Surveyor of all I master?
December 22, 2018 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Suppose I want to do a little amateur surveying. Are there books to read, and things to buy that would help?

I'm contemplating a re-grading of my yard to improve drainage. The plan depends delicately on the topography, i.e. how high are the high spots and how low are the low spots. I'd like to get an idea if the project is feasible before I talk to a pro.

In the past, I've seen this sort of question answered by running a string between poles, and getting it very level and very taut. Measuring distances to the surface gets the relative heights. This works, but it's cumbersome and maybe not too accurate.

Is there a better way? Maybe a cheap scope mounted on an ordinary, camera-type tripod?
posted by SemiSalt to Home & Garden (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could rent an auto-level or a construction laser level and get very accurate elevations; I guess you could also hire someone with a survey drone to use photogrammetry to create an elevation model, though that is serious overkill for a yard project.

However, the string technique (or a water-level using clear tubing) is about as cheap as it gets and has worked well for many centuries.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:37 PM on December 22, 2018

How large is your yard?

I use line levels a lot and they are very accurate, and cheap. But if you want to span 50 metres or so you'll need to do multiple datum points which might be a pain. If you wish to not tear your hair out then only get a line level with pinchable tabs like the Stanley; plastic hook levels like this Stanley will continually fall off if you are moving the line a lot, and be super frustrating.

You can suspend the string between a fixed point and your hand so you can move around a lot easily, if your line level is secure on the line

You can also get self-levelling laser levels fairly cheaply which would be accurate enough. My experience is these need two people for efficient open-air work while a line level can be worked from a secure datum by one person.

If your yard is grass, then remember that much of the drainage will depend on underground topography (e.g., undulating clay layers) and not the surface itself.
posted by Rumple at 2:13 PM on December 22, 2018

Sometimes you can find old builder’s dumpy levels for cheap, but barring that modern lasers are super cheap and effective: all you really need is a clip that screws into your tripod and can hold a laser pointer that can throw a visible dot in daylight. And a rule and another person to hold the rule. It should be fairly easy cheap and simple to grab point elevations to within an inch or so for a dozen points on your property, we can give more detail if you’re unclear on the process.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:57 PM on December 22, 2018

We actually had a pro do our regrading and it helped a lot with not having occasional first floor water incursions (this is NJ USA and we are not that high above sea level). Just FYI and FWIW: he pointed out that we were sharing a swale with our next door uphill neighbor, and so his plan called for directing that side to drain more toward the front of the house and driveway. He also established a rear swale by bringing the downspouts of the roof to an underground system that had pop-ups at the rear. And although the pro didn't say it, I know from my own gardening that you don't have to go far down to hit clay on our property (vis Rumple's comment).
posted by forthright at 5:20 PM on December 22, 2018

I second the renting of a laser level if you want to do it yourself. Get a self leveling one. It goes on a tripod and the laser is constantly spinning so it defines a level plane out quite a distance very accurately. You can walk around with the detector and a grade rod. You slide the detector up and down the rod, it beeps when it is at the same height as the laser on the tripod.
posted by Pembquist at 5:35 PM on December 22, 2018

Thanks for the helpful comments.

I'm thinking that I can set up a self-leveling laser in a central place and mark the base height on 5 or 6 conveniently located trees. I'm really only interested in whether I can find lower ground to which to drain water that now ponds near my garage (and in the worst case, floods my garage and family room). Great precision is not necessary.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:54 AM on December 24, 2018

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