Product Review 2021

PLS Line Lasers

Time really does fly by. How many times have we heard this… yet as is so often the case, the lesson is lost to the ignorance of youth.
Recently I was reminded of these truths while reflecting on my initial introduction to the world of laser leveling tools. Initially, there was really only one. Simple by today’s standard, they were large, awkward and fragile devices that had to be adjusted mechanically. The rotating invisible laser beam worked solely in the horizontal plane and relied completely on a handheld detector to “see” the beam. It was prohibitively expensive and produced in California by a company called Spectra Physics. The tool’s expense and physical limitations made it only practical for use on large, flat commercial projects.
Barely eight months into my apprenticeship, I was dispatched to a contractor building a 22,000-sq. ft. tilt-up structure. Large and flat describes the early stages of a tilt-up to a T. I still remember my first day on site, listening to the incessant noise these tools made, a constant stream of fast and slow “chirp, chirp, chirps” plus the occasional long “beeeep” as the detector zeroed in on the invisible beam.
Now fast forward. They still make the same sounds, but that’s where the similarities end.  Contrasting those with what is available today and the landscape is unrecognizable. Today there are primarily three types of laser tools: the rotary beam, the line laser, and the point laser. After owning multiple models of all three types, I have found the line laser to be the most versatile and useful in my deck business and my homebuilding business.
I recently had the opportunity to evaluate a pair of newly updated, competitively priced, high quality laser tools produced by Pacific Laser Systems, based in Everett, WA. After several lengthy discussions of all things laser, with Lewis Nelson, product manager at PLS, I concluded that the PLS 180 R and the PLS 180G would fit my requirements nicely. Several days later, I arrived home to find a superbly packed parcel on my doorstep.
The timing was perfect, as the following Monday we were starting a challenging new project, one that would require a foundation layout comprised of multiple radius arcs, many at different elevations. As it turned out, both tools served to increase productivity, accuracy and efficiency, but each also showed particular strengths and weaknesses.

The PLS 180 Red

The 180 R, as you might have guessed, is a line laser that produces a plumb and level reference line, approximately 180 degrees from its origin. The tool is self-leveling up to 6 degrees, produces a bright, crisp red laser line in both the “x” and “y” axis, and has an accuracy of 1/8” at 30’ and a useful range of 200’ when used with the PLS 60533 SLD Red Line Laser Detector.
It comes packaged in a gray, molded, soft plastic case and includes a Cordura nylon carrying pouch, magnetic wall mount bracket, tripod extender, and three alkaline batteries. The operating time is rated at 35 hours continuous, which after using it seems accurate. After following the manufacturer’s procedure for verifying the correct function of the unit, we set it to “outdoor” or pulsed mode and used it to set multiple ledger elevations and maintain each plane during fastening.
Next we used it to set the elevation of multiple pier footing forms so that the finished concrete columns that sit atop the footings would all finish at the same elevation. The benefit here is twofold; one, it makes framing more efficient by eliminating the need to measure each unique vertical member, relative to its starting elevation.
It also makes the underfloor structure appear more uniform, intentional and professional, including the concrete piers. While even with the heavy overcast and dark skies that are part of everyday life as a builder in the Pacific Northwest, we still always required the detector otherwise the beam was just not visible.
The only other issue we found was a sticker on the detector stating that the minimum distance it could be used at was 20 feet. This initially resulted in an unmeasurable band where the detector was of no use, and the beam was not visible. We came up with a workaround by setting up in such a way as to be more than the requisite 20 feet from any point of measure. A pain yes, but easily remedied.
Finally, PLS, which is now part of the Fluke Corp., offers the best warranty of any manufacturer out there at three years, which is an important consideration for any tool that is of such a demanding and technical nature. After a quick search of the internet, they have an excellent reputation online for outstanding customer service.

The PLS 180 Green

Our experience with the 180 G was very similar to what we experienced with its red brethren. The specifications for both units are virtually indistinguishable. Aside from the color of the beam produced there really were no significant differences, save one: operational time. Here they are vastly different.
The 180 G has a stated operational time of six hours vs. the 180 R at 35 hours. That amounts to A LOT of extra batteries. Our experience in use with both (vertical and horizontal) laser beams on and functioning, the operational time was closer to five hours, using the alkaline batteries provided as part of the package. The trade-off for using all that electrical power, was that at up to about 60 feet, on a typically cloudy day, the green beam remained visible, avoiding the need for a detector. This was very fortunate because the 180 G, which also has the “outdoor” or pulsed mode, requires the SLD Green Laser Detector that is available separately or as part of the PLS 180 Green System. We did try the Red detector with the green laser and the results were sporadic and inaccurate, which was somewhat understandable and yet still discouraging at the same time.
Nonetheless, the 180 G enjoys the same great three-year warranty and outstanding customer service as the 180 R. Just make sure you show up on site with a full sleeve of AA alkaline batteries. It might be worth it, though, because those green laser beams just look cool… I’m just sayin’.

As a side note, I am very interested in learning about the tools that the readership has an interest in seeing evaluated. Please send any tool review requests, questions or comments to me at and let’s work together for everyone’s benefit.


How Steel Deck Framing Is Changing the Industry

The substructure of a deck is the heart of its durability and the foundation for its aesthetics. Until recently, wood has been the go-to material for builders, contractors and architects. However, as professionals are increasingly switching to steel for its superior structural integrity and design flexibility, steel deck framing is poised to be the next big thing.
Exterior structures must withstand much harsher environments, which is why steel deck framing intended for the outdoors is triple-coated—first with a layer of hot-dipped galvanized coating, then with a layer of baked-on prime coat, and finished off with a layer of baked-on exterior high-performance polyester coating. It all adds up to an unparalleled level of protection surrounding a carbon steel core, ensuring each critical joist, beam and ledger connection holds up to the elements and to daily wear and tear for decades.
Steve and Brucie Schneider, TrexPro deck builders in San Rafael, CA., are the most prolific users of Trex Elevations steel deck framing in the West. Since they began advising clients to choose steel deck framing as a replacement for pressure-treated wood two years ago, they have built dozens of decks using Elevations framing. The innovative and creative options steel offers makes the product their go-to choice.
Elevations “allows you to create designs that are time-consuming if you tried it with other materials,” says Steve Schneider. Chief among them, curves. “We do lots of low-level decks, close to the ground. We do long curves that meander with the landscape. Steel deck framing opens up the design possibilities.”
Schneider also likes that he can easily use the steel material in ways that aren’t deck-related, such as in the construction of low-level retaining walls, flower boxes and landscape walls. The steel framing system reduces excavation time and allows builders to create longer cantilevers—saving time, material and labor costs. Because of its lightweight nature, the material is less physically taxing on the carpenters and is especially beneficial when used for high-reaching structures.
Admittedly, the switch from wood to steel framing is an adjustment for contractors who have dealt solely with wood substructures for decades, but many contractors are surprised at just how easy it is to work with steel.
“I like working with metal—it’s all straight and each piece is the same,” said Mike Schmidlin, a general contractor from Los Gatos, CA.  “Every time I pick up a piece of wood I’ve got to look at it five different ways to see if I’m going to use it; how I’m going to use it; is it bent, bowed, cracked, curved, cupped, twisted; does it have a big knot in it—all that’s eliminated with steel deck framing because every piece is exactly the same.”
For other contractors, the results alone are enough to convince them to scrap wood altogether.
“I’ve been in the industry for 25-plus years and have used just about every new product that has come on the market to ensure my customers are getting the best products available,” said Robert King of NW Quality Remodeling & Decks of Snohomish, WA. “Steel deck framing has exceeded my expectations so much that I would like to switch over to it completely. Both the look it provides from below on second-story decks, as well as the stoutness it lends to overall projects, has been met with great praise from homeowners, which will only increase the demand for it in future builds.”
With superior durability and aesthetics, steel also offers the following benefits:

  • Stability – Traditional framing can split, warp and shift over time, leading to an uneven surface in the deck boards above. Steel deck frames are precision engineered to ensure a refined, flat surface for the life of the deck. They also are significantly more resilient to weather, moisture, time and pest deterioration.
  • Design flexibility – Steel beams have the ability to be bent and shaped to allow for everything from curves and angled corners to extended cantilevers. Additionally, they are more lightweight than wood and can span up to 15 ft. (vs. 10 ft. for wood), resulting in the need for fewer posts and greater flexibility in post placement. This creates less obstructed views and more open space below the deck for storage or even additional outdoor living area.
  • Safety – A substructure is the platform that will support your deck—not to mention your friends, family and loved ones—for decades of outdoor living activities. Steel offers superior strength and longevity, is non-combustible, termite-proof, and free of pressure-treated chemicals.
  • Eco-friendly – Steel deck frames are made from recycled materials, and can be recycled themselves.

With its ability to prolong the life of a deck and improve its overall appearance, steel deck framing delivers performance and design benefits that others simply can’t. It’s a smart investment for any homeowner looking to maximize the life of their deck and a great product for architects looking to deliver decks that will maintain their beauty and performance for years to come.

Deck Posts Earn ICC Certification

Perma-Column’s signature line of deck posts has been certified by the International Code Council as complying with international building codes. Certification from ICC, the authority on building code compliance, means builders can more quickly attain approvals and permits, while customers gain a greater trust in the products.
Based in Ossian, IN., Perma-Column developed its patented design to address the industrywide problem of rotting wood posts in foundation systems. Wood is elevated out of the ground via a steel bracket atop a precast concrete foundational pier. For builders, the design eliminates the hassles of pouring concrete on the jobsite, making deck construction quicker and more efficient.
Perma-Column deck posts, which are guaranteed for life, are reportedly three times stronger than standard concrete, providing a permanent solution for long-lasting decks.
“Obtaining an ICC certificate of compliance is not easy,” noted president Mark A. Stover. “A manufacturer must be willing and able to invest significant time and resources during the approval process. This is the best way to ensure the quality of our product and shows how dedicated we are to being an industry leader. Builders can work with the confidence that our deck products will meet national and international code requirements.”