Seeing the Light

F1, A, B, D3, W, EX, Y AND Z; MA1, MA2, #3 and, oh, let's see; how about “not designated?” Do these look familiar? We see hundreds of them every day, in every design, on every job. They are lighting fixture identification tags, sometimes called designations, types or markers. I once worked on a project where the engineer called them “Fixture Symbol Coordination Indicators.”

Whatever they’re called and wherever you find them, you should not treat them casually, as they hopefully define the lighting fixture symbols and these definitions hopefully describe what each fixture is. But do they describe all that is required for them to be installed?

There’s more than just the fixture

Today’s modern lighting fixtures are complex. No longer are they simply recessed 2-by-4s or downlights, fluorescents or HID, 120V or 277V. We now have low-voltage light-emitting diode strips, fiber optic downlights, aircraft cable hung pendants, linear tubing, art ceilings, cable track, light sculptures, and a few hundred other special types still being developed.

Many types require remote ballasts and transformers. Were these shown or detailed on the plans? If so, where were they shown and how was the circuitry feeding them shown? What wire or cable and how is it connected to the fixture?

There also are a few hundred different mounting methods and associated accessories. Do these come provided with the fixture? Or will you need to furnish them? Not only can these be pricey, they can involve more labor.

Get to know the fixtures

What do you know about all these new fixtures? How much information does the fixture schedule give you? Were fixture cut sheets issued with the specifications? Did the engineer give you any details or photographs?

If you know the manufacturer and catalog number, I recommend surfing the Internet for answers. Most manufacturers’ Web sites include photographs. Researching fixtures takes time. If you have 20 types, this could easily add up to 3 hours. I recommend making the time for this process.

It’s not just a matter of the counts

Accurate counts are very important. You don’t want to miss 10 $850 fixtures. But it is equally important to take time to understand what a complete installation entails, e.g., for rough-in materials, labor and coordination.

Missing 10 $850 fixtures is not just a matter of $8,500 plus tax. If each fixture also carries $50 worth of support and rough-in materials, another $500, and if each carries four hours of labor, that’s 40 hours multiplied by, say, $50/hour, which equals another $2,000 plus. Now your mistake costs more than $11,000. Oops!

But it’s not just the ones you missed. If 40 were counted but you incorrectly assessed the rough-in materials by $30 each, that is a $1,200 loss. And if you underestimated labor by two hours each, that is 80 hours, another $4,000 loss. This is just one fixture type out of many. If this mistake is repeated on several fixtures, the amount you leave out of your bid increases dramatically.

Just another exterior wall mount?

In line at our local movie theater, I studied the two giant light fixtures—architectural sculptures, actually—mounted to the front of the building. They were shaped like rocket ships from a Flash Gordon movie. Each had 20 recessed MR16 downlights and several rows of neon tubing. Questions ran through my mind: Were they completely fabricated off-site? Was the neon installed by a sign company? Were the downlights installed by the electrical contractor on-site? How were these shown on the electrical drawings? Were they?

What also caught my attention was the way they were attached to the building, simply with a single 4 inch square stand-off, welded to a steel plate attached to the wall by four giant bolts. I assume the contractor must have had to use a crane to install them. A fairly simple install, right?

But did the estimators figure this out before the bid? Did they simply look at the fixture on the electrical drawing, see it was Type Z, create a database item for it, apply 8 hours each (gosh, I hope they didn’t) and call it a day? Or did they study and consider the entire existence of these fixtures, looking for all information on them throughout the entire set of drawings?

Did they consider they would need a crane for the day (maybe two? One for each fixture); four, six or 10 workers for the install; safety harnessing; special tools; and flagmen for traffic control?

I know these rocket fixtures may not have been installed by the electrical contractor, but at the minimum, there was an electrical connection point. However, my point is when you see a fixture like this on the plans, do you really think about it? Do you imagine or know what is required and, most importantly, does your estimate accurately reflect this?

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or

About the Author

Stan Shook

Stan Shook was ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR's estimating columnist from 2005 to 2012. He works as an electrical estimator in California. Read his blog at or contact him directly

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