Beginners Guide to Laser Tape Measures.

Leica Disto A5 Laser Tape Measure

Laser Tape Measures have been around for a number of years now. They are becoming more common and are readily available in most DIY stores and online at very reasonable prices. They were once the preserve of professionals who were taking lots of measurements throughout the day. In this article I will be going through the basics of Laser Tape Measures.

What is a Laser Tape Measure?

A Laser Tape Measure does the same job as a standard Tape Measure, but it uses a laser to measure the distance instead of the physical steel or fibre of a traditional graduated tape measure.  They use the same technology found in reflectorless total stations.  By emitting a beam of laser light and measuring the time it takes to be reflected back off a surface the Laser Tape Measure can work out the distance accurately.

Are Laser Tape Measures known by any other name?

A lot of people, including myself, would refer to a Laser Tape Measure as a “Disto”.  This is because the first laser tape measures that were popular were the Leica Disto’s.  And Leica produce numerous total stations using this laser distance measuring system, and have done for many, many years.  The first Laser Tape Measure I bought was a Leica Disto A5 in 2007, and I still have it now.  The Disto name is a trademark of Leica.  Think of the term Disto as you would Hoover for a Vacuum Cleaner.

Leica Disto, The Original Laser Distance Meter
The Original Laser Distance Meter.

Do Laser Tape Measures Work?

Yes, they do, and they work very accurately too.  I have had my Leica Disto A5 since 2007. I find it very handy for measuring remote features or longer lengths where a traditional tape would prove awkward.  A good example of this would be measuring the internal dimensions of a room. 

What Advantages does a Laser Tape Measure have over a traditional tape measure?

Then main advantage I find with Laser Tape Measures is that I can measure distances to remote or inaccessible objects.  But one advantage that surprised me after owning the Leica Disto for awhile, was that I could also use the laser tape measure to measure distances to objects that I didn’t want to touch.  One example of this would be measuring the clearance to overhead powerlines (but the best tool for this would be the Suparule), and they are one thing you definitely don’t want to touch!!!

Also, the laser light measures straight between the device and the reflected surface, thus guaranteeing the shortest measurement.  This removes a potential error from your measurements due to Tape Sag or following contours of an object.

How far can a Laser Tape Measure reach?

Most basic laser tape measures will only measure about 40m (about 130ft), but the more powerful (and more expensive) ones can measure up to 300m (almost 1000ft).  This does depend on the surface that is being measured too.  The laser tape measure needs a certain amount of laser light being reflected so that an accurate measurement can be achieved.  The basic budget laser tape measures with a maximum range of 40m may well struggle to measure on certain surfaces, where a longer-range laser tape measure would cope. Dark surfaces and those that do not reflect the laser light frequency (usually the red frequency band of light) are the ones that it will prove difficult to measure too.

The Leica Disto A5 should measure up to 200m.  Testing this outside the other day I managed a range of 132m.  But I think that measuring a distance greater than this in the area I was would have been difficult.  Generally though I wouldn’t be using the Leica Disto to measure these sort of distances, I would be using a Total Station.

  • Leica Disto A5 Measurement

How do you use a Laser Tape Measure?

They can be super easy to use.  Just a click of a button and the measurement is taken, and the answer is on the screen.  Most laser tape measures will measure from the rear of the unit and the laser dot seen on the surface is what you are measuring too, this is the total distance measured and displayed on the screen. The skill in using the laser tape measure is down to the user, and this has a great impact on the accuracy of the measurements taken. This is also true though of the traditional tape measure.  Basic measurements are easy and straightforward enough.  But if the measurements taken are to be used to calculate an area or a volume (as some laser tape measures can do) then extra care needs to be taken to ensure maximum accuracy.  Just as you would using a traditional tape measure.

How accurate are Laser Tape Measures?

Laser Tape Measures are more accurate than standard tape measures in nearly all circumstances, as long as they are used properly.  The main advantage a laser tape measure has over the traditional steel or fibre tape measure is that the laser is not subject to the sag seen in the traditional tape measures due to the affect of gravity.  This sag can be significant over larger distances.  Also, fibre tape measures can be stretched if to much force is used to pull the tape straight. 

This is of course dependant on what and how far you intend to measure. Overall though, I would say that a laser tape measure will be more accurate, in most applications, than the traditional tape measure.

Are Laser Tape Measures Dangerous?

Laser Tape Measures use laser light to measure distances.  But, like most things in life, they are only dangerous when they are being used inappropriately.  Most laser tape measures use a class 2 laser.  This means that the laser beam maybe hazardous to eyes.  Do Not stare directly into the beam.  Eye protection can be as simple as averting your eyes or blinking.  It would be best practice to not point the laser from laser tape measures at people’s faces.

Most laser tape measures use a class 2 laser.
Most laser tape measures use a class 2 laser.

How do you check a laser tape measure?

This would depend on the distance that you would be checking it over.  If you are using a laser tape measure for professional use, then it would be advisable to have it independently calibrated.  But if you are not using it professionally then just checking it against a traditional tape measure would be good enough.

It is really simple to check your Laser Tape Measure or Disto.  All you need is a known distance that you can check or a traditional tape measure.  I have checked my Leica Disto A5 against an 8m traditional tape measure.  I have use used a good quality Stanley 8m tape measure for this.  This check should be done over two separate distances.

First of all I have checked the Disto over a length of 800mm.  To do this I have simply put the Stanley tape on the desk, with the end against a wall, something that the Disto can measure to.  I then align the laser tape measure against the traditional tape measure so that the reading that I get from the laser tape measure should be 800mm.  In this case I have got a reading from my laser tape measure of 799mm and I am happy with this measurement using this method to check distances.

The second measurement check has been done in the same manner, but this time I have measured a distance of 8m (8000mm).  I have laid out the traditional Stanley tape measure on a flat floor and put the end against the skirting board, I will be measuring to the skirting board with the laser tape measure too.  Once more I align the Disto with the 8m

What is the Best Laser Tape Measure on the Market?

For me, and most other professionals, the best laser tape measure on the market is the Leica Disto.  For me, it is because I have had the Leica Disto A5 since 2007 (a full 13 years at the time of writing) and as you can see in the checks above it is still accurate.  They have a range of laser tape measures available and the current ones I would refer to as the D range.  They start with the Leica Disto D1 which has a range of about 40m and just the basic measurement features to the Leica Disto S910 with a range of 300m and the ability to work directly with CAD.

If I was spending my own money on a laser tape measure now, I would buy the Leica Disto D5.  The D5 has a range of features that I would use most of the time.  But I would consider any of the Leica Disto’s over any other manufacturer of laser tape measure.

As for the price of the Leica Disto D5, expect to pay anywhere from £300 to £360, but it you can check current prices for the Leica Disto D5 on Amazon using this link.


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