The next function of electrical estimating software (after the database, which I covered last month), is having a way for you to enter your takeoff into the estimating system. How do we get items out of the database and into the estimate? That is the job of the user interface.


In regard to computers, the user interface is the space where interaction between a person and a computer takes place. In the simplest terms, the interface consists of a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. The software presents information on the monitor, and you respond with the keyboard and mouse. Each of the various estimating systems has its own unique interface, designed to make it easy to input your counts and edit the information in the system. When you are ready to enter your counts, the user interface will help you find the appropriate item or assembly and ask for your count. When you type in the count and hit enter, the system will copy the item or items from the database and put them in the estimate file.


The software also needs to provide a way to organize your estimate. This function goes by a number of names, such as “phase tree,” “breakdown” or “takeoff structure.” For small estimates that are to be bid in a lump sum, you may want to break down your estimate by a few broad categories, such as fixtures, outlets, branch and feeders. For more complex estimates, the software will help you break down the estimate as needed to meet the bid form requirements for bid items and alternatives.


Remember to frequently check where you are inputting your takeoff. Discovering that you have just input three pages of takeoff in the wrong place has inspired inappropriate language in an office setting.


The first step is to direct the software to create a job. This is a simple ­operation where the estimating system will ask you for the job name and maybe some other information, such as bid date, customer name and location. Some estimating programs also allow you to “set” the specifications, which saves you many keystrokes or clicks. For instance, you could set EMT fittings to be steel set-screw and never have to answer that question again. If you do not set the specification, you would have to pick from a list of the different types of EMT connectors every time you entered a conduit run.


There are two common input interfaces. The first is known as the “lead you by the hand” method, in which you are asked to identify components one at a time. For instance, to input an outlet, you will be prompted to select from a list of boxes, then rings, then devices, and finally plates. This method makes it hard to miss a component but requires many more keystrokes than using a predefined assembly.


Most of the estimating systems I am familiar with use lists to navigate to the material item or assembly you want to input. Here is a possible scenario for inputting a feeder by selecting the components one at a time. 


First, you would click on “Conduit & Wire,” then “EMT.” Next, you would select a size and enter your measurement. The system would then present a list of components from which to select, such as elbows, connectors, couplings, supports and wire. Some systems save you additional keystrokes by automatically calculating some quantities for you, such as a coupling for every 10 feet of EMT, or calculating the wire length for you after you have entered the conduit length, wire size, number of wires and makeup.


If you want to input an assembly, such as a one-pole switch, the software would present you with lists that may be organized in a number of different ways. One possibility would be that your first selection is number of poles. After you make that selection, you could be presented with a list of switches organized by grade, location and plate type.


Bells and whistles


All of the systems I am familiar with have many other features designed to make entering and editing your takeoff as fast and painless as possible. One such feature most estimating systems provide is a way to add “job-specific” material items. Imagine that the plans call for a timeclock that is not in your database. The software will show a button you can click on, which brings up a screen where you can add these job- specific items. 


If you are shopping for an estimating system, review all of the features carefully, as those features can make a big difference in the time it takes to complete an estimate.