Estimating on the Road

Throughout my career, I have occasionally had to do some work while on vacation or traveling. Now self-employed, I often work away from the office. Today’s technology makes this a lot easier.

In the old days, I lugged around a hundred pounds of paper plans and a portable file storage box. At that time, finding a place to work was a challenge. Hotel rooms rarely had a big enough table to roll out the plans. Working while camping was actually a little better, if there was a nice picnic table. Of course, there were interruptions at mealtime, and, yes, I have had to chase my plans through the forest on a windy day.

Eventually, laptop computers became good enough to run estimating software, which helped quite a bit. However, I often had to replace my laptop as the software demanded increasingly powerful computing.

Fortunately, things seem to have settled down. Most estimating software works fine on a reasonably fast computer with a full 1,080p HD (1,920 x 1,080) screen. Also, the standardization of the HDMI interface made it easy to connect your laptop to a larger screen.

When I first started traveling with a laptop, I would have to transfer all the files I needed from the desktop computer. When I got back to the office, I would have to reverse the process. It was a pain, and I always seemed to forget at least one file I needed. Usually, I could retrieve the file from my cloud backup. However, some files were not backed up in an easily retrievable fashion. For instance, a job file from an estimating system using the Microsoft SQL file structure was a collection of many files. The right thing to do would have been to export it from my desktop and import it to my laptop. Of course, I would have transferred it if I had known a customer was going to call during my road trip with a question about a job I finished three months prior.

A better way to work on the road using a travel home desktop/laptop scenario is to set up remote access between your laptop office and computer. You will need an application and a fast internet connection. I don’t use this, but I understand that software will sometimes operate slower over a remote connection.

Of course, the smart thing would have been to replace my desktop computer with a laptop. However, every time I looked at new laptops, the price held me back. I could get the most powerful desktop computers for about $1,000. A similar laptop with sufficient storage cost about $5,000. About two years ago, the prices dropped to a point that I purchased a super-fast laptop with a 17-inch screen, a 2-terabyte hard drive and 16 gigabytes of RAM for about $1,200. I transferred my files and kicked myself for being cheap and not making the switch earlier. All I have to do now to hit the road is unplug my computer and throw it in the bag. I also purchased a second power supply, so I don’t have to crawl under the desk.

The next issue I had to deal with was connectivity on the road. Most hotels offer Wi-Fi but not campgrounds. Even when Wi-Fi is offered, it often comes at a price. Additionally, I am always concerned about using Wi-Fi when dealing with finances or personal data. It is simply not a good idea to use public Wi-Fi to transmit confidential information. Instead, I use the hotspot feature on my cellphone. While anything can be hacked, the hotspot is much more secure than public Wi-Fi. Not all cellphones and plans have a hotspot feature, so check with your service provider to see what you need. Also, while using your hotspot, you are consuming data. Make sure your plan gives you enough data to keep you out of the higher priced overage data. My plan also gives me enough speed to do online meetings and, after work, to stream movies.

What made on the road estimating really convenient is digital takeoff software. Not having to lug plans around was a major improvement in portability. This technology also made it easy to get new plans while away from the office.

About the Author

Stephen Carr

Estimating Columnist

Stephen 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 steve@electrical-estimating.com, and...

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