Electronic Level Helps Contractor Keep Installations Straight

Laser level keeps Pennsylvania plumber headed straight for professional-looking installs, as well as amped-up productivity.

Electronic Level Helps Contractor Keep Installations Straight

Mark Kidd, owner of the Kidd Plumbing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, uses a Spectra Precision 5.2XL laser level during the installation of plumbing fixtures.

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As the sole proprietor of Kidd Plumbing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Mark Kidd is used to working alone. Nonetheless, he always has an extra set of hands around to help when he’s hanging pipes and related tasks, courtesy of a Spectra Precision/Trimble 5.2XL five-point cross-line laser.

Kidd bought the automatic self-leveling, multipurpose unit about three years ago, and over time, it’s been an invaluable investment — almost like having an employee (but minus the salary and benefits). “It really speeds things up, and like they say, time is money,” says Kidd, 61, a master plumber who’s been in the trade ever since he graduated from high school in 1973.

Primarily doing residential service and repair work, supplemented by new construction and remodeling work, Kidd works in about a 35-mile radius around Allentown, about 65 miles north of Philadelphia. He drives a 2001 Chevrolet Express van with a utility body made by Supreme and carries about $5,000-worth of repair-parts inventory.

Kidd used to do mostly residential and commercial installations and, as such, was no stranger to laser levels. Along with the Precision 5.2XL (now known as the LT52), he also owns three other units: a DeWalt ILMXT (for horizontal and vertical leveling), a Bosch GLL3, and a Spectra Precision LT58 (which can project accurate 90-degree angles). But the Spectra Precision 5.2XL remains a go-to tool, he says.

For those who aren’t familiar with how laser levels can improve productivity, Kidd offers an example of installing clevis hangers in a ceiling in a 30-by-30-foot room, 8 feet from a wall. Without a laser level, he’d have to measure 8 feet from the wall, make a mark on the floor, get on a ladder, drop a plumb bob over the floor mark, put a mark on the ceiling, and then install a hanger. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat at whatever (interval) spread the local building code requires for hangers, he says.

The laser level simplifies this task significantly. All Kidd has to do is make a mark on the floor 8 feet from the wall, one at each end of the room. Then he puts the unit on the floor under the spot where the first hanger needs to go, turns on the unit and makes sure the red horizontal laser beam lines up with the two dots. Then he turns on a vertical laser beam; where it hits the ceiling marks the spot for the hanger. Then he keeps moving the unit down the line at the required hanger spreads until they’re all installed.

“It really speeds things up because you don’t have to stop and keep measuring off the wall,” he notes. “Even if it saves five minutes per hanger, it adds up in a hurry. And the pipe is as straight (relative to the wall) as can be.”

In another mode, the unit also can ensure that the same pipe hangs level. Using the two initial floor marks as described above, Kidd mounts the laser unit on a tripod about halfway between them. Then he turns on a 360-degree function that emits a laser beam along the floor (where it should connect the two marks), the walls, and along the ceiling. The ceiling line can be adjusted to whatever distance below it the pipe needs to hang — think of it as a high-tech chalk line, hovering in midair.

After that, Kidd raises or lowers the adjustable clevis hangers as needed so they touch the laser beam. “It makes the job so easy because you don’t have to constantly stop to measure off the floor or the ceiling, either of which might not be level in the first place,” he says. “It saves so much time. And I can make every hanger perfect, and the pipe will be dead level all the way across.”

The Spectra Precision LT52 (the newest version of a Spectra Precision 5.2XL) retails for a little more than $300. It features automatic self-leveling (the beam flashes if it gets knocked out of level); is water-, mud- and shock-resistant; can withstand a drop of 3 feet onto concrete, thanks to a protective rubber overmolding; offers a working range of 100 feet; runs on four AA batteries; weighs 1 1/2 pounds; and measures 5.7 by 3 by 5.9 inches. It comes with a three-year warranty.

As for the value, Kidd says he rarely uses a conventional level anymore because the laser levels are so much more accurate. “When you’re visually trying to get the bubble between the two lines on a standard level, you might be just a little off,” he points out. “But over 10 or 15 feet or more, that little difference gets much bigger.”

In addition, Kidd says there’s added benefits from doing work that looks neat, level and ultraprofessional. Years ago, most building inspectors were plumbers, with considerable knowledge compiled through years of experience. “Now they’re mostly third-party inspectors who don’t necessarily understand plumbing like a plumber does,” he explains. “So if they come in and a job doesn’t look neat and professional, they might start to question things — even if everything is up to code.

“But if a job looks nice and neat, they figure they’re dealing with a guy who’s proud of his work and knows what he’s doing,” he concludes. 


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