The challenges associated with electrical contracting are great and varied. Of course, estimating is one of the most crucial aspects of the process. It requires close attention to detail, an ability to analyze drawings and specs, and the need to be up-to-date on new materials, job-costing methods and even estimating software. Understanding the importance of an estimator to any contracting or construction firm is best illustrated by taking the time to talk with one who has been in the industry for a while. Such an estimator is Bill Hindman, who is a project executive at Fuellgraf Electric Co. in Butler, Pa. Bill started his construction career as a field electrician and eventually moved in-house as an estimator in 1994. Bill described how he handles his job, on both a routine and as-needed basis.
Can you run through a typical day?
I get started early, around 7 a.m., and I split my time between project management and estimating work. For the estimating, I am involved in preparing estimates daily that are in different stages of completion for current and potential customers. I work on the takeoffs from prints and enter all those counts and measurements into the computer estimating program, which then adds the labor. That means I need to make sure my lengths, quantities and amounts for all conduit, wire, cable, hookups, mechanical equipment, fixtures and various other items are precise. A typical smaller scale job takes a couple of days to estimate, and larger jobs can take weeks to get the right estimate completed.
Has technology made your job easier?
I have seen many changes in how we estimate since I started doing this in 1994. I have to say that the advances in technology, mainly through computers and estimating software, have made things simpler. You have to remember that you need to have the right measurements and counts; only when you enter the right data do you get the right results. One of the big issues today is that material costs seem to change day by day. The use of an estimating program allows those adjustments to be made quickly and accurately and helps expedite jobs. One of the newest technologies, which we use here, are programs that can scan drawings, perform the takeoff counts and then spit out the estimate automatically. Again, you still need to put in the time upfront to ensure the drawings are correct and accurate, as you can only get a good estimate when you use the right information. For these advanced scanning programs, you basically need perfect CAD drawings for them to work right.
Has the economy changed estimating?
The economy has definitely changed estimating. You need to really ensure that you bid jobs much tighter than 15 years ago. Back then, you typically had 4–5 bidders per job, but in today’s economy, it is not uncommon to see 10–11 bidders for a job. Those numbers significantly lower the chance of winning projects. You now need to find creative ways and means of cutting costs. Material costs are pretty much the same for all bidders, so you need to really pay close attention to labor costs. Labor remains the biggest cost on most projects, and we constantly look for more efficient ways to do the installation on any given project.
What else affects estimating?
One of the issues that often comes up nowadays is the expectation that everything can be done instantly. I will get phone calls requesting to have same-day quotes done. That is usually not really possible, depending on the job, but we can expedite the process—because of technology—when we need to. However, the main impact on estimating these days really centers on the total cost for a job. We have always had to be detail-oriented and really think through how the job could actually be built, but that is even more critical today. We are working with such close margins that one job has the potential to be devastating to a company if estimated wrong. Thankfully, the quality of the prints we are estimating from today are much better. They make the bidding more accurate with fewer changes, and the costs that go with them decrease down the road as the job is built.
STONG, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.