As a remodeler, not a day goes by that I don't have to do some kind of plumb or level layout. Usually this work takes place indoors, but sometimes — such as when I'm framing or trimming an addition — it happens outdoors. So when I tested the PLS180 a few months ago, I was able to give it a real workout.
This small line laser — which projects visible plumb and level beams — is unique in that its horizontal beam fans out at more than 180 degrees. Although the vertical beam has a slightly narrower fan angle, it can still project a plumb beam up the wall and across the ceiling to a point behind the laser. If you put the PLS180 in the center of a room, the level beam will go more than halfway around the space.
PLS180 Specs Street price: $400 (complete kit); $300 (without detector and grade rod clamp)
Size of laser: 2 inches by 2 7/8 inches by 3 3/8 inches Rated accuracy: +/- 1/8 inches at 30 feet
Power: three AA batteries
Range: depends on lighting; up to 100 feet with detector
Kit contains laser, plastic case, detector, grade-rod clamp, magnetic bracket, batteries, and belt pouch.
Pacific Laser Systems
On the back of the laser are two buttons: One turns the unit on and off and changes modes, and the other activates the pulsing function that makes the laser visible to the detector. As long as the PLS180 is placed within 6 degrees of level, it will level itself; if it can't, the beams shut off. It has three modes of self-leveled operation: level line, plumb line, and cross hairs. There's also a fixed cross-hairs mode in which a pair of perpendicular lines can be projected onto any surface regardless of whether the unit is level. In this mode the tool can be used like a giant framing square.
An indicator light turns green when the laser is level, red when it's in fixed mode or can't level, and yellow when the batteries are low. The light blinks when pulse mode is on.
According to its maker, the PLS180 is accurate within +/- 1/8 inch over 30 feet. I checked it against an expensive rotary laser with an accuracy of +/- 1/16 inch in 100 feet: In a 20-foot-wide room, it barely deviated from the rotary tool. At greater distances, though, the accuracy fell off, and the beam became harder to see as it fanned out. At 12 feet, it produced a sharp 1/16-inch-wide beam; at 30 feet, a 1/4-inch-wide beam. At 125 feet the beam was 1 inch wide, and visible only in fairly dark conditions. My rotary laser's beam is still only 1/4 inch wide at that distance.
There are ways to compensate. You can make your mark at the center of the wide beam or use the detector, which automatically locates the center. But neither method is very convenient — especially if you want to use the beam in place of a snapped line, as I do when framing walls in an existing space: I nail the bottom plate to a line projected on the floor and the top plate to a line on the joists or rafters above.
Like other lasers of its kind, the PLS180 relies on gimbals for leveling. If something shakes it — the wind blows or the floor vibrates when someone walks by — the gimbals swing and the beam jumps around. Although this is not very noticeable over short distances, it is over longer ones. While framing on one job I tried to project a line 30 feet across a room — but with carpenters nailing nearby and a compressor shaking the floor, the beam moved too much for me to use it. Of course, this problem applies to every self-leveling laser that relies on gimbals; the only way around it is to spend several thousand dollars on a rotary laser with servo motors that compensate for vibration.
The PLS180 (left) can project level lines, plumb lines, or plumb and level lines at the same time. The detector — shown at right on a 2x2 grade rod — is used to locate the beam at long distances or in bright sunlight.
The detector allows you to locate the center of the beam when either distance or bright conditions make it hard to see. Using the detector is simple: You set the laser to pulse and turn it on. A beeper indicates if it's getting closer to or farther away from the beam; when it's aligned with the beam it emits a siren-like noise that's loud enough to hear through earplugs. (In fact, it's downright annoying if you aren't wearing hearing protection.) Another option is to mute the beeper and gauge the location of the detector relative to the beam by reading the arrows on an LCD screen.
The detector is rated to work from 100 to 250 feet, whereas the laser is only rated to work to 100 feet with a detector. Curious to see how far the PLS180 could project a beam, I tried using the detector at 150 feet. It found the beam but had a hard time locking onto the center of it, presumably because the line was too faint or spread too wide at that distance. At 100 feet, the laser and the detector worked fine.
The included L-shaped bracket can be connected to the 1/4 x20 socket on the bottom of the laser. The bracket has a pair of magnets for attaching it to ferrous metal and holes for screwing it to other materials. I often use it to attach the laser to metal corner bead (through the joint compound) and to steel door hinges. On a recent job I attached the bracket to a piece of metal screwed to one of the rafters. This allowed me to install collar ties quickly, and make them level enough for a drywall ceiling.
Magnets in the L-bracket hold this laser to the metal corner bead. Because the horizontal beam spreads beyond 180 degrees, the author is able to lay out shelf cleats without moving the tool.
While I like the bracket, it could be better. The rubber surrounding the magnets keeps them from scratching metal but leaves marks on textured drywall surfaces. I'd rather have more ways to mount the laser on the bracket, and I wish the screw in the bracket could be easily reversed so the arm containing the magnets could be flipped up or down. Also, additional threaded inserts in the housing — say, on the top and side — would allow for greater flexibility in positioning the device.
The PLS180 kit — laser, detector, grade-rod clamp, magnetic bracket, belt pouch — comes in a compact plastic case. It's a tight squeeze, but everything fits. The magnetic bracket stores in the pouch with the laser, which can be inconvenient when you want only the laser. I'd prefer for the bracket to be stored separately in the case.
The Bottom Line
The wide spread of the beams allows the PLS180 to project a "longer" line than is normally possible with a line laser. That makes it a very useful tool. It's best for use over short distances; at 30 feet or less the accuracy is high and the beam is still tightly focused. Its small size is another plus: You can carry it on your belt, where it's always available for the kinds of leveling tasks carpenters do regularly.
Chris Kennel works for City Side Remodeling in Denver.