The Puzzles Have Changed: Project puzzlers, part 3

By Stephen Carr | Jan 15, 2021
Construction workers move puzzle pieces into place | iStock / XPoint




In this third installment of Project Puzzlers, let’s cover some more of my frustrations regarding today’s bidding documents.

What do you really mean?

Almost every project I bid these days contains conflicts and contradictions on the bid documents. One of my favorite examples is Conduit Type and Usage. I usually start a project by creating an outline of the specifications. It is important to find the requirements for the types of materials to be used in the construction of the project. The conduit section is usually the most frustrating. Most often, the specification is laid out in three sections: General, Products and Installation or Execution. It used to be that conduit types and where they can be used were always located in the Products section—but not anymore. I am now finding this information in all three sections, or in a table after the specification section, or in notes on the plans.

There are also often contradictions, sometimes between specification sections, and other times between the specifications and the plans. How are we supposed to deal with that? Here are a few suggestions. First, do not assume you can use the least expensive option. There is often a specification paragraph that says something like, “In the event of a conflict in the plans and specifications, use the more expensive alternative.” Okay, suppose I use galvanized rigid steel conduit (GRS), per a note on the plans, instead of electrical metallic tubing (EMT) like the specifications call for. The problem with that is, what is your competition going to do? Using GRS when they are using EMT will definitely make you the high bidder.

For a conflict this big, I will submit a request for information (RFI) to the general contractor asking for clarification. When writing an RFI, be very specific. Include the required information for the engineer to see the conflict you found, including all specification sections, plan sheets and note numbers.

Where’s the emergency?

Figuring out the requirements for emergency lighting can be frustrating. Requirements for when to include a battery in the fixture can be shown in many places. I like it when they are indicated in the fixture schedule, such as Fixture Type A-EM. Sometimes, though, the requirement is in a note under the fixture schedule, which may require a battery for every fixture on an emergency or night-light circuit. The same language may be used in the specifications, most often in the Lighting section.

The requirement for emergency batteries may also be shown in the Symbol Schedule, most often as a shaded or half-shaded fixture. Read the schedule carefully, as the requirement may only be that shaded fixtures are on an emergency circuit and do not require a battery. In addition, do not assume that because a project has a generator that the emergency fixtures do not need batteries. I have seen projects that require a generator, an inverter and batteries in emergency fixtures. Another thing to watch out for is that some municipalities require that all normal and emergency wiring be placed in separate conduits.

“Symbols can be beautiful, sometimes”—Kurt Vonnegut

We should talk some more about symbol lists, which have become frustrating over the last 15 years. Designers often use a standard symbol list, but then do not edit it for the specific project. (The same is true for specifications.) Most jobs I bid have symbols on the plans that are not shown in the symbol list.

For this problem, I try to interpret the symbol based on context. Where is it on the plan? Which circuit is it attached to? Does the panel schedule identify what that circuit is connected to? Is there a diagram or schematic that also shows the symbol? Even the lowly duplex receptacle can be a problem, with so many options out there now. Is it a $2 receptacle, or a $30 receptacle? You will need to solve these types of puzzles to protect you from costly mistakes in your estimates. If you have passed the cut-off date for an RFI, an engineer may talk to you if you give them a polite call.

Feed me

The last thing to cover is missing loads. When measuring feeders, I often have trouble finding some of the loads. Items such as motors, HVAC units and even panels are simply not shown on the plans. In the case of a missing HVAC load, a quick browse of the mechanical plans usually reveals a location. I also review plumbing and architectural plans for missing loads. If you must make an assumption on a location, note it in your proposal.

Even though it can be frustrating and time-consuming to solve these problems, it is better for your sanity and health to take a deep breath, remain calm and soldier on.

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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