To avoid costly surprises, a complete estimate is just one part of the equation. Uncertainties must be covered with a cost factor, albeit at times information is scarce.

Many plans seem to increasingly lack the information needed for an intelligent, error-free bid, yet this is what people seem to want. Compounding the estimator’s challenge are the “almighty” clauses that place specialty contractors squarely in the bull’s eye.

Follow-up on the job when the bid was successful also improves estimates. Understanding and noting anything that’s out of the ordinary is the balance of the formula.

Some of the estimator’s duties will probably overlap with those of others in the company. While this can be sensitive, all must focus on the success of the bid, the project, and finally the company. As part of the management team, estimators should assume the responsibility for gathering and tracking of all the facts considered in the estimating process. While some of this information may be considered to be irrelevant, be assured that any field problems can affect future bids. Feedback from field personnel is one source of information.

Understanding the engineer’s intentions and methods is a further strategy to sharpen the bid. Sensible estimators develop and rely on personal contacts with those affecting the work.

Despite the decades-long effort to unite under one electrical code, areas are permitted to enact “local amendments.” While varying Code interpretations are intended to be more restrictive to handle local problems, these amendments often serve no distinctive purpose.

In a recent article, published by the International Conference of Building Officials, a retired inspector made the case for copious notes of decisions affecting a project. He was called as a witness in a trial in which his decision was an important point. Fortunately, he had kept a log of decisions and was able to corroborate the basis of his decision. Estimators should likewise have some means of recording notes, information, and decisions that may affect a bid. Names, titles, and dates are essential. An important caveat with any writing is that third parties may at some time get access to the notes.

A costly part of a project is the installation of underground utility feeders, also known as laterals. Communication services impose further requirements. While utilities have their basic requirements and jurisdiction, local authorities may override any of these installation methods. This can lead to costly errors, and augers for a system of cataloging decisions that impact or may have impacted the installations.

Major cost considerations include requirements to use particular products that are not normally expected. The utility may accept PVC, while the local jurisdiction requires rigid conduit; this is a costly variance, particularly if not estimated as such.

Encasement requirements of utility conduits that are beyond the normal, or state-of-the-art methods can cause further cost shock. These variances can involve the depth of the conduit, the type and color of the encasement, and the marking of the line’s location. Photographic records of such installations can assist in future estimates; as well establish a record of how the installation was made.

Estimators should also gather and retain, in an organized file, those code variances that may have been approved or granted in various jurisdictions. At times, these decisions are based on value engineering considerations and can affect the result of a bid if applied judiciously. Further, such a reference may assist in making future bid decisions.

Varying labor requirements also affect bids. In many jurisdictions, information sheets are routinely updated and shared with other areas. National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) chapter professionals can fill many of the information voids by either providing telephone links or including names of key personnel to contact. Such data becomes invaluable at bid closing time.

Various policies and regulations for workman’s compensation, liability limits, and various types of insurance required of particular awarding agencies are further prime information for any database. Similarly, applicable permit and plan check fees should be kept track of, as well as energy regulations-related fees. In past years, a small percentage would have covered these various costs, but today, municipalities especially have found that assessing new fees for construction projects produces a fountain of previous untapped dollars. In some cases, these fees amount to as much as 20 percent of the construction project. The electrical industry is not spared such hefty increases.

If the information’s absence could have caused an otherwise correctly estimated project to produce a lower profit margin than expected, then it should be made readily accessible to others in the firm. EC

DAVID is a professor of electrical technology at Long Beach City College, Calif., a consultant, and an expert witness. He can be reached at (562) 597-1877 or by e-mail at