Construction software has changed the way many contractors do their jobs. But the choices can be daunting and confusing to the first-time buyer, most of whom start out looking at estimating software. Some couple with digitizers (see sidebar), others are AutoCAD-based and one uses scanned drawings. “Full-integration” software can plug in estimating figures to perform accounting, project management and other functions.

CAD-type programs

Some experts think a day will come when paper blueprints are outdated and contractors will get drawings only on a CD or via the Internet. A growing number of contractors already have programs that can accommodate that change. McCormick Systems software, for example, has interfaces that help do takeoffs directly from AutoCAD files.

“When we wrote our first CAD interface five or six years ago, people were saying, ‘Wow, what are you doing?’ But I’m glad we have it out now because it’s been perfected more and more over the years,” said Todd McCormick, president.

“When an estimator does an extension, he can edit everything on screen—prices, labor units,” he added. “You can swap materials. Say you want to alternate from copper to aluminum. You can save extensions and pull them back up at any point. There’s a lot you can do at the last minute in your extension area.”

In 1994, SELLECT introduced CADTakeOff, part of a long line of products. Available in several versions, it can be used with popular estimating software or regular spreadsheets.

SELLECT emphasizes training; they hone in on CAD’s electrical application and dispense with the information contractors won’t need. They consider their sales approach to be laid-back but claim “support after the sale is second to none.”

CADTakeOff performs onscreen takeoffs, just as they’re done on blueprints. It can take CAD drawing files from any source, run it through your estimating software and develop immediate cost reports. The computer then asks the estimator to pick a takeoff area—the entire drawing or a room, wall or specific equipment and the symbols and associated estimating materials are calculated in a snap.

More choices

Electrofind, from E/T Software, uses neither digitizers nor AutoCAD; it takes a scanned-in drawing and automatically counts and highlights user-specified symbols with its search engine. Electrofind eliminates the clicker/highlighter or roll-dometer and can export data to your existing estimating program or Excel spreadsheet. These electronic drawings can be stored on disk or hard drive and printed with minimal expense.

E/T cofounder Gary Bradley is quick to reiterate that CAD isn’t needed to run his program. He also said smaller contractors will see a good rate of return “because their time is as valuable as a larger contractor.” And though it might sound as complicated as calculus, Bradley assures contractors these programs are easy to use. In fact, E/T took pains to make their package accessible to estimators, eschewing designs that would impress “techies” with bells and whistles. Bradley said the question is: Do they get what they are looking for and can they find it easily?

“You want to feel like it’s a comfortable fit,” he said. “Our audience is electrical estimators; these guys don’t want all these buttons to push. All they’re worried about, and all they have time to worry about, is the end result.”

Estimating packages

ConEst president George Hague sums up his product’s best feature one word: “intelligence.” It is more than a data-entry system that will spit out reports.

“What we’ve tried to do with ConEst systems is to help the contractor or the estimator make decisions on the fly,” Hague said.

During a project, estimators will make modifications or implement cost-saving ideas. But they must comply with the NEC. ConEst has tables—NEC, conduit and wire, etc.—built in.

“What this means,” Hague said, “is if a contractor puts a certain amount of wires in a conduit, the ConEst program has the ability to correct any conduit sizing for those conductors ... Sometimes this amounts to hours of work on the part of the estimator, especially when they have different-sized conductors in that conduit. There are different calculations that have to be made. The ConEst program has the ability to identify those different methods and to go in and fix it.”

It can also correct “installation degrees of difficulty” because working in a boom lift, for example, is harder.

Eric Davenport, of Cert-In Software Systems, said his South Florida area is fiercely competitive and the ability to make more estimates is a key reason to invest in a system.

“One of the things we stress and what we think makes our product different from others is that all jobs that the majority of electrical contractors do are not extremely large jobs,” he said, “and those jobs don’t need to be treated as million-dollar jobs. That’s what our customers tell us. That’s why they prefer our product. Our system is so quick to use, so easy to use, and it’s so simple to set up a job, it can be done in a very short period of time.”

The ability to manipulate the data, to make it reflect your business and the labor rates and material costs in your area is vital, Davenport said.

Vision InfoSoft is one of a handful of companies that lists prices, with an entry-level product ringing in at $795. A complete list of their software and prices is found on their Web site.

Brian Hoffelder, head of the training department, said they’ve done a total software revamp, two to three years rewriting, after nine years or so of suggestions from users. The result was a new platform with a modern Windows interface and thousands of new database items.

“It gave the whole program a new look and a lot of new features, better ease of use and access,” Hoffelder said. “The hardest part is to add features without adding complexity.

“That’s one of the most important things we’ve done, to broaden our product line a little more,” he added. “I think we’re perceived to be, because our prices are a bit lower, a solution for the smaller contractor. But we’re trying to change that perception because we have contractors that have 100, 200 employees that are using the system.”

Many firms offer a choice. Accubid makes billing software and has a new software-related product, the pocket ChangeOrder. This cell phone-size device can change prices while you’re at a job site and give clients an immediate response. When you return to the office, it can be synchronized with a change-order desktop function to print or e-mail detailed reports.

Accubid, however, got its start in 1983 as an estimating company and offers three levels of software. Top-of-the-line Accubid Pro is advertised to provide “a complete enterprise estimating/project management solution.” The software integrates purchasing, project management, billing and accounting using the original estimate data seamlessly, without redundant keying in of information.

Mid-level BidWinner Plus, meanwhile, provides additional takeoff modules, and a number of advanced features, including multiple bid summaries, the ability to create specialized designations and use hot lists to assemble takeoffs.

The full-integration alternative

WennSoft produces job-cost and service-management software that integrates with almost all estimating packages and gives ECs a complete picture of their jobs. It tracks schedule, budget and profitability and inventory. President Jim Wenninger said his firm was fortunate to hook up early with Great Plains and used it as a financial foundation, now called Microsoft Business Solutions. Users will inherit Microsoft tech advances.

“Any customer who buys the product will automatically get the dotEdit environment (a Web-page sharing program) when it comes out, they automatically get mobile access, they get ‘Sharepoint’ server—all of those neat things that can extend the product to the Web.”

In the 1990s, contractors brought parts and pieces, but often couldn’t fit them together, and ended up with additional staff entering information in multiple systems, Wenninger said. WennSoft has hundreds of resellers and thinks local support is paramount.

“Contractors like the guy who can come across town and help them when they’re trying to do the year-end tax run or their payroll W-2s at the end of the year. It’s something they don’t do often, so they like that support.”

Timberline Office is a “cross-functional” system of financial and operational software. It can tie accounting, estimating and project management together, eliminating multiple data entry and allowing everyone access to the data.

Office’s main features include percent-complete or units-in-place reporting, which gives you the ability to look at accounting costs at any time during the job. It runs real-time reports, has a construction database built on RS Means pricing for 700 cities and, with a keystroke, will turn estimates into RFQs.

Estimating remains the core function. Office can be customized for your needs and accommodates digitizers or CAD integrators for quicker estimates. The “model” estimating feature gives ballpark estimates simply by answering a few on-screen questions.

Intuit’s Master Builder has origins that go back to 1985 when contractor Dan Smith began designing software. Intuit is also part of the QuickBooks family, with its long track record of support.

It links estimating, production, accounting and analysis into a comprehensive package, and prior versions generally sold to firms with $2 to $5 million in sales, but the latest model has been scaled for companies from $500,000 to $10 million.

Though estimation, good production and accurate accounting are important, job analysis is one of Master Builder’s strengths. As Smith has said, contractors have to look at their original estimate and say, “So, what did I do right and wrong?”

Master Builder handles everything from basic estimating to functions that might surprise those unfamiliar with construction software. Client tracking, for example. A client database can track a sale from initial contact a contract signing. Managing follow-up calls is just one part of this function. A salesperson can enter a callback date in the client record, and based on a catalog of callback dates, can quickly generate a list of clients to call for the next day or week.

Dexter + Chaney vice president Brad Matthews says buying full-integration software is smart.

“People are looking around—especially now because work’s a lot tighter—and we know what that does to competitive bidding ... People have to look at overhead expenses and ask if they’re doing things the smartest way. They have this program to do this and this program to do that, but what their looking to do is to bring all those programs together.”

Their Forefront Construction Management Software eliminates re-entry of data into separate programs and helps smooth information integration. Matthews said their customers report higher profits, a 3 to 5 percent improvement in margins and have built up their companies without adding accounting staff.

Matthews is especially excited about Forefront and document imaging. For example, if an RFI were generated by a handwritten note and a photo, it would be scanned in and stored permanently as an electronic file. EC

FULMER, a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer, can be reached at johnsfulmer@netzero.net.

Learning the basics

Estimation vice president Alan Mech, who began working as an estimator 30 years ago, said service, support and whether the system is comfortable and easy to use are all important.

Estimation’s training center has room for seven trainees, but there’s also a separate demonstration room equipped with a large digitizer table and a computer hooked up to an enormous wall-mounted flat screen.

If new technology gives you the willies, have no fear. Mech is friendly, down-to-earth and can show you in about 30 painless minutes how an estimating system can change your business. Mech thinks most contractors face an important decision when their sales reach $1 million.

Most have been working as owner/project manager/estimator and find things a little out of control. They could hire an estimator but that means added personnel issues and the possibility of an expensive hire, who, no matter how many bids are put out, can’t justify the salary.

A better solution might be to buy an estimating package, which, Mech said, “will let you pump out the bids” at a fraction an estimator’s pay. If the business grows, the contractor still has the software and hardware and can hire an estimator to run it full time.

Mech showed me how to use the digitizer, an electronically wired table on which a blueprint was laid. He touched both ends of a conduit run with a probe hooked up to the computer.

The software automatically adjusted the scale and immediately shot out an estimated length, which was mixed with a database of suppliers’ prices and labor rates to set an installation cost. (The software can also set up databases of often-used assemblies and calculate the number of hangers, clips, panels, switches and other required hardware.)

The computer has a standard keyboard, but Estimation’s coup de grace is the Power Pad, similar to the key-in devices used in fast-food joints, the kind that price frequently used units (i.e., one Big Mac equals $1.89).

The easy-to-transport pad can perform in-the-field takeoffs and connects to a portable, roll-up digitizer, which Mech said has become increasingly flexible and reliable. The Power Pad creates a heads-down approach to takeoffs, so estimators can concentrate on plans, not the computer monitor.

Mech said Estimation developed the pad long ago because most contractors simply didn’t know how to type.

“We’ve had so much success with this, we haven’t changed that process,” he said, “but the design has evolved.”

John Fulmer