While researching for last month’s article, I was quite surprised to find many contractors and estimators who did not understand the basic concepts of paperless estimating. Some of the confusion seemed to stem from vendor demonstrations that concentrated on their software’s autocount feature, at the expense of explaining the basic features and operations. Others simply did not understand the point of putting drawings on a computer screen. Therefore, for all of you in need of understanding, here is a primer for paperless estimating.

The point of going paperless is this: Even the basic functions of this software will simplify your life and save time. I purchased my first system in November 2007 and was completely paperless two months later. I do not miss paper! The piles of drawings covering every horizontal surface in my offices are history. Paying for plans, reverse rolling, plan racks and plan storage, inserting addendum pages, removing giant staples, staple stabs, and paper cuts are all things I will never have to deal with again. And it lessens interruptions and confusion, since the software immediately highlights and records everything you count or measure; you will never lose your place again.

At their most basic level, these systems are a metaphor for paper estimating. Instead of using a thumb wheel (clicker), measuring wheel and a highlighter, your computer’s mouse is all you need. Beyond the basics are many time-saving and organizational utilities, but all you really need to get started are the five basic tasks.

  1. Getting the plan files—This process is easier and less expensive than obtaining paper plans. Small project files can be emailed. For larger files, there are many free file-transfer tools on the web. Most often, however, we download the plans from online planrooms, hosted by general contractors, architects or third-party companies, such as iSqFt. Ensure you save the files to a place you can remember.

    The file type I receive most frequently is PDF; however, most of the paperless estimating programs will import nearly all of the common graphic file types, including JPG, CPC, TIFF and Autocad files. You may need a utility program for manipulating the files. Some of the PDF files I get include the entire project in one document, which can be hundreds of pages. I use a PDF utility to break out the electrical drawings before importing them into my paperless estimating system. You may also need a zip file utility, as the drawings are often delivered compressed and need to be extracted.

  2. Create the project—Once you have obtained the plans, it is time to create a project. After you click on “New Job” or its equivalent, the software will prompt you to give the job a name and may also ask you for other project-related information. When that step is complete, you will be prompted to select the plan files you want to import. My preference is to import the electrical plans only. For reference, I use a free PDF viewer to check other plans, such as the architectural drawings.

  3. Count the drawings—It is now time to do some takeoff. Each system seems to have its own terminology for takeoff, including names like takeoff items, digitizers or conditions. Let’s call them digitizers. There are usually at least three types of digitizers: counting, distance measuring and area calculations. We’ll start with a count. After clicking on the button to create a count digitizer, you will be prompted to give it a name, such as “Fixture A.” Then, pick a color and possibly choose a place or folder to store the takeoff. Now the fun starts. Simply click on the A fixtures in the on-screen drawing. Every time you click, the software will count, highlight and record your quantities. That’s three for the price of one.

  4. Measure the drawings—The other digitizer you will be using often is the linear, or measurement, digitizer. You will use it to measure branch circuits and feeders. The process is similar to counts. Click on the appropriate button to create a measurement digitizer, give it a name, and pick a color and storage folder. To measure, simply click on the beginning, intermediate and end locations. Your measurement is now calculated, highlighted and recorded. There’s another three for the price of one.

  5. Highlight the drawings—There are some things I do not count with the software, such as switchgear. Instead, I use the highlighting feature to mark an item on the screen as I enter the takeoff directly into my estimating software.

    That’s all there is to it. The counting, measuring and highlighting tools are all you need to complete a takeoff. The more advanced tools can wait until you are ready for them.