There is a debate going on in this country that few people know about. It has to do with a difference in estimating methods between the Eastern and Western United States. Generally, and I stress generally, the West measures branch (meaning conduit and wiring), and the East averages it. For those of you who do not know, averaging is the practice of assuming a single footage of branch for each outlet, such as 15 feet per receptacle. Most estimators do not get a chance to see this difference in methods, since they spend most of their careers in one area.
West meets East
I learned electrical estimating from a mentor, two National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) classes, my employers, and of course, the school of hard knocks. I was taught to measure the branch. Everywhere I worked, it was expected that the branch would be measured. All of my education and experience was on the West Coast.
Soon after starting an independent estimating company, I begin getting work from the East Coast. Imagine my surprise when I opened the plans and found that the branch was not engineered. No solid lines. No dashed lines. No hash marks to indicate how many wires. Just circuit numbers at the outlets.
At first, I thought this was a fluke. Maybe it was just one lazy engineer. But that was not the case, as most of the projects I received from the East did not have engineered branch. Initially, I drew in the branch and then measured it. This got to be very time-consuming on larger projects.
While this was going on, I switched to a new estimating system, and I soon found that the fixture and outlet assemblies included the branch and prompted for the average footage between outlets. Since an East Coast estimator developed this system, I started to get the picture. Fortunately, I was able to find a mentor who taught me how to takeoff branch using the averaging method.
I conducted an informal survey of about 30 contractors in several states across the nation. Based on the results of those interviews, and from what I have learned being a national estimator, here are the practices and trends I am seeing:
If the estimators are trained by NECA, they are more likely to measure branch and not use the averaging method. Bob Mooty, NECA’s national trainer, teaches all of his students to measure it, no matter where they are in the country.
The engineering practice of not designing branch is spreading westward. Carlos Rodriguez, NECA’s Los Angeles Chapter estimating teacher, told me he is starting to see plan sets without engineered branch from West Coast engineers. Carlos also informed me he is thinking about adding the averaging method of branch takeoff to his classes. I have seen projects without branch engineering as far west as Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Texas, and several contractors I spoke to in California also have seen these kinds of projects.
Some of the contractors I spoke with only average branch if it is not a competitive job, as they are more comfortable with the measuring method.
Some of the contractors who prefer to measure will go to the additional effort of designing the branch before taking it off, while others design it on the fly as they are doing the takeoff.
Most of the estimators I spoke to in the Eastern part of the country use averaging as their branch takeoff method and can be quite outspoken about it. To them, measuring branch is an expensive waste of time.
If you have not been trained to use averaging for branch takeoff, be careful. It cannot be used for everything, and will not be the same in every situation. For example, if you were bidding a school, the averages in the administration building would be different from the averages in a classroom building. Averages must be set for each condition on the project and cannot be applied to all branch. You will have to do some measuring.
So here is the branch takeoff argument: Many estimators believe strongly that the only safe way to takeoff branch is to measure it, while others argue with equal passion that measuring is a waste of time—time that could be used to get out more estimates per estimating dollar.
I would like to hear your opinions on this argument. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.