A friend recently asked me, “What’s so hard about bidding electrical work? You don’t even need a college degree to be an estimator.” I said he was oversimplifying things and told him it can be a complex, highly detailed process with many strategies and chess-like moves. He asked me to explain it to him, and I was stymied at first because I did not know where to begin. Once I got started, it was like opening the floodgates.


First, I reminded him that we are trying to be the low bidder, not an also-ran. We have to find every advantage we can to be the low bidder, while still having enough profit in the proposal to make bidding the project worth the effort.


“Let’s start with the bid documents, which usually include the plans and a specification book,” I said, explaining how we have to read a lot more than just our section. We read the bid invitation, bid form, bid instructions, scope statements, construction schedule, phasing schedule and parts of other nonelectrical sections. We should also review the change order requirements and determine if we will be allowed to modify them if they are unacceptable.


At this point, my friend interrupted and asked, “Are you kidding me? You can read?” I told my friend, a master of sarcasm and insult humor, that it was nice to have a skill he didn’t.


I started explaining the electrical specifications. I told him how a document that used to be a simple explanation of material and installation requirements has evolved into a complex tome filled with traps and legalese. We have to navigate and understand language that states it is our fault if anything is wrong with or missing from the documents. We then have to figure out paragraphs that seem to have been written in a foreign language and then poorly translated to English. We must look for scope in the specifications that is not shown on the drawings.


At this point, the chess game starts in earnest. If you have been doing a good job of marketing, the early moves have already been made, including solidifying pricing agreements and making friends where you need them among manufacturers, owners and general contractors. Then, you have to start reaching out to your suppliers to make deals for the best pricing on this project. You also need to figure out which general contractors are your friends and which are not. Finally, you have to work out strategies for dealing with them.


Next, I talked about the plans. 


“What’s the big deal there?” he asked. “You just have to count what’s on the plans.” 


Once again, I had to advise him that things are not that simple. First, the plans are “diagrammatic,” which means items on the plans are not necessarily where they need to be. The estimator has to be able to recognize when the way things are represented on the plans can’t be done or fail to meet the various codes with which we have to comply.


Another problem is what’s called “incidental items.” The plans do not have to show all the work. There is almost always a section in the specifications that states we have to supply all incidental items required to make the electrical system complete and operational. Electrical engineers are taking advantage of this phrase by spending less time putting information on the plans, while covering their design deficiencies with notes that state it is our responsibility to complete the design. That means estimators have to learn electrical engineering.


Since my friend had not insulted me in a while, I thought he was beginning to understand this was not a profession that any kid off the street could do. I was wrong. He asked me how often I had to take my shoes off so I could count to 20. I told him at least I had shoes to take off.


I moved on to the price sheets and recap, telling him that this part was simple math. I told him the real fun starts on bid day, when we have to use every strategy we know to prevent getting our number shopped and end up the low bidder with the correct general contractor.


He was still unimpressed and asked me if it messed up the math if you had 11 toes. I need to get better friends.