Why I Don't Use A Laser

by Mike Armentrout

From personal computing, to the internet, to unlimited mobile apps, technology has revolutionized our lives.  It's hard to imagine how we functioned before the advent of this modern age.  Many of the tools we have at our disposal are nothing short of amazing. 

As an appraiser and a business owner, I have always embraced new technologies once they became affordable and reliable.  If something claims to increase productivity and profitability, I am eager to look into it. 

From the early days of training, I was never fond of the idea of tape measures since they required significant work or outright assistance.  I instead opted for a small measuring wheel with a retractable handle.  As laser measuring devices came to the market, I eagerly purchased a more basic model to see if this was something that would really benefit my inspections.

After several weeks of using it, I started to realize it may not be what I was hoping for.  While there were some uses where it was marginally beneficial, it simply was not saving me noticeable time so I eventually went back to the wheel.  There are several points that resulted in me not adopting a laser.

Lack of things to point at
For a laser to obtain a measurement, there must be something to bounce the beam from. This was particularly difficult with outside corners. Sometimes you can hit a downspout or structural element but then you need to add the distance from that point to the actual corner which are added steps.  I have seen some appraisers use a reflector point that attaches or leans to a corner but this again requires significant additional work and walking back and forth.  There are also methods of shooting to something beyond and subtracting back to the corner, but these are also extra processes.

Line of sight limitations
Many times, landscape growth along a wall can inhibit measurement.  Bushes or ivy that grow directly to or on a structure can be formidable foes when we need that distance.  Since we can mathematically close a shape without the last wall, we may be able to avoid measuring one wall but if landscape is prevalent around numerous sides, we will have difficulties.  This can be an issue for wheels and tapes too if the landscape is exceptionally large but with a 4 foot pole on my wheel, I can often still obtain a distance running the wheel above the landscape or in segments.

Laser visibility
In particularly bright scenarios, many laser users report difficulty in seeing the beam end point.  Some wear special glasses to aid in locating the beam but this also seems like another step.  An unusually long wall can add difficulty in obtaining a visual point and will require a steady hand.

Another thing to carry
In a quest to simplify our field collection process, carrying an expensive device increases the risk of dropping and damaging it.  Quality lasers are not small enough to put in a pocket and most appraisers do not want to wear a tool belt to an inspection.  Tablets and smart phones have made it possible for one device to collect data, take photos, record voice memos and pull up valuable research but no reliable advances for measurement are yet available for smart devices.  Some higher end lasers do have bluetooth capability to transfer results directly to sketch programs but this still requires the finessing of two devices.

Obtaining measurements often requires braving some harsh environments such as heat, cold, rain, snow and sleet.  Most appraisers will therefore desire durability and reliability in their field collection equipment.  Quality lasers such as Leica's Disto line of models and some upper end Bosch products can get somewhat pricey.  That kind of expense would need to be recovered over time and carries an expectation that it will last.  Daily use will result in it getting dropped at some point and that will impact ongoing expense.

In theory, measuring the exterior of a structure requires all but one side to be measured. (Rectangle only requires two sides)  Assuming distances of each side can be easily obtained from a laser, wheel or tape, then  the only advantage a laser offers is that the last side will not require walking along its length.  This does not seem to result in any quantifiable increase in productivity.   

On the bright side, devices are being developed that digitize a measurement between two acquired points in space.  This means click on a corner, walk to the next corner (even with a wandering route) and click again to generate the distance. These devices are smaller and integrate with our smart devices which will make them more user friendly. Some high-end lasers do have the capability of triangulating a distance by shooting two corners but this requires a tripod to ensure accuracy and it does not eliminate other issues noted above.   

I certainly understand there are many of my colleagues who use and love laser measures.  I advocate using tools and processes that work for you.  For me however, I simply have not seen any time savings that warrants the expense and logistical challenges of using a laser.