By Rob Zschoche
The two new lasers I tested for this article — Hilti's PMC 36 and Agatec's CPL 50 — combine features not usually found together on one tool. Line lasers that shoot plumb and level beams are quite common, and so are point-to-point lasers that can be used in place of a plumb bob. But these two models are the first I've seen that can perform both sets of functions.
My crew and I used the lasers on numerous remodeling jobs, for tasks like leveling and plumbing framing and laying out tile, cabinets, light fixtures, and electrical receptacles. Hilti makes several accessories for the PMC 36, including a magnetic bracket (left) and a telescoping pole (right). Wedged between the floor and ceiling, the pole can be used to support the laser.
Hilti PMC 36
Hilti's tool is a cross-line laser and a five-beam point-to-point laser rolled into one. There are two buttons on the tool — one to lock and unlock the pendulum and another to set the mode. If you press the mode button once, the tool projects a plumb line and the laser points up and down. Press it a second time and the laser projects a horizontal line and laser points to either side. A third press of the button activates all the functions at once — plumb and level lines, and laser points up, down, left, right, and at the intersection of the plumb and level beams.
The beams that produce the laser points are 90 degrees apart, so you can carry them down to the floor and use them to lay out square. The horizontal line fans out at less than 180 degrees, but you can carry it out to 180 degrees by connecting through to the points that project from the side of the laser.
The PMC 36 is self-leveling as long as it's positioned within 3.5 degrees of level. If the tool can't come to level, the beams flash on and off. At least, that's what usually happens, but occasionally I was able to lean the laser far out of level and the beams didn't blink.
There are times when you need to project a line that isn't plumb or level — if you're installing trim or tile at an angle, for example. As with many lasers, you can do this with the Hilti by locking the pendulum and tilting the unit. Unfortunately, the beam flashes to remind you that it's out of level even when you set it that way on purpose. It would be less distracting if, when the pendulum was locked, the beams stayed on and an indicator lamp provided the out-of-level warning.
Like most Hilti tools, the PMC 36 feels very well-made. Everything on it — including the mode and pendulum lock buttons — operates smoothly. The housing pivots within a metal foot that can be placed on the ground, attached to a tripod, or connected to various optional mounting brackets.
Accessories. Our tool came with a magnetic bracket, a pipe adapter, and a telescopic brace. The magnetic bracket is strong enough to hold the laser to metal surfaces like I-beams and corner bead. The pipe adapter clips into the shoe and can be used to strap the laser to a pipe or to the telescoping brace. The brace — which extends to more than 11 feet — can be wedged between the floor and ceiling.
The PMC 36 has a padded fabric case. A hard case would provide better protection — and I also wish it were larger so there was room to store more accessories. The basic kit also includes a pair of red "safety glasses" and two plastic target plates that enhance the visibility of the laser beam. We tried them outside and they worked pretty well, allowing us to detect the beam in bright sunlight while measuring the elevation of an existing slab. A laser detector (PMA 30) is available for use with the tool, but we didn't request one because most of our work is indoors where laser beams are easily seen.
Hilti PMC 36
Power: Four AA batteries
Range: Up to 100 feet
Accuracy: +/- 1/8 inch at 30 feet
Self-leveling: +/â-3.5 degrees
Includes: Laser, soft pouch, laser visibility glasses, and two target plates
Made in: Germany
Agatec CPL 50
Power: Three AA batteries
Range: Up to 100 feet
Accuracy: +/- 1/8 inch at 30 feet
Self-leveling: +/- 5 degrees
Price: $279 ($399 with detector)
Includes: Laser, soft pouch, universal mounting base
Made in: China
Agatec Construction Lasers
Agatec CPL 50
The CPL 50 combines the functions of a cross-line laser and a three-beam point-to-point laser. It projects plumb and level lines and laser points up and down. The third point is formed by the intersection of the plumb and level lines. Unlike the Hilti, the CPL 50 doesn't project points to the sides, so it can't be used to do square floor layout.
This tool has three controls: a sliding switch on the side and two push buttons on top. The sliding switch turns the laser on and off and locks and unlocks the pendulum. The push buttons control the mode of operation (line options) and activate the pulse function needed for use with a detector.
The on/off switch has three positions: off with the pendulum locked, on with the pendulum locked, and on with the pendulum unlocked. (In most cases you'll use the tool with the pendulum unlocked so that the laser can level itself.) I don't care for the switch. It's so tight you could inadvertently change the tool's position while trying to turn it on — and in my experience, slide switches wear out quickly.
Changing modes is a matter of pushing the line options button — once for a level line, twice for a plumb line, and three times for plumb and level at the same time. The plumb dots that project from the top and bottom of the laser are on whenever any of the beams are on.
The Agatec laser is self-leveling as long as it's positioned within 5 degrees of level. LEDs on the housing indicate whether the beams have come to level. When the pendulum is unlocked and the unit comes to level, the green LED shines steadily. If the pendulum can't come to level, the red LED flashes.
If you turn the unit on without unlocking the pendulum, the beams will project steadily and the green LED will flash to remind you that the beams are probably not level. This is an improvement over the Hilti, whose beams flash when the unit is not level — even with the pendulum locked.
According to Agatec, the beams fan out 130 degrees horizontally and 160 degrees vertically. That's less coverage than you'll get from some other line lasers, but it's plenty for most remodeling work.
Optional detector. The kit we tested came with an LS30 laser detector, which can detect a beam that can't be seen in the bright sunlight. To use the detector, the laser must be placed in "pulse" mode. The detector beeps when it gets to within about 2 inches of the laser beam. Arrows on the detector's screen guide the user to exact alignment.
The precision is good — it seems to have a go/no-go variation of about 1/8 inch. Built-in bubbles on the side and top of the detector help to orient the tool approximately plumb and level. You can use a button to disable the beeping sound when the detector is close to the beam.
Bracket. Both the laser and the detector are wrapped in a rubberized coating. Threads in the bottom of the laser (1/4 x 20) allow you to attach it to a camera tripod or to the universal mounting bracket that comes with the tool. The bracket spaces the laser off the floor so you can see the point from the down beam. It's tapped to fit on a surveyor's tripod and has a magnet for attaching the tool to steel studs and other metal surfaces. The bracket looks kind of chintzy, but it proved sturdy enough to do the job. The thumbscrew that holds it to the laser, however, is too small to tighten easily.
The tool comes in a minimally padded vinyl pouch. Like the Hilti, the Agatec can project a level beam (top left), a plumb beam (top right), and plumb and level at the same time (bottom left). It also projects points up (bottom right) and down, so it can be used in place of a plumb bob.
I like both of these tools. Each offers its own particular advantages.
On small projects, where I have to move the laser a lot or pull it out for a quick measurement, I prefer the Agatec, because it's smaller than the Hilti and can level itself when placed within 5 degrees of level. This gives it an edge over the Hilti, which needs to be within 3.5 degrees of level. You wouldn't think a degree and a half would matter, but it does: I often found myself having to shim the Hilti laser to get it to come to level.
But for large projects, where there's room to leave the laser on a tripod, I found myself favoring the Hilti, because its side points increase the spread of the horizontal beam and allow you to lay out square.
The ultimate deal-breaker, though, is probably price. If I had to run out and buy a laser today, I'd go for the Agatec: It performs most of the functions of the Hilti for about half the price. In fact, I'd consider buying two CPL 50s so that I could keep one in the truck and leave the other with my crew. My only concern about the laser is how well it would hold up over time. Although it seems well-made, the brand is unfamiliar, and finding people to service it could be a challenge. This would not be a concern with the Hilti.
Robert Zschoche owns Robert Zschoche Remodeling in Chantilly, Va.
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