laser is probably the better choice.

    These require a detector, as the laser line is generated by a single laser point rotating at high RPM and cannot be seen by the naked eye in most conditions. Even if you do catch a glint of it, there is no steady line to measure from.

    Primary Use: Grade leveling outdoors, or indoor leveling in huge spaces like warehouses where even a multi-line laser does not have enough range.

    (We do not currently sell rotating lasers direct online.)

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Leica Rugby Rotating Laser
Self-leveling

Self-leveling laser levels use a pendulum to make sure the lines and/or points are level even if the tool itself is not (the pendulum in Linos can compensate for up to ~4 degrees out of level).

If the level is bumped, it will automatically re-level as long as it remains in the working range of the leveling mechanism. If the level is bumped out of its working range, most (including Linos) laser will start to blink to notify you of a problem and some simply switch off.

Maintaining level is not a concern with self-leveling laser tools. The thing to watch out for is to make sure the laser line stays on your reference height. If someone bumps the tool or the stud it is attached to enough to move the tool, you could end up working at a different height even though the tool is still level -- and it won't blink to let you know because it has no way of knowing what your reference height is, so Its always good practice to check your reference a few times throughout the day.

A word to the wise: You may come across a low-priced manual laser level. These are different from a self-leveling laser, in that a manual laser level requires you to level the laser by hand (and keep checking it during the day to make sure it stays level) by using some type of bubble level and adjustment screws on the laser base. Manual leveling lasers are time-consuming and can cause big problems if someone accidentally bumps the laser out of level and manual laser level beam will not blink or shut down when that happens.

See the Leica Lino L2G+ self-leveling function above

Pendulum lock

Think of a miniature pendulum supported on high-precision ball bearings. The laser emitter is attached to the pendulum, which always seeks to hang straight down because of gravity. Bump the laser and the pendulum will swing and quickly settle down back to level (and so will your laser line).

But there are times when you might need a sloped line (example, locating handrail bracket install points on a stairway). A pendulum lock allows you to lock the pendulum to stop it from swinging. Once the pendulum is locked, you can simply tilt the laser and the projected line will tilt as well.

You will also want to engage the pendulum lock to protect the mechanism when it is not being used, in case the device is accidentally f=dropped or banged around in transit. 

Power to work throughout the day

Most self-leveling lasers use alkaline batteries or some type of rechargeable battery system. The newer green lasers on the market have brighter beams than red lasers but can also use more battery power than a red laser (some green lasers have a run time as short as a couple of hours). 

There are more environmentally friendly rechargeable options available, both built-in and external. If you have built-in batteries, make sure you can “run-charge” them, meaning charge the batteries while you use the tool.

A great setup is a rechargeable option with an alkaline battery back up. Leica does this with our Triple Power concept. Rechargeable AA batteries are another option. 

Housing and tool construction

Will a big rubber bumper around the tool protect it from a drop? Maybe, maybe not. A poorly designed tool can’t be saved by a ¼” thick piece of rubber no matter how cool or tough the bumper looks. The durability of the laser tool is engineered from the inside out. We all know that cheap tools are cheap for a reason, so it is better to have a solid tool with a pendulum lock and treat it like a precision measuring tool. It doesn’t need to be treated like a work of art, just don’t abuse it. And don’t forget to check the leveling accuracy occasionally—it never hurts.

Range and accuracy

A major driver of line leveling accuracy is the pendulum setting (that's why you want to protect the pendulum from hard shocks with a lock). The accuracy is expressed as leveling error over a given range, like 1/16” at 15’. Double the range to 30’ and the error doubles to 1/8”. At 8' you should have half the error—but sometimes the laser line is wider than the accuracy specification. Many laser levels claim 1/16” accuracy at 15’.

The problem is that a cheap laser level 15' from the target will project a laser line that's ¼” wide—good luck with that! It is important to have a bright, clear, focused line. You’ll know a good laser when you see it switched on.

Green vs. Red laser 

A true green laser diode costs more than a red one, but if you use a laser level for hours at a time you will appreciate the difference. The state-of-the-art direct emitting green diode technology produces a bright, green line with less “beam speckle” than red lasers. The result is a clean, sharp laser line across your work surface. The green wavelength is 3 to 4 times more visible to your eye than a red laser. This means you can normally see the green laser from a farther distance than a red laser. Longer visible distance means fewer setups and fewer setups means less time needed to finish the job.

Fan angle

One way to visualize this is to think of yourself standing with your arms outstretched from your sides. From your right arm to your left arm is 180° fan angle. Stand against a wall and everything from your right arm to your left arm is in the laser plane. 

Place a laser with 180° fan angle and enough range in a corner and you have a level plane in the entire room. That's one setup for the whole job, which saves time and money.

Beam quality

Look closely at the beam against a wall from a distance of 15 feet or so. Look for sharp, bright lines. Lower quality laser tools will have fuzzy and intermittently dim lines, “ghost” or parallel lines, or dead spots in the lines. Seeing is believing, and once you see a good line next to a poor one, you can really appreciate the difference between a quality laser emitter and a cheap one.

IP54 or IP65 rating

IP stands for "Ingress Protection," or resistance to dust and moisture. The first number references dust protection, and the second references moisture protection. There are IP40 disposable laser levels (little dust protection, no moisture protection), but if you care about your tools and your work, don’t buy anything below IP54 – dust and moisture resistant. An IP54 tool can get dusty or damp.

For tough jobs or unpredictable work sites, go for IP65, Mil-Spec or higher. Drop it in the mud and wash it off with a hose. Many IP65 products are also rated for 3-6’ drop resistance as well.

Regardless of tool and IP rating, a word of advice: NEVER, NEVER put a wet tool in a closed case.

Here's a video of an IP65 Leica Total Station torture test - this thing costs $45,000!

After the purchase 

I recently talked with a counter guy in Vegas and asked him how he trained people to use a laser level. He cocked his head to one side, looked at me with a puzzled face and said, “Open the box, put the batteries in and turn it on. What’s to train?”

You probably won’t need a 24-hour call center to help you use your laser level...but you might need a warranty. Buy a quality product from a reputable manufacturer that actually has a physical presence in the USA and a simple "exchange" warranty. If the tool doesn’t meet the manufacturer's specs during the warranty period, you get a new tool. The warranty on these tools is usually between one and three years. Don’t expect a laser with a crushed housing to be exchanged free of charge. Warranties cover normal wear and tear and manufacturing defects.

Quality matters. 

I can't resist one plug for our own tools: Leica Geosystems is a manufacturer of measurement tools. We have made professional surveyor's equipment for over 100 years and have been at the forefront of applying laser technology to measurement challenges. Sure, you can buy a decent laser level from a power tool brand, but when accuracy is key, it is good to know that your laser level was designed by a company that specializes in precision.

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