Surveyors: about Total Stations

If I bought a Total Station used off of Ebay, maybe a Topcon or Sokkia for maybe $1000 to $1500, could I use it to get a computer file containing distance and horizontal and vertical angles to hundreds of targets? What does it take to get a file containing these as ASCII text or “Excel” .csv comma separated variables? Does it require dedicated software on the PC to transfer data from the Station or to convert it from the Station’s proprietary binary format?

Can such a Total Station read targets other than prisms? Can they read targets like reflective tape? Can they read rocks and trees and concrete and ground surfaces and dark rusted steel? I assume the possible distance would be much shorter with a less reflective target, but is there a rule of thumb like 1/10 the prism distance for a flat white painted target and 1/100 for a dark earth or rusted or wet rock target?

Is Ebay a good place to start? I haven’t found many used surveying equipment stores and nothing I can easily drive to…

What’s it cost to rent?

Any other advice?

My hobby is surveying old historic sites. I would like to be able to distance to a few hundred feet maybe. My current instruments are a horrible cheap “builder’s transit” and a $400 Stanley TLM300 distance meter that works really well to dark objects as much as 100’ away and to safety reflectors much further (supposedly 600’). I don’t need near the accuracy of even the cheapest and oldest Total Stations I have found, but really wish for the speed and accuracy of measuring and recording dozens or hundreds of points and downloading them somehow to the computer. I am very good at programming, using PCs and RS232 ports and the like, and even hacking simple binary file formats.


>really wish for the speed and accuracy of measuring and recording

I meant to say, “the speed and convenience”. Like I said, they all have way better accuracy than I need.

for most surveying instruments, you can usually download the owner’s manual from the manufacturer’s web site.
If you’re buying from ebay, read the manual first and make sure the seller provides the necessary accessories (prisms, memory card, cables, etc). If it’s an old discontinued model, you may have difficulty buying the accessories later.

Most older instruments record the angles and distances measured on a specialized memory card and the instrument is sold with a card-reading device that hooks into a PC port. Or they may have an internal memory that hooks into a PC with a RS232 cable.

Newer instruments are more consumer friendly, and use standard memory cards and USB cables, and can be used with a PC as easily as digital cameras.

If you’re an amateur and not sure what you’re buying, read the manual at the web site carefully first.

Surveyors I work with typically provide me an ASCII file containing the point numbers, elevations, and descriptions. I’m pretty sure you can also have the bearings included in that list. Like chappachula said, the older technology uses a cable & dedicated software to process the data from the unit.


I am trying to find manuals on the web site. For example, the Sokkia EZS21 looks like a well suited model, based on what I see about it in places like but I can’t even find the product listed on Sokkia’s web site, let alone its manual. Actually, I didn’t find ANY manuals on Sokkia’s web site (though I only looked for them for a few models). I also hunted for a Topcon model’s manual. So far the only manual I have found is for a South brand TS, which is written in a Chinese version of English that is somewhat hard to make sense of. It doesn’t say a single word about the format of the data that machine can send to a PC. Many of the sites don’t have search facilities, either.

Is there some trick to finding the manuals for current machines?