Sweat the Small Stuff: Little Things That Add Up

By Stephen Carr | Nov 15, 2018




While preparing an estimate, most of the time is spent on the larger, or more important parts of the estimate—often quotable items such as light fixtures and switchgear and categories such as feeders, branch and outlets. However, this attention to the big picture sometimes leads to small details slipping through the cracks.

These omissions can happen for a number of reasons, including bad documents, poor communication, being rushed, or an estimator’s lack of knowledge. Let’s talk about the last one first. Often, we learn of these estimating “misses” through our own mistakes or, if you’re lucky, the mistakes of others. Many of the omissions I’ve seen had to do with not fully understanding a requirement and then not seeking the meaning.

For instance, while employed as a project manager, I worked on a job that included about 1,200 2-by-4 T-bar fixtures. The fixture submittal was rejected because the lenses were not the specified thickness of 1/8-inch. Both the original estimator and I missed the significance of the requirement during our specification reviews. When I tried to get the vendor to cover the additional cost for the extra thick lenses, he refused. It turned out the estimator had not provided the vendor a copy of the specifications.

This happened at a company with a standard policy of requiring all quotations to be per plans specifications. I don’t know why the estimator did not furnish the specifications to the vendor, but maybe he was rushed and did not take the time to make copies, which was more difficult back in the age of paper-only documents. Now that almost everything is available as a PDF, there is no excuse for not providing all relevant documents to vendors and subcontractors. It only takes a couple of minutes to separate a specific section from a specification and send it out with the quotation request.

This mistake happened because of a small piece of text in an enormous document. It is important to read the specification books and notes on the plans very carefully because of the ability of a few words to lead to significant expenses. This a not a task that should be rushed.

Here is another example. A company I was working at successfully bid for a project that included a large raised computer floor. Normally, the grounding for these floors is inexpensive. However, the estimator missed a small sentence in the specifications that required a Cadweld Copper Foil grounding system. That sentence cost the company $30,000 in material, plus the labor needed to install the system.

Let’s look at poor communications. I was working on an estimate for upgrades at a cement manufacturing plant. I had covered everything on the drawings but also had verbal instructions from the customer to include 800 #14 control wires terminations. We won the project and then got to work. A couple of months later, the project foreman called to tell me I was short on control terminations. I called the customer and found out he had meant he wanted 800 control wires terminated at both ends.

There are two lessons here. First, for your protection, all instructions should always be in writing. Second, because of this and similar mistakes, I’ve learned to always confirm instructions with different and specific language. In this instance, I should have responded in writing that I was adding 800 #14 terminations. By leaving the word “wires” out, I could have been more specific. This type of communication also helps when dealing with people who speak and think in another language. Translating on the fly, while speaking and listening, is no easy task, and exact meanings are not always clear.

Now let’s discuss documents. Today’s bidding documents are often bad and getting worse. Some previous research I did indicates this is coming from the top: the owners. One of my customers is an engineer as well as an electrical contractor. He went to a seminar where the following was presented: Owners have figured out they can save money by only paying designers for incomplete work and that the bidders will finish the design for free just to be able to bid the job. The strategy appears to be working, because we are bidding these projects. The result is projects that take longer to estimate and create more estimating risk, as our crystal balls aren’t always 100 percent accurate. I highly recommend adding qualifications to proposals for all missing or vague scope. Spell out exactly what you are including and excluding.

It takes more time, but don’t ignore the small stuff. It could cost you some day.

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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