Laser Levels V dumpy levels

Laser Levels vs Automatic (Dumpy) Levels

Laser levels and automatic (dumpy) levels both provide levels across a building, site, field, anywhere that you need a level plane. How they do this is different.

Which one is right for you will depend on what you are doing. And a number of other factors that will need to be considered.

But which one is best for you? In this article I will help you decide which one you should choose.

What is a Laser Level?

A laser level is a modern piece of equipment that will project a horizontal line. This horizontal line can be seen on surfaces (usually walls). The two main types of laser levels are line lasers and rotating (spinning) laser levels.

Line laser levels project a solid laser line almost 360 degrees, but are often less than this. The working range of line laser levels is restricted to about 30m (100ft) in favourable conditions.

Rotating Laser Levels (or spinning laser levels) project a single beam of laser light. This single beam of laser light is then reflected off a rotating mirror. This allows the beam to be projected a full 360 degrees. Using laser detectors the range of rotating laser levels can be up to 400m (1300ft).

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What is an Automatic (dumpy) Level?

The Automatic Level (also known as a Dumpy Level) is an optical instrument that provides a horizontal sighting plane. As it is an optical device it requires 2 people to use it. One to take readings and one to hold the measuring staff.

There is an article on this website taking apart an automatic (dumpy) level to show how they work.

How is a dumpy level different from a laser level?

The Automatic (dumpy) level requires you (the operator) to look through the instrument. The laser level will provide a line that can be seen or detected without looking you (the operator) looking through the instrument.

The height that you look through the Automatic (dumpy) Level and the horizontal laser line from the laser level is known as the height of collimation. The height of collimation term is predominantly used by engineers and surveyors.

What is the advantage of a laser level over an optical level?

A laser level can be used by a person on their own. Whereas an automatic (dumpy) level requires two people to use it, the surveyor and the rod-man.

The very best rotating laser levels will have a greater range in a single set up than the best automatic (dumpy) levels.

There is an article on this website showing how accurate a rotating laser level can be over large distances.

What is the range of a laser level compared to an optical level?

Most automatic (dumpy) levels have a single setup range of around 30m from the instrument. The most accurate of automatic (dumpy) levels could be stretched to a 50m sighting distance. This however I would not recommend.

The range of a laser level can be anywhere from 15m for the indoor (low power) line laser levels, all the way up to 800m for the very best rotating laser levels. The range for the rotating laser levels is achieved with the use of a laser detector unit. The laser at this distance is invisible to the human eye.

Can I use laser levels in day light?

Laser levels can be used in day light. The ambient light level will affect the intensity of the laser beam (light levels are measured in Lux). Other atmospheric conditions (mist, smoke) will also affect the intensity of the laser light. These factors will have a bearing on whether you can see the laser line on the desired surface.

For you to be able to see a laser line on the desired surface (wall, column, door, tape measure etc) there needs to be enough laser light reflected of that surface for your eyes to detect. The further away from the laser source the weaker the laser beam becomes.

There are two main factors that will affect the laser beam and make it weaker.

The first is the stretching of the laser beam. Think of this as being in two rooms, one small, one large. In the small room the perimeter of the room (the walls) is also small. The amount of light coming from the laser is constant all the time.

Using the same laser level in a large room you still have the same amount of light being produced by the laser. But the perimeter of the room (the walls) is large, maybe four time the perimeter of the small room. The light from the laser is the same, but it must be shared out around the perimeter of the room more. Therefore, the amount of laser light being reflected is less and is more difficult for us to see.

The second factor affecting the laser beam from the level is environmental factor, such as dust and water vapour in the air. The dust and water vapour reflect and refract (distort) the laser beam. This weakens the laser beams intensity and our ability to see it on the desired surface.

Have a look at the video below for an idea of how heat and environmental conditions can do to a laser beam. This video was shot on one of the hottest days of 2020. It shows how a pipe laser beam can be distorted whilst travelling through a pipe.

Pipe Laser Beam Refraction.

How to see laser levels in day light?

There are a few of ways to help you see the laser from laser levels in day light. These range from making the room or work area darker to special reflective plates or glasses to enhance the visibility of the laser beam.

Making the room or work area is not always practical. We are left with trying to enhance the visibility of the laser beam. Reflective plates (I know them as Kodak Grey Cards) can be handy for holding up against surfaces to enhance the visibility of the laser beam. They work particularly well with the coloured glasses.

I would recommend getting both if you need to see the laser level beam in day light. Some of the ones I would get are detailed below. Not expensive but do make work life easier.

What is the range of auto level?

The automatic (dumpy) level has a maximum single sighting range of 30m. Beyond this range, other error factors start to become significant. The sighting range of the automatic (dumpy) level is dependant on the magnification of the telescope of the level. The greater the magnification, the greater the sighting distance can be.

Most automatic (dumpy) levels have a magnification of at least 20x. The greatest magnification is 36x. The greater the magnification, the less you will see of the E-Grad Staff. The greater the magnification the more accurate your reading of the E-Grad Staff can be.

What is the accuracy between a laser level and an automatic (dumpy) level?

Both the laser level and the automatic (dumpy) level can achieve the same level accuracy. That is, over a standard 30metre distance the error of the instrument should be no more than 3millimetres in height. This is the standard that is expected on building and construction sites.

There are laser levels available that do not achieve this accuracy. There is nothing wrong with these laser levels, they are perfectly adequate for less critical works. And perfectly acceptable for DIY projects like patios, tiling and hanging pictures. You can find more information on this website about the best laser level for tiling, the best laser level for patios and the best laser level for foundations.

Laser Levels ranked in order of Accuracy.

Here is a list of laser levels that are currently available and are ranked in order of accuracy.

ManufacturerModelWorking Range
AccuracyWorking Time
(Single Charge)
Current Price
TopconRL-20011004mm at 200m100Hrs
TopconRL-H5A8005mm at 200m100Hrs
Topcon RL-SV2S800 5mm at 200m 120Hrs
TopconRL-H5B40010mm at 200m100Hrs
LeicaRugby 6809001.5mm at 30m60Hrs
Spectra PhysicsLL300S8001.5mm at 30m60Hrs
BoschGRL 500 HV5001.5mm at 30m25Hrscheck current price
Johnson40-65846001.6mm at 30m100Hrs
Johnson40-65415001.6mm at 30m33Hrs
Johnson40-65355001.6mm at 30m33Hrs
LeicaRugby 6105002.2mm at 30m60Hrscheck current price
LeicaRugby 6206002.2mm at 30m60Hrscheck current price
LeicaRugby 640G4002.2mm at 30m60Hrs
LeicaRugby 6405002.2mm at 30m60Hrscheck current price
Spectra PhysicsLL300N500 2.2mm at 30m 90Hrscheck current price
FukudaFRE-102AR6002.3mm at 30m25Hrs
Johnson40-6950L4502.4mm at 30m16Hrs
MakitaSKR200Z2003.0mm at 30m60Hrs
Spectra Physics LL100N3503.3mm at 30m50Hrscheck current price
PacificHVR 505R1523.3mm at 30mN/A
StabilaSTB-LAPR1502406.0mm at 30m80Hrs
HiltiPR 2-HS A12600N/A16Hrs

Do you need proof of how accurate laser levels can be? I tested a random rotating laser level to prove that they can be more accurate than quoted.

Which is the best automatic (dumpy) level?

The best automatic (dumpy) levels are made by either Topcon or Leica. I have used various levels over the years by both manufacturers and still do. I have put together a list of my favourite dumpy levels for under £200 on this website. Have a look at this page to find out which one I think is the best automatic (dumpy) level.

Which is the best rotating laser level?

I consider that there are three manufacturers that produce the best rotating laser level. I have used them all over the years and there is not much to choose from all of them. I have put together an article of the best rotating laser levels available today. To find out which is my current favourite rotating laser level have a look at the best 5 rotating laser levels currently available.

Whether you decide you need a laser level or an automatic (dumpy) level then the best bit of advice I can give is to go for the best one you can afford. Look after it and it will give you accurate levels for years.

If you want to know how an automatic (dumpy) level works, I took one apart. There is an article on this site showing you all the parts of the automatic (dumpy) level and how they work.

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