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Total Station Buying Guide

What Is a Total Station?

The total station is one of the most important pieces of equipment you will buy as a modern surveyor or engineer.

A total station is an electronic device used to measure angles and distance. The instrument itself is comprised of an electronic theodolite and an electronic distance meter (EDM) used to read slope distances from the instrument to a defined point.

 

Reflectorless total stations

- Allow you to measure to objects or points without using a prism
- Allows for difficult or impossible to reach places
- No additional person needed on some measurements

Robotic Total Stations

- Enable long distance remote control
- Eliminates need for a second operator
- Increased safety

The most precise total stations are capable of measuring angles up to 0.5 arc seconds, but most instruments used in construction can generally measure angles between 5 and 10 arc seconds. Typical total stations can measure distances with an accuracy of about 0.05 inches + 2 parts per million over a distance of more than 10,000 feet.

Total stations are primarily used by land surveyors and civil engineers to record or set out features. They are also used in mining, Building Information Modeling (BIM), archeological excavations, and even by crime scene investigators for accident reconstruction and forensic investigations.

What to Look for When Choosing a Total Station

When choosing a total station, the first thing to consider is the application. How will the instrument be used? How you will use the equipment will help you determine the angular and distance accuracies you need, as well as range, portability, and ease of setup.

 

Accuracy

Total stations measure in angular accuracy from 0.5 to 9+ arc-second instruments. The majority of surveyors use instruments with 5-second or better accuracy. In the construction industry, instruments with a 5”, 7”, or 9” accuracy are usually adequate.


Software Compatibility

Software compatibility is the main driving factor when selecting a total station. While some total stations come equipped with internal electronic data storage, most models are designed to write measurements to an external data collector such as a handheld computer.

When using an external data collector, application software is required to compute the results and generate a map of the surveyed area. Before purchasing a total station, make sure your instrument is compatible with your data collection software. While many manufacturers are “open” and compatible with all software applications, others are proprietary.


Price

Total stations are available in a wide range of prices, beginning at $4,000 and going up to as high as $50,000 based on the instrument’s use, accuracy, capabilities, range, software compatibility, and much more. Allen Precision Equipment sells total stations from most of the major manufacturers, including Leica Geosystems, GeoMax, Nikon, Spectra Precision and CST/Berger.

Advantages / Disadvantages of Total Stations

Total stations are known for their accuracy, ease of use, and the ability to quickly collect information. With a total station, multiple surveys can be performed from one setup location, and it is easy to simultaneously take distance and horizontal measurements and calculate project coordinates (x, y, and z or northing, easting, and elevation).

 
Advantages of Total Stations
Total stations are known for their accuracy, ease of use, and the ability to quickly collect information. With a total station, multiple surveys can be performed from one setup location, and it is easy to simultaneously take distance and horizontal measurements and calculate project coordinates (x, y, and z or northing, easting, and elevation).

Total stations use a quick and efficient layout, and daily survey data can be quickly downloaded into CAD, saving the time required for data manipulation when using conventional surveying techniques. Digital design data from CAD programs can be easily uploaded to an external data collector.

Disadvantages of Total Stations

Elevation accuracy with a total station is slightly inferior to results from a conventional level-and-rod survey technique, and transformations are necessary to convert coordinates from a rectangular grid to match the curve of the ground’s surface.

Total stations require line-of-sight observations and must be set up over a known point or with a line of sight to two or more points with known locations.

Accessories
Accessories used in typical total station setups include:

- Reflector poles
- Tripods
- Tribrachs
- Prisms

Most Popular Total Station for the Value
For the capability and price, the most popular total stations on the market are the Nikon DTM Series and Nikon NPL Series.

 

Nikon is a popular brand because of its legendary Nikon optics. The Nikon DTM series is a fast, accurate, low cost instrument starting at around $4,100 and is available in a 3” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model to meet your accuracy needs.

Nikon’s optics allow more light in to provide a brighter, clearer image, even in low-visibility conditions, and more detail over long distances. It is rugged and lightweight (11 lbs. including the battery) and one of the fastest total stations in its class.

These instruments also come with rechargeable AA batteries (or you can use over-the-counter alkaline batteries as backup to provide even longer life), an easy-to-use keypad, and a linear focus mechanism. They are designed to consume low power and provide the longest possible time in the field.

The Nikon NPL series is also a great value with all of the features of the DTM series. Because it has reflectorless capability, it is a little more expensive, starting at $5,500. The instrument is available in a 2” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model and features a reflectorless EDM with up to a 656-foot range.

Both series are excellent choices for basic survey and construction applications and are compatible with many data collection software vendors.

Most Popular Monitoring Total Station
The Leica Nova TS50 high-precision total station and Leica Nova TM50 monitoring station, part of the Leica Nova series, are the most popular options for applications that require the highest level of accuracy.

 
This generation of surveying technology is used for projects that require the continuous monitoring of movement of a certain point. A monitoring total station shoots the same point over and over again to compare data for any type of movement or irregularity.

The Leica Nova MS50 has a 0.5" angular accuracy and allows for easy one-person data capture. The instrument allows full control through “tap and turn” without the need to return to the instrument over and over again. The 20Hz live video stream can be combined with a graphical overlay for cost-effective recording with immediate clarification of ambiguous situations.
Together with the benefits of GNSS connectivity, the instrument offers complete versatility and reliable results.

For critical monitoring tasks, the Leica Nova TM50 provides the highest angle accuracy and offers short measurement cycles through high-speed Piezo drives and a fast, highly accurate EDM. The Leica Nova TM50 includes 0.5" angular accuracy and can measure up to 3,000 meters (about 10,000 feet), which makes it the ideal sensor for monitoring tasks in mines, landslides, etc. For additional documentation, the monitoring sensor includes an overview camera and a telescope camera with 30x magnification and autofocus.

The Leica Nova TS50 and TM50 use the Leica SmartWorx data collection software and are compatible with a wide range of easy-to-use office software, including MicroSurvey.

Highest-Accuracy Total Station
Outside of structural monitoring, the Leica Flexline TS Series is the most popular high-accuracy total station for setting controls or jobs with demanding tolerances.

 

This is a mid-range total station that is configurable to fit your needs and applications. The TS09 Series – particularly the TS09plus Series+R1000 reflectorless – is the highest-accuracy total station that Allen Precision Equipment sells.

These instruments are very fast – up to 1 second – and can measure in the 1,000m (3300ft) range without a prism.They are ideal for mid- to high-accuracy applications. The brilliant color display with touch operation, built-in Bluetooth, USB host, and device board offers high performance and ease of use. With PinPoint EDM, these instruments deliver the optimal balance of range, accuracy, reliability, beam visibility, laser dot size, and measurement time.

A USB stick enables fast and easy transfer of data and the built-in wireless Bluetooth allows cable-free connection for external data collection.

If the instrument is ever stolen, a theft protection locking mechanism is available to ensure that the device is disabled and can no longer be used.

These instruments are compatible with most data collection software and different features come standard on different models.

Most Popular Construction Total Station
Construction total stations are different from survey total stations in the way users lay out points. Where surveyors use distance and angles, contractors and construction professionals typically lay out points based on blueprints or CAD drawings.

 
The Leica Builder Series is ideal for anyone working on or around a site that needs a simple, intuitive, yet innovative, long-lasting measuring tool. Leica Builder is tailored to every construction job.

The Builder series is multilingual and includes five series (100, 200, 300, 400 and 500) with a wide range of accuracies from 3 to 9 seconds.

All series are customizable with various features and benefits to meet any construction need. Generally, the more accurate the series, the more expensive.

A less expensive alternative is the Nikon DTM Series or Nikon NPL Series.
The Nikon DTM series is a fast, accurate instrument starting at around $4,100 and is available in a 3” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model to meet your accuracy needs.

Nikon’s optics allow more light in to provide a brighter, clearer image, even in low-visibility conditions, and more detail over long distances. It is rugged and lightweight (11 lbs. including the battery) and one of the fastest total stations in its class.

These instruments come with rechargeable AA batteries (or you can use over-the-counter alkaline batteries as backup to provide even longer life), an easy-to-use keypad, and a linear focus mechanism. They are designed to consume low power and provide the longest possible time in the field.

The Nikon NPL series has all of the features of the DTM series. Because it has reflectorless capability, it is a little more expensive, starting at $5,500. These instruments are available in a 2” dual-face model and a 5” single-face model and feature a reflectorless EDM with up to a 656-foot range.

Both are excellent choices for basic survey and construction applications and are compatible with many external data collection software vendors. No other manufacturer has a name brand instrument in this price range.

Most Popular Surveying Total Station Stakeout
The Leica Flexline TS Series is the most popular survey total station offering the most customizable capabilities to meet your surveying needs. These instruments are available in a wide variety of accuracies and capabilities and are configurable to meet your needs and applications.

 
These instruments are very fast – up to 1 second – and can measure in the 1,000m (3300ft) range without a prism. They are ideal for mid- to high-accuracy applications, and the brilliant color display with touch operation, built-in Bluetooth, USB host, and device board offers high performance and ease of use. With PinPoint EDM, these instruments deliver the optimal balance of range, accuracy, reliability, beam visibility, laser dot size, and measurement time.

A USB stick enables fast and easy transfer of data, and the built-in wireless Bluetooth allows cable-free connection for external data collection. If the instrument is ever stolen, a theft protection locking mechanism is available to ensure that the device is disabled and can no longer be used.

These instruments are compatible with most data collection software and different features come standard on different models.

The Nikon Nivo Series is also popular because of its well known name brand and legacy and is available in two lines – the Nivo C Series and Nivo M Series.

All Nivo models are supported with legendary Nikon high-clarity optics, allowing clearer images in bright and low light conditions.

They are compact and lightweight, can be easily carried over long distances, and include support for USB memory sticks, wireless cable-free Bluetooth connections to external data collectors, and a USB high-speed data transfer port.

Nivo models come standard with a traditional optical plummet which can be upgraded to a laser plummet. Both series use “hot swappable” batteries so that workflow is not interrupted.

The Nivo C Series is available in 1", 2", 3", and 5" models to meet your specific accuracy needs. It also includes Spectra Precision Survey Pro onboardsoftware. The Nivo M Series is available in 2", 3", and 5" models. Both are compatible with most external data collectors and data collection software.

Fastest Tracking Total Station
The Leica Viva TS12P is the world’s fastest robotic total station. It enables you to search for the prism, acquire the prism, and transmit data from the gun to the data collector faster than any other instrument on the market today.

 

The Leica Viva TS12P is a great mid-range robotic total station with Leica’s legendary reliability and durability. The instrument is packed with features, including a unique sensor that finds prisms regardless of their location in seconds and a lightweight controller that provides secure wireless connectivity to the total station.

Robotic total stations are generally more expensive – starting in the low- to mid-20K range – but because they can be operated by one person, they ultimately decrease the costs associated with additional headcount.

The Leica Viva TS12P is compatible with Leica SmartWorx data collection software and other popular data collection software on the market today.