Upon completing this section, you should be able to interpret the readings from a leveling rod.

A leveling rod, in essence, is a tape supported vertically that is used to measure vertical distance (difference in elevation) between a line of sight and a required point above or below it. Although there are several types of rods, the most popular and frequently used is the Philadelphia rod. Figure 5-8 shows the face and back of this rod.

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Figure 5-8.—Back and face of Philadelphia leveling rod.

The Philadelphia rod consists of two sliding sections, which can be fully extended to a total length of 13.10 feet. When the sections are entire] y closed, the total length is 7.10 feet. For direct readings (that is, for readings on the face of the rod) of up to 7.10 and 13.10 feet, the rod is used extended and read on the back by the rodman. If you are in the field and don’t have a Philadelphia rod, you can use a 1-by-4 with a mark or a 6-foot wooden ruler attached to a 2-by-4.

In direct readings, the person at the instrument reads the graduation on the rod intercepted by the cross hair through the telescope. In target readings, the rodman reads the graduation on the face of the rod intercepted by a target. In figure 5-8, the target does not appear; however, it is shown in figure 5-9. As you can see, it is a sliding, circular device that can be moved up or down the rod and clamped in position. It is placed by the rodman on signals given by the instrumentman.

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Figure 5-9.—Philadelphia rod set for target reading of less than 7,000 feet.

The rod shown in the figures is graduated in feet and hundredths of a foot. Each even foot is marked with a large red numeral, and, between each pair of adjacent red numerals, the intermediate tenths of a foot are marked with smaller black numerals. Each intermediate hundredth of a foot between each pair of adjacent tenths is indicated by the top or bottom of one of the short, black dash graduations.


As the levelman, you can make direct readings on a self-reading rod held plumb on the point by the rodman. If you are working to tenths of a foot, it is relatively simple to read the footmark below the cross hair and the tenth mark that is closest to the cross hair. If greater precision is required, and you must work to hundredths, the reading is more complicated (see figure 5-10).

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Figure 5-10.—Philadelphia rod marking.

For example, suppose you are making a direct reading that should come out to 5.67 feet. If you are using a Philadelphia rod, the interval between the top and the bottom of each black graduation and the interval between the black graduations (figure 5-11 ) each represent 0.01 foot. For a reading of 5.76 feet, there are three black graduations between the 5.70-foot mark and the 5.76-foot mark. Since there are three graduations, a beginner may have a tendency to misread 5.76 feet as 5.73 feet.

As you can see, neither the 5-foot mark nor the 6-foot mark is shown in figure 5-11. Sighting through the telescope, you might not be able to see the foot marks to which you must refer for the reading. When you cannot see the next lower foot mark through the telescope, it is a good idea to order the rodman to raise the red. On the Philadelphia rod, whole feet numerals are in red. Upon hearing this order, the rodman slowly raises the rod until the next lower red figure comes into view.

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Figure 5-11.—Direct reading of 5.76 ft on Philadelphia rod.


For more precise vertical measurements, level rods may be equipped with a rod target that can be set and clamped by the rodman at the directions of the instrumentman. When the engineer’s level rod target and the vernier scale are being used, it is possible to make readings of 0.001 (one-thousandth of a foot), which is slightly smaller than one sixty-fourth of an inch. The indicated reading of the target can be read either by the rodman or the instrumentman. In figure 5-12, you can see that the 0 on the vernier scale is in exact alignment with the 4-foot mark. If the position of the 0 on the target is not in exact alignment with a line on the rod, go up the vernier scale on the target to the line that is in exact alignment with the hundredths line on the rod, and the number located will be the reading in thousandths.

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Figure 5-12.—Target.

There are three situations in which target reading, rather than direct reading, is done on the face of the rod:

  1. When the rod is too far from the level to be read directly through the telescope:
  2. When a reading to the nearest 0.001 foot, rather than to the nearest 0.01 foot, is desired (a vernier on the target or on the back of the rod makes this possible;
  3. When the instrumentman desires to ensure against the possibility of reading the wrong foot (large red letter) designation on the rod.

For target readings up to 7.000 feet, the rod is used fully closed, and the rodman, on signals from the instrumentman, sets the target at the point where its horizontal axis is intercepted by the cross hair, as seen through the telescope. When the target is located, it is clamped in place with the target screw clamp, as shown in figure 5-9. When a reading to only the nearest 0.01 foot is desired, the graduation indicated by the target’s horizontal axis is read; in figure 5-9, this reading is 5.84 feet.

If reading to the nearest 0.00 1 foot is desired, the rodman reads the vernier (small scale running from 0 to 10) on the target. The 0 on the vernier indicates that the reading lies between 5.840 feet and 5.850 feet. To determine how many thousandths of a foot over 5.840 feet, you examine the graduations on the vernier to determine which one is most exactly in line with a graduation (top or bottom of a black dash) on the rod. In figure 5-9, this graduation on the vernier is the 3; therefore, the reading to the nearest 0.00 1 foot is 5.843 feet.

For target readings of more than 7.000 feet, the procedure is a little different. If you look at the left-hand view of figure 5-8 (showing the back of the rod), you will see that only the back of the upper section is graduated, and that it is graduated downward from 7.000 feet at the top to 13.09 feet at the bottom. You can also see there is a rod vernier fixed to the top of the lower section of the rod. This vernier is read against the graduations on the back of the upper section.

For a target reading of more than 7.000 feet, the rodman first clamps the target at the upper section of the rod. Then, on signals from the instrumentman, the rodman extends the rod upward to the point where the horizontal axis of the target is intercepted by the cross hair. The rodman then clamps the rod, using the rod clamp screw shown in figure 5-13, and reads the vernier on the back of the rod, also shown in that figure. In this case, the 0 on the vernier indicates a certain number of thousandths more than 7.100 feet. Remember, that in this case, you read the rod and the vernier down from the top, not up from the bottom. To determine the thousandths, determine which vernier graduation lines up most exactly with a graduation on the rod. In this case, it is the 7; therefore, the rod reading is 7.107 feet.

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Figure 5-13.—Philadelphia rod target reading of more than 7.000 ft.

Rod Levels

A rod reading is accurate only if the rod is perfectly plumb (vertical) at the time of the reading. If the rod is out of plumb, the reading will be greater than the actual vertical distance between the height of instrument (H.I.) and the base of the rod. On a windy day, the rodman may have difficulty holding the rod plumb. In this case, the levelman can have the rodman wave the rod back and forth, allowing the levelman to read the lowest reading touched on the engineer’s level cross hairs.

The use of a rod level ensures a vertical rod. A bull’s-eye rod level is shown in figure 5-14. When it is held as shown (on a part of the rod where readings are not being taken to avoid interference with the instrumentman’s view of the scale) and the bubble is centered, the rod is plumb. A vial rod level has two spirit vials, each of which is mounted on the upper edge of one of a pair of hinged metal leaves. The vial level is used like the bull’ s-eye level, except that two bubbles must be watched instead of one.

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Figure 5-14.—Bull’s-eye rod level.

Care of Leveling Rods

A leveling rod is a precision instrument and must be treated as such. Most rods are made of carefully selected, kiln-dried, well-seasoned hardwood. Scale graduations and numerals on some are painted directly on the wood; however, on most reds they are painted on a metal strip attached to the wood. Unless a rod is handled at all times with great care, the painted scale will soon become scratched, dented, worn, or otherwise marked and obscured. Accurate readings on a scale in this condition are difficult.

Allowing an extended sliding-section rod to close on the run, by permitting the upper section to drop, may jar the vernier scale out of position or otherwise damage the rod. Always close an extended rod by easing the upper section down gradually.

A rod will read accurately only if it is perfectly straight. It follows, then, that anything that might bend or warp the rod must be avoided. Do not lay a rod down flat unless it is supported throughout, and never use a rod for a seat, a lever, or a pole vault. In short, never use a rod for any purpose except the one for which it is designed.

Store a rod not in use in a dry place to avoid warping and swelling caused by dampness. AI ways wipe off a wet rod before putting it away. If there is dirt on the rod, rinse it off, but do not scrub it off. If a soap solution must be used (to remove grease, for example), make it a very mild one. The use of a strong soap solution will soon cause the paint on the rod to degenerate.

Protect a rod as much as possible against pro-longed exposure to strong sunlight. Such exposure causes paint to chalk (that is, degenerate into a chalk-like substance that flakes from the surface).



Upon completing this section, you should be able to determine elevations in the field to locate points at specified elevations.

The most common procedure for determining elevations in the field, or for locating points at specified elevations, is known as differential leveling. This procedure, as its name implies, is nothing more than finding the vertical difference between the known or assumed elevation of a bench mark and the elevation of the point in question. Once the difference is measured, it can (depending on the circumstances) be added to or subtracted from the bench mark elevation to determine the elevation of the new point.


The elevation of any object is its vertical distance above or below an established height on the earth’s surface. This established height is referred to as either a "reference plane" or "simple reference." The most commonly used reference plane for elevations is mean (or average) sea level, which has been assigned an assumed elevation of 000.0 feet. However, the reference plane for a construction project is usually the height of some permanent or semipermanent object in the immediate vicinity, such as the rim of a manhole cover, a rod, or the finish floor of an existing structure. This object may be given its relative sea level elevation (if it is known); or it may be given a convenient, arbitrarily assumed elevation, usually a whole number, such as 100.0 feet. An object of this type, with a given, known, or assumed elevation, which is to be used in determining the elevations of other points, is called a bench mark.


Figure 5-15 illustrates the principle of differential leveling. The instrument shown in the center represents an engineer’s level. This optical instrument provides a perfectly level line of sight through a telescope, which can be trained in any direction. Point A in the figure is a bench mark (it could be a concrete monument, a wooden stake, a sidewalk curb, or any other object) having a known elevation of 365.01 feet. Point B is a ground surface point whose elevation is desired.

The first step in finding the elevation point of point B is to determine the elevation of the line of sight of the instrument. This is known as the height of instrument and is often written and referred to simply as "H.I." To determine the H.I., you take a backsight on a level rod held vertically on the bench mark (B.M.) by a rodman. A backsight (B.S.) is always taken after a new instrument position is set up by sighting back to a known elevation to get the new H.I. A leveling rod is graduated upward in feet, from 0 at its base, with appropriate subdivisions in feet.

In figure 5-15, the backsight reading is 11.56 feet. Thus, the elevation of the line of sight (that is, the H.I.) must be 11.56 feet greater than the bench mark elevation, point A. Therefore, the H.I. is 365.01 feet plus 11.56 feet, or 376.57 feet as indicated.

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Figure 5-15.—Procedure for differential leveling.

Next, you train the instrument ahead on another rod (or more likely, on the same rod carried ahead) held vertically on B. This is known as taking a foresight. After reading a foresight (F.S.) of 1.42 feet on the rod, it follows that the elevation at point B must be 1.42 feet lower than the H.I. Therefore, the elevation of point B is 376.57 feet minus 1,42 feet, or 375.15 feet.


The term "grade" is used in several different senses in construction. In one sense, it refers to the steepness of a slope; for example, a slope that rises 3 vertical feet for every 100 horizontal feet has a grade of 3 percent. Although the term "grade" is commonly used in this sense, the more accurate term for indicating steepness of slope is "gradient."

In another sense, the term "grade" simply means surface. On a wall section, for example, the line that indicates the ground surface level outside the building is marked "Grade" or "Grade Line."

The elevation of a surface at a particular point is a grade elevation. A grade elevation may refer to an existing, natural earth surface or to a hub or stake used as a reference point, in which case the elevation is that of existing grade or existing ground. It may also refer to a proposed surface to be created artificially, in which case the elevation is that of prescribed grade, plan grade, or finished grade.

Grade elevations of the surface area around a structure are indicated on the plot plan. Because a natural earth surface is usually irregular in contour, existing grade elevations on such a surface are indicated by contour lines on the plot plan; that is, by lines that indicate points of equal elevation on the ground. Contour lines that indicate existing grade are usually made dotted; however, existing contour lines on maps are sometimes represented by solid lines. If the prescribed surface to be created artificially will be other than a horizontal-plane surface, prescribed grade elevations will be indicated on the plot plan by solid contour lines.

On a level, horizontal-plane surface, the elevation is the same at all points. Grade elevation of a surface of this kind cannot be indicated by contour lines because each contour line indicates an elevation different from that of each other contour line. Therefore, a prescribed level surface area, to be artificially created, is indicated on the plot plan by outlining the area and inscribing inside the outline the prescribed elevation, such as "First floor elevation 127.50 feet."