What’s the Difference Between a Magnetic Locator and a Metal Detector?

by Michael Bernzweig

You can use a magnetic locator or a metal detector to locate buried metals. Metal is used in a variety of ways, such as in construction, making it important to locate metallic items buried under the ground. Both ferrous and non-ferrous metals are used in various objects from building materials to gold  jewelry. 

You may need to use a magnetic locator or metal detector to detect underground utilities made of iron or steel. Locating underground utilities can be difficult, but it is a vital job before building on your property. Underground pipes and cables could be right under your foot, and a magnetic locator or metal detector could help you find these buried items. The question is, which device is best to use for finding each type of metal? Let's start by defining the differences between the two types of locators.

What Is a Magnetic Locator?

Magnetic locators are used for finding ferrous metals. You can use a magnetic locator to find ferrous metals, which are metals with iron in their composition. The major difference between a magnetic locator and a metal detector is that the former only locates ferrous metals, while the latter can locate all types of metals to locate a wider range of buried items. If you are searching for any non-ferrous metals, which are metals without iron in their makeup, then you will want to use a metal detector. Magnetic locators are limited in what they can do. However, their sensitivity is high. You can adjust the sensitivity of a magnetic locator if needed to find buried pipes at various depths. You can also find items buried in snow or underwater. Magnetic locators are more functional than metal detectors. You can cover a broad range from the item you are searching for to the tip of the magnetic locator.

A magnetic locator works in a very simple way. Magnets produce external magnetic fields. Fields emanating from and returning from the object are bipolar, that is, they have a positive pole and a negative pole. This external field determines the magnet strength. A magnetic locator can detect two types of magnetic fields produced by underground ferrous objects. Our planet's magnetic field is naturally weak. All ferrous objects have this field, and it is always positive in the Northern Magnetic Hemisphere. We can also create magnetic fields artificially. These are usually strong fields. The field orientation of an object depends on how it is magnetized. Magnetic locators detect different magnetic field strengths by using two parallel sensors vertically separated. Whenever a ferrous object is nearby, the lower sensor detects a stronger field than the upper, resulting in a response, whether it be an audio signal or a number. 

What Is a Metal Detector?

Metal detectors transmit electromagnetic fields from their search coils into the ground. Metal targets within the metal detector's electromagnetic field that become energized and send out their own electromagnetic field will trigger the detector.

Industrial metal detectors allow utility professional to locate buried power lines, water mains, gas mains, cable TV cables and other utilities. Similar technology is used by hobbyists to locate items such as lost valuables, money, or other items. Metal detectors differ from magnetic locators in some ways. For one, a metal detector can locate any type of metal, both ferrous and non ferrous metals. Magnetic locators can be considered a niche item. They find only ferrous metals such as oil tanks, iron rebar and other buried iron or steel objects. You can use a metal detector in various soil types to locate metallic items. In addition, metal detectors are generally cheaper than magnetic locators. 

Making the Choice: Magnetic Locator or Metal Detector?

Which device should you use? Consider your usage. When you consider all your requirements, a metal detector or magnetic locator might be the best option for your project. Using magnetic locators can simplify finding metallic materials. Use a magnetic locator to locate iron or steel objects while avoiding copper pipes. Identify only the object you want. It can save substantial time and money and prevent excavations of the wrong targets.

On the other hand, a metal detector can locate both magnetic and non-magnetic objects. If you want to locate all metal objects on a particular site, this is ideal. Metal detectors come with an array of features to choose from. The model of the metal detector you purchase, however, will determine what features you have available. A metal detector can be used to identify the specific types of metals buried underground. Magnetic locators don’t provide any identification capability other than to locate just ferrous metals.  


The price of a metal detector depends on the manufacturer. Price also depends on the quality of the metal detector you want to purchase. For example, an entry-level device is likely to be cheaper than an advanced or professional level device. 

Although the cost of a metal detector will vary depending on some factors, a magnetic locator is typically more expensive. The cost of magnetic locators is higher since they are used in the professional detection of ferrous metals. They are designed to comply with very strict standards for moisture, dust, and vibration. They are usually built in a very rugged manner, are easy to operate, tough, and substantial in their construction. 


Magnetic locators have a high sensitivity when it comes to ferrous metals. Therefore, they are the best option for locating them. A magnetic locator has a broad range and can detect buried items from the tip of the device down to the target. In many cases, these devices will detect targets over ten feet in to the earth.

In general, the depth range of a metal detector is approximately 1.5 times the diameter of the search coil that it is equipped with. Although, depending on the model and quality of the metal detector, the depth to which the device penetrates could vary. A metal detector's sensitivity can vary, so be sure to research devices before you purchase your next metal detector. 


Magnetic locators are much less versatile than metal detectors. Metal detectors can be used in different types of soil and on a wide variety of metal types. You can detect a variety of targets with metal detectors since they are capable of detecting ferrous and non-ferrous metals. 

Ferrous metals can be located underwater, underground, or buried in frost using magnetic locators. Because of this versatility, magnetic locators can be used to locate ferrous metals. They can also penetrate deep into the ground. Additionally, magnetic locators come in a variety of sizes, making them easy to carry. 


Perhaps the biggest difference between magnetic locators and metal detectors is the people using them. Professionals typically use magnetic locators to search for buried pipes, cables, and other implements under the ground that can cause issues when excavating, building, or altering the ground in other ways. 

While magnetic locators are typically only used for people in specific professions, metal detectors can be used by anyone. Metal detectors are used by hobbyists seeking buried treasures and individuals in various professions. There are models from inexpensively made units made kids to entry-level and professional models made for hobbyists detectorists and highly skilled treasure hunters. 


The maintenance of a metal detector is far simpler than that of a magnetic locator. However, depending on the model of metal detector you purchase, the maintenance will differ. 

Both devices are easy to wash and clean, making them simple to maintain and store for use. In addition, the quality of both products is high, meaning they will last for a long time if they are well looked after. 

Magnetic locator vs. Metal detector: conclusion

In conclusion, magnetic locators are a more niche product than metal detectors. They are simply used to find non-ferrous metals, while metal detectors are able to search for more items. In addition, magnetic locators are typically used by professionals in specific industries. Metal detectors can be used by just about anyone for fun or for work.

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