How to Set-Up a Total Station to Conduct Surveying Operations




Every construction project relies on accurate measurements and the Total Station is one of the most important pieces of surveying equipment used in the industry today. From setting building corners to sighting utility lines, this sophisticated instrument provides surveyors with an important time-saving tool.

However, regardless of how technologically advanced the Total Station is built, it takes a competent surveyor to ensure an accurate and precise instrument station set-up. Let’s take a look at the steps involved to properly set up and level the Trimble Total Station.

The survey equipment in this instructable can be purchased through the manufacturer at No endorsement intended.

Disclaimer – “This instructable has been created as a simple guide to set-up and level the Total Station surveying instrument. It should be noted that I am not a professionally licensed surveyor and this guide does not demonstrate specific surveying operations. Safety considerations include caution when moving the sharp legs of the tripod and appropriate clothing as the local climate dictates”.

Step 1: Gather the Survey Equipment, Stake, and Tools.

It is very important for every surveyor to have all of their equipment ready for the job ahead. One missing item could cost your organization time and money.

Prepare the following items:

a. Tripod

b. Tribrach

c. Total Station

d. Survey Controller

e. Power Cable

f. Communication Cable

g. Battery Pack

h. Survey Controller

i. Stake w/nail and survey marker

j. Hammer

Step 2: Establish a New Temporary Benchmark.

Within our projects we typically need to establish a new point of reference with a temporary benchmark.

Using a small nail tapped into the center of a wooden stake, pound the stake into, and as flush as possible, with the ground.

Step 3: Set-up the Tripod.

While holding the tripod, loosen the tripod leg clamps and extend the tripod up to a height near your neck and chin. Tighten the leg clamps.

Spread out the tripod legs evenly, about two to three feet for each leg, and center it over your benchmark stake. The top of your tri-pod should be mostly level and parallel with a horizontal plane.

Step 4: Attach the Tribrach and Coarse Level the Tripod Over the Benchmark.

A level instrument is a key to successful surveys. The tribrach features a level bubble and leveling screws to adjust the tripod’s level as necessary. An optical plummet on the tribrach allows the surveyor to view the tribrach’s center and place its cross-hairs precisely over the survey marker nail on the stake.

Center the tribrach on the tripod and attach it via the tripod connecting screw.

While holding two tripod legs, keeping the tripod as level as possible, place the optical plummet cross-hairs over the center of the nail.

With your foot, apply equal pressure along each tripod leg to ensure a stable connection with the ground.

Step 5: Continue to Level and Adjust the Tribrach As Necessary

Viewing the level bubble, adjust the height of two tripod legs so that the bubble is close to center. Then use the tribrach leveling screws for a more precise bubble level.

Alternate back-and-forth between the optical plummet and level bubble to gain the most center and level position. You may need to loosen the center tripod screw to shift the tribrach for a more center cross-hair position.

Step 6: Set the Instrument on the Tripod.

Remove the Total Station from the carrying case and secure it to the top of the tribrach with the tribrach/instrument lock.

Be careful with this step as the instrument can cost up to $25,000! I know my bank account couldn’t support that bill.

Step 7: Connect Power Supply and Communication Cables.

Attach the battery pack to the tripod.

Connect one cable from the battery pack to the instrument connection port.

Connect the other cable from the battery to the survey controller.

Step 8: Power-on the Instrument and Controller to Access the Fine Level.

Press the black button on the instrument to power it on.

Press the green button on the survey controller to power it on.

On the survey controller, use the stylus to open the survey controller program. The software will open fine-leveling automatically.

Step 9: Fine Level the Instrument and Compensate.

To fine level the instrument, turn the total station so that its face-plate is parallel with two tribrach leveling screws. These two screws will be used to adjust the trunnion (left and right) and the sighting (forward and back).

Now that the instrument has been successfully leveled, press the accept button so that the instrument can perform its compensation action.

Step 10: You're Ready to Survey!

The total station is now ready to begin surveying operations. Have a blast!



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    10 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Fantastic work!! It kills me when I see people setting the instrument on the tripod before getting aligned over the TBM and leveled. However...give me a plumb bob any day!! Great Instructable!!

    1 reply

    2 years ago

    I would add one tip for adjusting the tribrach screws - focus on two at a time. Get the bubble in the middle of an axis between two screws, then use the third screw to bring it into the middle.

    Also, I tend not to bother with a reference point directly under the station as you can link it up to a grid based on a point located anywhere. The reference point under the station is just located at 0, 0 with a height that has to be checked every time you set it up so that the floating grid lines up to those coordinates; using a separate reference point just means you have to align the grid to a point other than 0, 0, which is quite easy when it is all electronic (and you need to get at least three reference points to line it up to a real world coordinate system anyway). Saves a lot of time trying to get it flat AND lined up.

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    Great points. Performing a resection is usually the easiest way to set up. No benchmarks needed.



    2 years ago

    This is something that a lot of people have trouble with and does not really get taught - nice work!


    2 years ago

    Wow, what a great tutorial. If I ever need to do any surveying, this will come in handy for sure. :)

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    Thanks dstreng! The goal of this instructable was for it to be used by young surveyors just getting into the field or those that need a little refresher. However, I wanted to keep it simple enough that anyone could understand the basics. Thanks again for the feedback.


    Reply 2 years ago

    I think it will definitely be useful for that purpose for sure, and I imagine when you are just getting into the field it would be nice to have something like this to help out.