Electrical estimators are often placed in an almost impossible position. We are given raw schematics of large, complex buildings from which we are expected to estimate the cost of the many intricate electrical and signal installations they contain. Our estimates have to be right, for if we estimate too much, we will most likely lose the bid. If we estimate too little, we might win the bid. However, that is not necessarily the best way to win a project. So we need to ask questions before we bid the project to protect our company (and possibly our jobs).

Why we write RFIs
There are often designs we just can’t figure out or that don’t make any sense. Sometimes the specs aren’t written clearly enough or contradict what is shown in the design. General sheet notes don’t always match the actual design (some engineers use the same notes for every job), and numbered sheet notes don’t always get applied to the right symbols or installations.

By writing requests for information (RFIs), you can eliminate much of the guess work and lessen the risk associated to it. Additionally, you may even the playing field by eliminating the guessing your competition is doing.

How to write an RFI
Writing RFIs should not be a lengthy, time-consuming task. First of all, you don’t have time to inform the design team or managing general contractor about every mistake or design flaw. You also don’t want your questions to offend, so keep any personal comments or snide quips to yourself.

How you phrase your questions is very important. I highly recommend limiting each RFI to a single question about a single topic. If you submit too many questions on a single RFI, you may not get back answers to all of them. Then you would have to resubmit the RFI.

Unless the topic of the question calls for it, I recommend avoiding asking questions that allow for a simple yes or no answer, as these single words typically don’t offer enough information and explanation.

For example, you may ask: “Is aluminum wire allowed?” The answer will likely come back: “yes.”

This answer doesn’t tell you where, when and how aluminum wire may be used. You will then be back to making assumptions. A better way to ask this question would be: “Please clarify if aluminum wire is allowed and for which installations. Please list where we can install it and how.”

Remember, pose your questions simply and concisely, stay on topic and keep things short.

When to write an RFI
Write RFIs for issues that are really important and expensive. Don’t write RFIs for minor things, such as a single receptacle that is in the wrong location. These types of RFIs are better left for after you win the contract and are actually building the job.

Of course, you can write so many RFIs that the bid management team is forced to postpone the bid. This may be just what you need and want, but know this: getting a project postponed also allows your competition additional time to be more competitive. Plus, it gives other bidders time to jump into the game.

I have worked for and with many contractors who are very cautious about issuing RFIs, believing they could be showing their hand to the competition. This is especially common when the RFI is addressing a design flaw or issue that is not necessarily obvious or one most estimators might not see or worry about.

For example, one of the most common RFI questions issued is: “Are we allowed to use MC cable?” This can work for better or worse in two different ways.

First, your competitors may simply be following the spec and thinking that MC cable is not allowed. But you may have found a contradictory note or detail, which would make for a great winning argument in a change-order situation. If you issue an RFI asking about MC and pointing out the discrepancy, the engineer may be forced to answer, and now everyone sees the same opportunity you do.

However, by exposing this issue, you might level the playing field and cause everyone to look at (and estimate) the project the same way. This could ultimately help your bid to be more competitive.
Bidding on electrical construction projects is a big enough gamble in itself. Estimators are the first line of defense for a company bidding projects. We must eliminate as much risk as we possibly can by estimating every installation as accurately as possible. If we don’t know exactly what is to be installed, how can we price the project accurately and minimize the risk to our company’s profits? So we need to ask questions. We need to write RFIs.

Next month, this column will discuss how to estimate the responses to your RFIs and how to set up your estimate while you wait for them.

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 23 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 and sfs@TakeOff16.com.