June 21

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Digital Levels: Is A Brain Better Than A Bubble?

If you are wondering whether to purchase a digital level but can’t quite decide, we are going to take a look at this precision tool to decide if a brain is better than a bubble?

What Is A Digital Level?

In truth, a digital level is actually a hybrid level in that most of them retain the bubble vial that spirit levels use, alongside a digital display. 

The combination of old and new technology has resulted in a tool that most tradesmen will want to have in their tool kit.

For those not entirely converted to digital tools, this is a good compromise as there is always the bubble level to fall back on. 

Digital levels are available in a range of sizes from 14 inches up to 72 inches. Accuracy for the best digital levels is 0.029 degrees or 0.5 mm per meter for their bubble vials. 

For the digital level between 0 and 90 degrees, the accuracy is +/- 0.05 degrees, from 1 degree to 89 degrees the accuracy is +/- 0.2 degrees.

It is possible to field calibrate a digital level if needed, and it is a relatively fast and simple process. There are also multiple ways to measure the level and plumb of surfaces such as in degrees, percentages and rise and run. 

Digital levels also have sound features which allow you to find level and plumb with sound and to hear when you get something spot on during adjustments.

This is a very useful feature in low light conditions. 

Who Uses A Digital Level?

With so many useful features, it’s not surprising that many people have started using digital levels. 

The original users of high tech digital levels were surveyors and excavators but as technology has advanced and the application of digital technology grew more trades began to use them.

Today digital levels are used by carpenters, construction workers, metalworkers, stonemasons, plumbers and DIYers. 

The ability to measure slopes and angles in percentages, decimals and fractions as well as degrees is a really useful tool for many trades and is a function that a traditional bubble level doesn’t offer. 

You can also gauge how level or plumb you are in inches or millimeters and which direction to move the level if needed.

This can make for quicker adjustments to construction and improve the overall accuracy of many trades. 

The digital level can also be zeroed in any setting which makes it easy to repeat an angle. This is a very useful feature if you want to pitch a deck consistently or when installing pipework at a specific angle. 

These different features are ideal for carpenters, plumbers or anyone who needs consistency when carrying out sloping work. 

The sound feature of a digital level is ideal for those who work in awkward positions or in low light. 

Bubble Level Versus Digital Level

Digital Levels

As many digital levels also have a bubble vial they offer the best of both worlds.

For those who prefer to use the traditional method of a spirit level the extra features offered by a digital level may not be enough of an enticement especially as they tend to be relatively expensive. 

There are some features that the two share such as the basic functionality of finding level and plumb on different surfaces. Some such as torpedo levels also measure 45 degree angles. 

Both have their merits and their limitations, however. Let’s look at a top of the line box level, the R-beam. 

This is an incredibly sturdy and robust spirit level that has been designed to withstand the tough conditions found on many building sites. 

Its profile makes it strong and wide so that it doesn’t topple over or get twisted out of shape. There are also rubber end caps that act as shock absorbers in the event of impact. 

Compare this to the Type 196-2 digital TECH level from Stabila. This is a rugged level that provides angle measurements quickly, it’s also waterproof and dustproof. 

This level also has impact resistant end caps and a rib reinforced frame that protects the electronics inside the level. 

For the R-beam, Stabila offers a lifetime warranty whereas for the Type 196-2 the warranty is just for 2 years. This indicates that the digital level is much more fragile and prone to damage. 

Digital levels do offer more functions than a simple spirit level, but they also cost two to three times as much to purchase.

Whether the additional features are enough to tempt tradesmen to splash out on a digital level is debatable. 

Another benefit of digital levels is the ability to field calibrate them, something that is not possible with a bubble level which would need to be sent back to the manufacturer for this process. 

The readability of a digital level is without doubt one of its main strengths.

A large well lit LED display wins hands down over a green or yellow bubble vial in gloomy conditions. And of course the sound alerts are a huge bonus when visual checking is limited. 

Are Digital Levels More Accurate?

With all of the benefits of digital measurements it’s worth asking, are digital levels more accurate than bubble levels? 

A bubble level has a measuring accuracy of 0.5 mm/meter in both normal and reverse positions.

As we have seen, a digital level has an accuracy of +/- 0.05 degrees from 0-90 degrees  and  +/- 0.2 degrees from 1-89 degrees. 

So there is almost no difference between them, less than would ever be noticeable by the human eye.

While digital levels are really no more accurate than bubble levels, the ability to read the measurements in fractions, percentages and decimals make it more user friendly. 

Will Digital Levels Make Bubble Levels Obsolete?

Digital technology is constantly evolving and so it is likely that the development of digital levels will continue to improve. 

However, the bubble level is still part of the digital level, so there is still a need for the human element to check that surfaces are level or plumb. 

As much as we rely on technology we know that it is not always beyond error, therefore it is good to keep the traditional method along with the digital one. 

It is conceivable that in the future a bubble or spirit level will be seen as a quaint tool from a distant time, but there are tradesmen who prefer to have a hands-on approach to their work and particularly to their measurements. 

A craftsman is dependent on the quality of his work to maintain his reputation and if there is a discrepancy or error this reflects on his ability to do his job.

For this reason, many will keep their bubble levels even if they become less popular with the advent of digital levels. 

Final Thoughts

When it comes to technology there is a tendency to assume that it’s automatically better than a hands-on approach. This is not necessarily true. 

Craftsmen and artisans are highly prized and sought after in a digital world, so it is clear that when it comes to machines versus traditional practices many still prefer the traditional route. 


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