My team members and I recently estimated the most intensive lighting design we have ever seen: a major high-rise hotel in Las Vegas. Until you start one of these projects, you have no idea what intense lighting design entails.

We reviewed, counted on and marked up more than 100 lighting drawings. There are 200-plus types of fixtures in twice as many configurations. We built more than 500 different fixture assemblies and made approximately 9,200 entries in our database, which extended to more than 37,000 total fixtures!

How do we know 37,000-plus fixtures is the correct amount? How do we confirm we didn’t screw something up? Perhaps an incorrect entry on a “typical” label set? Or maybe there’s an entire page of count entries missing? How would we know?

Always count fixtures twice

Miscounting fixtures happens. It happens when people feel rushed by a deadline. It happens when a design is poor and hard to interpret. It happens when an estimator gets interrupted. It happens when the estimator counts the fixture and doesn’t enter it on the spreadsheet. And this happens because the estimator didn’t immediately review the audit trail to make sure the fixture was entered.

Here’s a scenario made possible by our estimating programs: The estimator builds a database assembly but leaves out the fixture item. Guess what? The fixture doesn’t make it into the extension. How do you check this? Review each assembly thoroughly. Twice.

Counting twice is a very sound estimating practice, but do you have enough time? Is it feasible to have two different estimators count the same fixtures, one checking the other? What if the project is a $100 million hotel with thousands of light fixtures, and you only have three weeks to estimate the job?

Taking the time and having the time to count fixtures accurately are two different things. They do not often accompany each other on a prebid project. Make sure you accurately count and assess each fixture right the first time. If you are lucky enough to have time to count them twice, I recommend doing so.

Two hash marks form an X

Back in the day, the standard was to mark each fixture with a red hash mark as you counted it. Then, on the second count, mark it again, creating an “X” on each fixture.

Today we use highlighter pens. Depending on how you use them, you might color the entire fixture the first time. Marking it again with the same color doesn’t really work, nor does using a second color. I recommend using the highlighter for the first pass and a red pen for the second or vice versa.

But no matter how you count them or how many times you do it—whether you use direct entry or spreadsheets—if you don’t thoroughly review your audit trail for each and every entry, you will never know if they are accurate.

One standard in our industry has always been to begin the estimate by counting the light fixtures. I can still hear my former boss yelling from down the hall: “We need to get those counts out now!” Even today, I have clients who ask on the second day, “Are the counts ready yet?”

I understand the urgency to get the counts out to vendors, but those same clients and vendors don’t like it when we miss a few and have to redo the counts.

I don’t necessarily believe the fixture counts should be rushed off to the lighting vendors two weeks before the project bids. This said, I do believe it is important to work closely with your lighting vendors and help them price your package as much as possible.

The reality is the lighting vendors (mainly the factory rep agencies) put together their pricing based on a consensus of your counts and your competitors’ counts, possibly factoring in their own as a safety factor. Therefore, it is not a make-or-break situation that they have your counts within the first two days of the estimate.

In fact, rushing your counts out the door may actually cost you money later, as you could make a serious mistake in counting and/or analyzing them accurately. Also, if you think getting your counts in early gets you the best price on bid day, well, perhaps you need another cup of coffee.

Counting the fixtures accurately is a first, critical step in securing an accurately priced prebid fixture package. However, if you win the project, you may want to count them again before you place your order.

Lighting fixtures are expensive. Incorrect counts can cost your company serious money. They also can cause you to lose a bid or help you win one. So remember to focus, avoid interruptions and make sure you are entering all your counts correctly.

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or sfs@TakeOff16.com.