It used to be that laser levels and the cutting-edge technology that powered them were so rare and expensive, only the largest or most profitable contractors could afford them. Now, of course, prices have fallen dramatically (indeed, one manufacturer's rep described some lasers to me as "disposable") and it's hard to find a contractor not using laser levels somewhere on the jobsite. Unless, that is, you're talking to a plumber or an electrician. In these trades, the uses for laser light are less obvious. Nevertheless, where there's a will to work better and faster, there's a way. Here are four quick hits for using lasers to dial-in, speed-up, or ease work for sparkies and pipe-slingers.
Laser Plumb Bob. Cliff Popejoy, a Sacramento, Calif. based electrical contractor, says, "I use a laser plumb bob for ceiling fixture layouts in existing houses: Locate where the fixture goes on the floor and shoot the laser up to mark the spot. This makes it easy to lay out can lights or fixture boxes." For a recent rough-in, Popejoy had a great room with a 20-foot-high ceiling that required a fan/fixture box. He shot a laser spot from the floor, up, which made it easy to locate the box. "It was a one-man operation," he says, "whereas if I'd been using a conventional plumb bob, I'd have needed a spotter on the ground."
Rotary Lasers. It might seem like overkill to use a horizontal line laser to establish the height of electrical boxes, but New Milford, Conn. based electrician Mike Fairclough sometimes pulls out a rotary laser for just that purpose. "Particularly in kitchens and baths, I always assume that the walls will be tiled," he says. "Too many times I've had the contractor say 'no tile' at rough-in, only to find tiled walls when I come back to switch and plug. Even a small difference in box height can look lousy in a tiled wall. If I use a rotary laser to set the boxes, I know there won't be a problem."
Other electricians, and plumbers, are using rotary lasers to lay out for drilling through studs or joists. Rotary lasers work best for this task because, unlike line lasers, a rotary laser "wraps" around one face of the framing member, eliminating much of the guesswork in deciding where to drill. While this may seem a bit much–really, how neat does the stuff that'll get buried behind the drywall have to be–lasers don't take much more time to set up than snapping a chalkline.
For plumbers, having holes that line up exactly makes running rigid pipe much easier. And even if you're pulling flexible pipe, such as PEX tubing, the reduced friction offered by perfectly aligned holes is welcome. Electricians benefit in the same way, particularly if you're using stiff combo cable, where Cat 5, cable, and high voltage lines are all bundled together.
Angle Finders. Plumbers of course, don't want to run most pipes level. Pitch is required, otherwise what you want to run downhill won't. Lasers can be used in several ways to establish the typical 1/4 inch of pitch per foot. Set up a level–any horizontal line or rotary laser provides a benchmark that you can measure from–to use as a control point for figuring out required pitch. However, you'll have to do the math to figure what the distance between the pipe and the laser line is at say 10 feet, 20 feet, and so on. Or if you're working inside, you could do the same thing measuring from the joists above.
An alternative might be the Keson LL650LV4 Angle Line Laser. Essentially, it's a laser on a protractor. Set the angle of pitch you want, turn on the laser, and you have a consistent distance between the laser and the pipe's location at any point along the way.
Another alternative is to shim one end of a laser stick level. For example, if you have a 2-foot laser level, shimming one end up 1/2 inch provides a pitch of 1/4 inch.
–Andy Engel is a custom builder, remodeler, and writer in Roxbury, Conn.