How to use a total station surveying instrument

Updated June 12, 2018

Surveying instruments have changed a lot since the early days of the chain, compass and transit. Today's land surveyors use an instrument called a total station to find horizontal and vertical angles and distances. A total station combines an electronic transit with an electronic measuring device to measure distances between the instrument and survey points to calculate spatial coordinates. While it sounds complicated, with a little practice you'll be setting up and using your total station in no time.

Set the total station over a point on the ground, called the instrument station, where you want to work. Spread the tripod legs apart, and position the top over the point, taking care to make it level.

Adjust the tripod legs until it's at a comfortable height. Push the tripod legs gently into the ground to help stabilise the station.

Attach the instrument to the tripod. Screw the tripod fixing screw into the bottom of the instrument.

Center the instrument over the point. Look through the optical plummet to find the point.; you may want to put your foot next to the point. Adjust the optical plummet until the crosshairs line up with the point.

Level the plate by adjusting two of the levelling screws until the bubble level is centred between the two lines. Turn the instrument 90 degrees, and centre the bubble level over the third levelling screw. Continue rotating the instrument and making adjustments until the bubble level remains centred throughout one rotation.

Recheck the position of the point. If the point is off centre, reposition the optical plummet over the point and repeat the above levelling steps.

Affix the prism to the rod. Have an assistant walk to the second point and place the base of the rod in the centre of the point. Adjust the height of the rod until the station operator can see the prism. Check to ensure the prism is facing the instrument.

Align the optical sight finder with the prism. Use the horizontal and vertical tuning knobs to centre the crosshairs in the centre of the prism.

Press "REC" to record the data.


Check the instrument several times during the day. Relevel the instrument, if necessary. Transport the equipment in shockproof cases. Clean the equipment after each use. Protect the total station from blowing sand, extreme temperature fluctuations and rain.


The total station is delicate; don't drop it.

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About the Author

R. Lynne has been writing professionally since 1980. Her work has appeared in "Springfield Business Journal," "The Illinois Times," "The State Journal-Register" and "The Hillsboro Journal." She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology from Illinois State University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in legal studies from Sangamon State University. She writes about business, real estate and health and wellness topics.