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Automatic levels

Surveying equipment

recommends

Since Zeiss introduced the first automatic level in 1950 this type of instrument has completey taken over the market. Any engineer who admits to having used a dumpy or a tilting level should really be considering retirement by now.

Despite Leica's introduction of the electronic digital level in 1990 and the various laser levels available, the automatic optical mechanical level is by far the most popular instrument to use for levelling and certainly the easiest.

What type of level do I need?

Laser levels are categorised separately and are not considered here. We are looking at the levels that read a staff and these traditionally fall into four categories defined by the type of use:

Building - a low cost level aimed at the construction user.

Engineering - a general purpose site level aimed at the civil engineering user.

Surveying - a higher specified level aimed at the surveying user.

Precision - a top of the range level for work of the highest accuracy

Digital levels are broadly engineering or precise in relation to the above categories.

Instruments considered here are from the engineering category and have been proposed by the manufacturers for use by the setting out engineer. Civil engineering is arguably the harshest environment for instrument usage and the robustness of all of these levels can be taken for granted.

Generally they cost £500 or less but manufacturers will often supply them as a package with a tripod and staff. At this sort of price the automatic level is really the most cost effective surveying instrument available.

What features do you need on site?

Telescope magnification: The greater the magnification the easier it will be to read the staff.

Compensator range and setting accuracy: The larger the range the easier it will be to set up and the smaller the setting accuracy the more accurate the line of sight. To put the latter into perspective, +/- 0.5 seconds is 0.25mm at 100m. All compensators in this range are magnetically damped which improves their stability.

Standard deviation for 1km level run: A good guide to the practical accuracy.

Weight: You are going to have to carry this around a lot, so the lighter the better.

Is it weatherproof? Telescope tubes in this range are gas filled, which eliminates condensation effects, and are generally waterproof to international standards.

Price: All other things being equal, the cheaper the better.

Sokkia E32

Telescope magnification: 22x

Compensator range: +/- 15 minutes

Setting accuracy: +/- 0.5 seconds

Standard deviation for 1km double run: +/- 2.0mm

Weight: 1.89kg

Weatherproof: Yes, to IPX4 standard

Price: £425 (level alone)

Mike Fort says: 'Sokkia has a domed tribrach base which enables a quick set-up on its tripod in addition to the normal three-screw arrangement. The 30cm minimum focus distance is the best in its class.'

Peter Lloyd says: 'A good instrument, built to last.'

Zeiss Ni 40

Telescope magnification: 25x

Compensator range: +/- 15 minutes

Setting accuracy: +/- 0.5 seconds

Standard deviation for 1km double run: +/- 2.0mm

Weight: 1.90kg

Weatherproof: Yes

Price: £407 (level only)

Mike Fort says: 'The Zeiss and Spectra Precision amalgamation should increase the availability of this excellent instrument from the originator of automatic levels.'

Peter Lloyd says: 'A sturdy instrument with good optics.'

Pentax AFL 240

Telescope magnification: 24x

Compensator range: +/- 12 minutes

Setting accuracy: +/- 0.5 seconds

Standard deviation for 1km double run: +/- 2.0mm

Weight: 2.10kg

Weatherproof: Yes, to JIS class 6 standard

Price: £395 (package)

Mike Fort says: 'Pentax has a unique battery powered automatic focusing feature which can be switched on or off. It does give it the edge over other instruments in the range and would speed up the levelling process.'

Peter Lloyd says: 'A good instrument but the autofocusing is unnecessary.'

Nikon AC2

Telescope magnification: 24x

Compensator range: +/- 16 minutes

Setting accuracy: +/- 0.5 seconds

Standard deviation for 1km double run: +/- 2.0mm

Weight: 1.25kg

Weatherproof: Yes, in light rain

Price: £245 (level only); £325 (package)

Mike Fort says: 'Nikon levels are well regarded and the £245 price tag makes this the bargain of the range. As with Sokkia, the domed tribrach base gives it a quickset option for setting up.

Peter Lloyd says: 'A good instrument with good optic and built to last.'

Topcon AT-G4

Telescope magnification: 26x

Compensator range: +/- 15 minutes

Setting accuracy: +/- 0.3 seconds

Standard deviation for 1km double run: /- 2.0mm

Weight: 60kg

Weatherproof: Yes, to IPx-7

Price: £345 (package)

Mike Fort says: 'Topcon instruments are a favourite with contractors and their highly visible bright yellow colour is a boon on a busy civil engineering site. As with Sokkia and Nikon, this level has a domed tribrach base for optional quickset setting up.'

Peter Lloyd says: 'A good instrument but too much plastic is used in the construction.'

Leica NA724

Telescope magnification: 24x

Compensator range: +/- 15 minutes

Setting accuracy: +/- 0.5 seconds

Standard deviation for 1km double run: +/- 1.2mm

Weight: 1.6kg

Weatherproof: Yes, to IP57 standard

Price: £495 (package)

Mike Fort says: 'Wild levels were always a favourite on site and Leica has continued the tradition. This is its latest level and is the most accurate in the range. It also carries a lifetime guarantee.'

Peter Lloyd says: 'A good instrument with very sturdy construction and a lifetime guarantee.'

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