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Buyers' Guide: Total Stations

Over the last decade, most contractors have moved away from conventional layout methods using strings, tape measures, chalk lines and batter boards, and have instead begun using total stations as a way to save time and reduce rework.

Total stations enable contractors to measure angles and distances extremely accurately for laying out new construction and as-builting existing construction using discrete points. Available in both manual and robotic options, they use a solid well-proven technology that originated in distance measurement applications for the military. They have been used in surveying and engineering applications for many years. Now, these same instruments and technologies are being adapted for the construction industry.

Today’s construction-oriented total stations are generally less expensive than the survey-grade instruments. Even better, the new software is geared more toward the specific needs of contractors and is even easier to use.

When it comes to choosing the right total station for your next construction project, what are the most important features you should consider? What is the best model for your application? Which models are the most practical and easiest to use?

Let our experts help you find the right fit. In a nutshell, here’s everything you need to know about total stations:

What Is a Total Station?

A total station is an electronic device used to measure angles and distance. The instrument itself is comprised of an electronic theodolite and an electronic distance meter (EDM) used to read slope distances from the instrument to a defined point.

The most precise total stations, typically for surveying and engineering applications with tight specifications, are capable of measuring angles up to 0.5 arc seconds. Most instruments used in construction, however, generally measure angles between 5 and 10 arc seconds.

Typical total stations can measure distances with an accuracy of about 0.05 inches + 2 parts per million over a distance of more than 10,000 feet.

Total Station Measurement Methods

Prism vs. Reflectorless Measurements

There are two ways the total station measures: using the traditional and still more common prism, or through reflectorless technology.

With the prism method, the total station sends out invisible infrared waves that are reflected by the prism, which is typically attached to a pole. By measuring the prism’s position and knowing the precise angle and distance to that prism, the total station calculates the prism’s location or coordinates. Measurement to a typical 360 degree prism is roughly 5,000 feet (1500 meters), and measurement to a standard round prism can reach as far as 9,800 feet (3,000 meters). A 360 degree prism can face any direction, whereas a standard round prism only has one face that must look toward the total station.

Consider an application in which a stub-up needs to be located. The instrument is set up in the dirt off the building pad, and the person holding the prism pole, with the field controller attached, is guided by the field software to the correct location. The total station “tracks” the prism and continuously updates its position in the field software. When the exact position is reached with the prism, the field software displays a confirmation message.

The reflectorless method does not use a prism. Instead, it uses a visible red laser beam that allows the user to layout or measure points from any surface that is able to reflect it. The reach of the laser beam varies between instruments – it ranges from 1,300 feet to 6,500 feet (400 to 2,000 meters).

When determining which method to use, consider the location and logistics of the area being measured. A prism pole allows the instrument to reach places and measure points that can’t be achieved using a reflectorless method — for example, measuring around piles of building construction materials or other obstructions where a laser beam is unable to reach the desired point. In these cases, a prism and prism pole can be used to measure above the obstruction. Likewise, when trying to measure around an overhead beam or rafter, the prism pole can be inverted to allow measurement of a location unable to be seen directly with the red laser. Reflectorless technology can also help makes job sites safer. For example, if you need the length of a beam two stories high, you simply aim and shoot points at each end of the beam and you are done – no ladder or scaffolding required. Whether you need to measure hard to reach locations inside buildings, outside of buildings or on the site around the building, reflectorless measurement technology helps keep human out of harm’s way.

Manual vs. Robotic Total Stations

Total stations are available as both manual (mechanical) and robotic instruments. The biggest difference between these two types of total stations is that robotic total stations have a motor so they can be controlled remotely instead of manually.

The manual total station is a two-person operation. The instrument must be manually turned and the prism must be sighted each time. The electronic distance measurement (EDM) also must be triggered each time.

The robotic total station is a one-person operation. The station automatically follows the prism and is continuously measuring with the EDM.

When determining which total station and method is best for the job or operation, consider these points:

  • A robotic total station has a two-to-one labor ratio and enables the layout of 25 to 50 percent more points per day compared to a manual total station.
  • A tape measure and plumb bob requires two to three people and allows for the layout of about 200 points versus about 800 points with a robotic total station.

What to Look for When Choosing a Total Station

When choosing a total station, the first thing to consider is how you will use the equipment. This will help you determine the level of angular and distance accuracy you need, as well as other important features.

Accuracy

Total stations measure in angular accuracy from 0.5 to 9+ arc-seconds. In the construction industry, instruments with a 5”, 7”, or 9” accuracy are usually adequate.

Software Compatibility

Software packages for total stations have become more geared towards construction applications and are more user-friendly than ever before.

Though some total stations come equipped with internal electronic data storage, most models are designed to write measurements to an external data collector such as a handheld computer. Before purchasing a total station, make sure your instrument is compatible with your data collection software.

Price

Total stations are available in a wide range of prices, beginning under $4,000 and going up to as high as $50,000 based on the instrument’s use, accuracy, capabilities, range, software compatibility, and much more.

Allen Construction Equipment sells total stations from most of the major manufacturers, including Leica Geosystems, Nikon and Spectra Precision.

Advantages of Total Stations

Total stations are known for their ease of use, accuracy and the ability to quickly collect information. Setup is fast, and it is easy to simultaneously take distance and horizontal measurements.

Total stations use a quick and efficient layout, are compatible with other software and equipment, and data can be quickly downloaded into CAD, saving the time required for data manipulation when using conventional surveying techniques.

Accessories

Accessories used in typical total station setups include:

  • Reflector poles
  • Tripods
  • Tribachs
  • Prisms

Most Popular Construction Total Stations for the Value

For the capability and price, the most popular construction total stations on the market today are the Nikon NPL Series and the Leica Builder Series. The Nikon NPL Series is an excellent choice for basic survey and construction applications and is compatible with many data collection software vendors.

This series of mechanical instruments is fast, accurate, and affordable, starting at just $5,500. The NPL instrument is available in a 2” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model and features a reflectorless EDM with up to a 1,300-foot range.

Nikon’s optics allow more light in to provide a brighter, clearer image, even in low-visibility conditions, and more detail over long distances. It is rugged and lightweight (11 lbs. including the battery) and one of the fastest total stations in its class.

These instruments also come with rechargeable AA batteries (or you can use over-the-counter alkaline batteries as backup to provide even longer life), an easy-to-use keypad, and a linear focus mechanism. They are designed to consume low power and provide the longest possible time in the field.

The Leica Builder Series is another popular manual option, ideal for anyone working on or around a jobsite who needs a simple, intuitive, innovative, long-lasting measuring tool. The Leica Builder Series is very versatile and can be tailored to every construction job. This series is multilingual and includes five instruments (100, 200, 300, 400 and 500) with a wide range of accuracies from 3 to 9 seconds.

All instruments in the series are customizable with various features and benefits to meet any construction need. (Generally, the more accurate the instrument, the more expensive it will be.)

Highest-Accuracy Total Stations

In the lineup of manual total stations, the Leica Builder Series is a versatile tool for every construction job and comes in five models with a wide range of accuracies from 3 to 9 seconds.

These tools are rugged, easy to use and designed for productivity. The Leica Builder 500 – the most accurate of the series – has advanced features like a laser plummet for simple and fast set-up, dual-axis compensation for accurate plumbing, endless drives eliminating steps, audible notice for 90-degree turns, setup anywhere functionality, and graphical leveling aid for fast and convenient set-up.

It easily connects to any third party device or program and has an easy-to-use full-alpha-numeric keyboard, huge memory capacity, wireless communication via Bluetooth, full laser distance measurements up to 250m/820ft and up to 1.5mm accuracy at 100m, which covers the full range of tasks performed on any construction site.

Contractors looking for the highest accuracy robotic total station rely on the Leica iCON robot series. The best instrument in this class is the Leica iCON robot 60, which is available in 1”, 2” and 5” accuracies. With high-performance tracking, innovative lock-and-find mechanisms and software tailored to each step of the workflow, the Leica iCON robot 60 enables efficient and effective one-person layout.

Most Popular Construction Total Stations

Construction total stations are different from survey total stations in the way users lay out points. Where surveyors use distance and angles, contractors and construction professionals typically lay out points based on blueprints or CAD drawings.

The Leica Builder Series is ideal for anyone working on or around a site that needs a simple, intuitive, innovative, long-lasting measuring tool. Leica Builder is a manual total station tailored to every construction job.

The Builder series is multilingual and includes five series (100, 200, 300, 400 and 500) with a wide range of accuracies from 3 to 9 seconds. All series are customizable with various features and benefits to meet any construction need.

A less expensive alternative is the Nikon DTM Series or Nikon NPL Series. The Nikon DTM series is a fast, accurate, mechanical instrument starting at around $4,100 and is available in a 2” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model to meet your specific accuracy needs.

Nikon’s optics allow more light in to provide a brighter, clearer image, even in low-visibility conditions, and more detail over long distances. It is rugged and lightweight (11 lbs. including the battery) and one of the fastest total stations in its class.

These instruments come with rechargeable AA batteries (or you can use over-the-counter alkaline batteries as backup to provide even longer life), an easy-to-use keypad, and a linear focus mechanism. They are designed to consume low power and provide the longest possible time in the field.

The Nikon NPL series has all of the features of the DTM series. Because it has reflectorless capability, it is a little more expensive, starting at $5,500. These instruments are available in a 2” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model and feature a reflectorless EDM with up to a 1300-foot range.

Both are excellent choices for basic survey and construction applications and are compatible with many external data collection software vendors. No other manufacturer has a name brand instrument in this price range.

Most Popular Total Station for Stakeout

Again, the Leica Builder Series is a simple, easy to use, durable tool, ideal for any construction jobsite.

All models in the Builder series have an accurate workflow and are customizable with various features and benefits to meet any construction need.

These tools are intuitive, durable, and can really accelerate your workflow with a host of advanced features like a laser plummet for simple and fast set-up, dual-axis compensation for accurate plumbing, and graphical leveling aid for fast and convenient set-up.

They easily connect to any third party device or program and have an easy-to-use full-alpha-numeric keyboard, huge memory capacity, wireless communication via Bluetooth, full laser distance measurements up to 250m/820ft, and up to 1.5mm accuracy at 100m, which covers the full range of tasks performed on any construction site.

Fastest Tracking Total Station

The Leica iCON portfolio is designed specifically for ease of use within the construction industry. All you have to do is level the instrument and go!

Robotic total stations are generally more expensive, starting in the low- to mid-20K range. But because they only require one operator, they ultimately decrease costs associated with additional headcount.

The iCON robot 50 and iCON robot 60 tools are fast, customizable, and easy to use. These tailor-made hardware and software solutions are fast tracking and perfect for a wide range of positioning and measuring tasks in road and building construction.

You can save time and increase your productivity by doing layout work and as-build checks yourself. You don’t even need an operator at the instrument. The total station can be operated from the field controller at the prism pole, wherever you need positioning. The consistent user interface on sensors and easy to use software simplifies your workflows and makes it easy to get the job done.