Accurate layout is one of the most important elements in almost all construction tasks, including forming foundations, framing walls, hanging cabinets, setting tile ... the list goes on. I believe you should first master layout with a tape measure and construction calculator, but once you acquire and understand those traditional skills, there are faster ways to create a perfect layout. These days, laser levels make the tasks of finding level, plumb, square, and point-to-point alignment as simple as pressing a button.
There are a lot of laser level units on the market now that shoot plumb, level, and square lines and dots. But the square function typically only works on level surfaces. To shoot square with most laser units in an exterior setting, you need to use a receiver. That requires moving the unit in small increments until the laser beam hits the detector dead center, which can be time consuming—in fact, sometimes pulling tapes is faster. However, the auto-alignment feature on the Stabila LA180L is the easiest option we’ve found yet for doing layout.
Key Features and Functionality
This goofy-looking laser shoots three plumb lines and one level line. Two of the plumb lines fan vertically 180 degrees from each other, and the third plumb line is perpendicular to them. There is also a plumb dot that shoots down and up, which helps align the laser when you’re shooting square. Each of the lines pulse, so they can be used with any detector up to 328 feet away. But the LA180L also comes with a special REC410 Line RF (radio frequency) receiver—and this is where this product gets interesting.
As with other layout lasers, you can adjust the unit until the receiver beeps, showing that you’re aligned. The adjustable knob on the laser makes micro-adjustments easy. The standout feature with the RF receiver, though, is that when you press the receiver’s cross-hairs button, the beam starts moving until it finds the receiver. This works very well—we checked it against a PLS, tape measures, and math, and found it to be perfectly accurate.
The range on the radio frequency is 150 feet. Beyond 150 feet, the receiver will still pick up the beams’ pulse mode as long as you manually adjust the laser between 150 and 328 feet. I can manually adjust this laser faster than the auto-alignment function can because I’m typically dealing with distances less than 60 feet on my jobsites. However, because the alignment feature is automatic, I can start the alignment process with the receiver, then go snap some other lines, roll out tools, and double-check numbers on the blueprints while the unit does its work. And with this unit, I don’t need anyone’s help setting up or establishing layout.
Once it’s aligned, I can also use the up/down arrows on the receiver to move the laser. This is helpful when we are compensating for out-of-square conditions and want to quickly know how much an adjustment of one leg will affect the other. Here’s an example: Sometimes, we have to adjust one side of the mudsill so that it will hang over the foundation wall. Ordinarily, we’d then have to re-square to find out how much this affects the other leg. At that point, we might find the other leg is too far out. But with this laser, I can check quickly without all the tapes, and so on; all I have to do is walk over and check each leg with the detector. There is no re-squaring, because the unit is always square and it instantly adjusts.
This laser also makes it easy to establish layout in basements with stepped walls. In addition, if we are framing partition walls, we don’t need to snap lines; we can position the laser and instantly have layout on the ceiling that directly matches the floor—without getting on a ladder.
As the general contractor, we always site in the footprint of the house after the lot is cleared so the excavator can dig the hole. This means we need two guys running three 300-foot-long tapes and one guy reading plans, calling numbers, and calculating square (and usually a boss, too, who makes the final decisions). Once we stake out the corners of the house, we nearly always make adjustments to how it is sited in, which means more measuring and running with tapes. With this laser, though, we can instantly get our largest square without running all three legs of a triangle. This means a process that is faster and less open to errors, with less aggravation. Because the laser will shoot level too, we can get rough ideas for elevation differences.
There are a couple of things about this laser that I found a little clunky. One is that while the shape of the laser makes it easier to fit into corners, it also makes the unit a bit cumbersome and awkward to place in some scenarios. It works best on a level surface plenty large enough for the base and is sometimes precarious on the edge of a stem wall foundation. Stabila does make brackets ($150 each) for that application, but they add expense. The second quibble is that because of the shape of the unit, it’s awkward to handle when you’re replacing batteries (it takes D Alkaline; a rechargeable battery kit is sold separately for $100). It’s easy to change them, but doing so puts the unit off balance, so you have to set it down gently.
Stabila has designed this unit for “long range layout,” and the accuracy is excellent. Like most laser levels, it self-levels if it is within 5 degrees. Level accuracy is stated at 3/32 inch at 100 feet; line straightness at 1/8 inch at 100 feet (meaning there is little to no warping in the line); and plumb accuracy at 3/32 inch at 100 feet.
The Bottom Line
This kit sells on Amazon for $1,500 (not including the foundation bracket or the rechargeable battery kit). If all I did was framing, I wouldn’t bother, because I can lay out mudsills and partition walls quickly enough with other, less expensive units. But as a general contractor involved with the site layout, foundation forming, and all the framing, including multilevel decks, I can easily justify the purchase. For any company that does a lot of layout, I would recommend buying this laser.
Photos by Tim Uhler