Don't Go Over The Fixture Cliff

By Stephen Carr | Jan 15, 2013




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It used to be easy to labor fixtures. I learned a lot about lamps and fixtures in the ’70s and memorized all the standard labor units 30 years ago. For a long time, nothing changed. Apply the standard labor unit, throw in the appropriate factors, and you’re done. Life was easy. Then, changes started creeping in. First, it was electronic ballasts, which were not a threat to the experienced estimator. We just had to make sure vendors got the specifications. Then, T8 lamps appeared on the scene. Who did they think they were? T12 lamps had always worked just fine. And then fluorescent downlights showed up. What were these strange-looking lamps? Still, this was not a challenge for the seasoned estimator.

The threat gets serious

Then bigger changes started coming. My first wake-up call came when I saw that an engineer had put what looked like 2-by-4 lay-in fixtures in a warehouse. Nobody uses 2-by-4s in a warehouse. What was the engineer thinking? Then I read the fixture schedule a little closer and found that they were a new kind of fixture: a six-lamp, T5, VHO warehouse fixture. Now I felt threatened. There was no standard labor unit for this fixture. It was heavier than a 2-by-4 and chain-hung 25 feet above finished floor! What was I going to do? OK, calm down now. Panic is certainly not the answer.

Fixtures and lamps are changing at an accelerated pace, with the push for increasingly efficient light sources driving the evolution. Leading the way right now, of course, is the light-emitting diode (LED), which is expanding into every part of the lighting market.

I spoke with John Irwin of Midwest Lighting, who offered some great insights into the estimating problems associated with LED lighting. First, the technology is evolving very fast. The fixture you installed six weeks ago could be obsolete today. You must research any fixture with which you are unfamiliar. Thankfully, most manufacturer websites have downloadable installation manuals, and some have installation videos. 

Another problem is incomplete specifications. Irwin often sees a fixture list calling for a certain manufacturer’s series, without the actual catalog number. Since there are usually many options available, some very expensive, this is another area of risk. 

The next problem is incomplete engineering. I have seen many projects that do not show control or dimming wiring, which are most often separate from the power wiring. I have also heard complaints about poor fixture quality, causing installations to go slowly. Irwin advises that you stick with reputable companies to avoid poor quality fixtures. He advises estimators to practice a “CYA” philosophy when dealing with new fixture technology.

Laboring new fixture types

I asked a number of senior and chief estimators how they dealt with laboring new types of fixtures and got two different ways of handling the problem. The most popular method is to compare them to a standard fixture, such as a downlight. LED downlights are very similar to their fluorescent cousins, whose labor unit can be used as a starting point. However, when trying to labor a new type of fixture, the estimators I spoke with perform extensive research and collaborate with experienced field personnel before settling on a labor unit.

David Allenbrand, chief estimator at Fisk Electric Co.’s Los Angeles office, starts from zero and does not rely on legacy labor units when he is dealing with a new fixture. He performs a complete analysis of the fixture and its installation requirements and comes up with a labor unit. Allenbrand then applies labor factors, as required by the project conditions, to obtain the final labor unit.

More impacts

I also spoke to Jeff Rua, chief estimator at Dynalectric’s Los Angeles-area office, about fixture evolution’s effect on the design/build side of our industry. The new LED fixtures are having a major impact on design, as fewer fixtures are required to achieve specified lighting levels. This can affect power distribution all the way back to the main service. There are fewer fixtures, drawing less power and requiring less branch wiring, smaller panelboards, and smaller feeders. Rua also noted that reducing fixture quantities with LED requires extensive photometric analysis.

One of my customers pointed out that office overhead also is affected. He often has to spend an excessive amount of time during the submittal process, coordinating between the manufacturer, engineer and architect to get the correct options included for the LED lighting.

The common message I heard from everyone with whom I spoke—including­ manufacturers, vendors and estimators—is do your homework. Do not bid on unfamiliar fixtures without a complete understanding of their requirements.

About The Author

CARR has been in the electrical construction business since 1971. He started Carr Consulting Services—which provides electrical estimating and educational services—in 1994. Contact him at 805.523.1575 or [email protected], and read his blog at


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