A Software Primer

By Stephen Carr | Dec 15, 2013




For those of you who are new to electrical estimating software, it is important to understand the basic concepts behind the shiny images on the computer screen. Not knowing can lead to problems with the software and your estimates. Additional frustration is the last thing you need when you’re trying to complete an estimate.

All of the electrical estimating programs I am familiar with provide the same basic functions. First, they have a database of electrical materials. Second, they provide a way to input your takeoff quantities into the computer. Third, they have a way to summarize the takeoff quantities you entered, and fourth, they provide a recapitulation (or recap, for short). The first function I will discuss is the database.

The mystery revealed

When I first got into computers, database programs were a mystery to me. As I was very visual, word processing and spreadsheet programs were easy for me to understand. However, with the databases available at the time, you put all your information into a black hole and then write a query in some complex language to get the info back out. I did not realize that electrical estimating software is built around a database. When I finally woke up to that fact, it all became clear. The database is simply a list of items. For example, if you create a grocery list on a piece of paper, with a column for items and a column for quantity, you have created a database. Each row is called a record, and each column is called a field. On the first row of your list, under the column for items, you write potatoes. Under the column for quantity, you specify five pounds. That makes up a complete record. In an electrical estimating database, each row, or record, would be a piece of material, such as a 4S box. The columns, or fields, for an electrical database would include titles, such as description, price, discount and labor unit.

The software may also have a second database for storing assemblies. An assembly is simply a collection of electrical parts. For instance, a duplex receptacle assembly may include a box, ring, support, device and plate. The joy of using assemblies is the time saved inputting your takeoff. Using an assembly can easily save hundreds of keystrokes or mouse clicks for each estimate.

Each of the estimating software packages will come with a factory-created database, and each package will have different numbers of items and assemblies in their databases. For instance, a software package may have 125,000 electrical items and 50,000 assemblies in the database.

If you are currently doing fully detailed estimating by hand, you know it is quite a process. After your counts are finished, you have to explode the assemblies into their component parts, list each on a pricing form, and summarize the quantities. Then you have to add pricing and labor, extend the totals across the form, and add up all the numbers for the price and labor columns. 

A computer-based estimating database is the end of that nightmare. All of the prices and labor are already in the system. The program applies the numbers, and does all the math. The result is significant time savings and the elimination of human error in the calculations.

Taking care of business

There are four tasks you will have to complete with any estimating program you purchase. The first is to learn what’s in it. Modern estimating databases can be huge and are getting bigger. Learning what is in your database is well worth the time, as that knowledge will deliver the maximum benefit you can get from your estimating system. The second is maintaining your material prices. One option for updating the prices would be to subscribe to a price-updating service. The third task is fine-tuning the labor units to meet the abilities of your company. Most of these database systems ship with multiple columns of labor units. There is usually a “competitive” column, and several columns for more difficult installations. You cannot assume that any of these labor columns will work for you. Ensure the labor units you use work with the history you have for the installations you are estimating. The fourth task you need to complete is making the database complete for your company. Add material and assemblies that are important to your company, and fine-tune the sorting. Most databases have a number of ways to sort your estimates, such as by cost codes for your accounting system. The sorting can be edited to match your requirements.

The database is your friend. Set it up well, take care of it, and it will take care of you.

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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