Published In November 2001
Practically everything I know about estimating fiber optic jobs I learned from Doug Elliott. Doug is a well-known instructor who learned fiber optics from me at the first Fiber U in 1993 and is a full-time installer in the Toronto area. He must be the luckiest (or maybe unluckiest) guy around, for all the strange jobs he gets! But he knows how to look at a project and figure out its costs. Doug’s first consideration is the qualifications you need to estimate. Some are obvious, such as the ability to do math and write legibly. But you also need skills to be able to look at a job and the drawings and to visualize it in process and finished. You also need to be able to foresee problems to factor them into the estimate. A big factor is experience in doing jobs that resemble the one you are trying to estimate. An inexperienced estimator will not factor in the difficulty of pulling cables in some areas or the training necessary to learn new fiber optic connector termination techniques. Experience also teaches about the yield in installation—how many connectors will turn out to be bad or how much excess fiber optic cable will be needed for pulling, terminating, and service loops. Otherwise, estimating fiber optics is very similar to estimating any installation job. Start by reviewing the paperwork on the job and familiarizing yourself with project blueprints before you visit the site. Make certain you understand the basics, such as the scale of the drawings, the symbols and acronyms used, and the elevations of the parts of the project. The paperwork includes the “boilerplate,” the conditions of the contracts, technical specifications, permits and inspections required and provisions for penalties for deviation from an agreed-upon schedule. Some locales require inspection of fiber optic jobs; some do not. If they do, know the cost of permits and find out as much as possible about the inspection process. If the customer is sold on a particular manufacturer’s products, then be sure you specify those. This will restrict your choices of components, but you are responsible for ensuring that those products specified are appropriate for the job. If they are new to you, like a new type of fiber optic connector, you must factor in training and poorer yield in installation until you become familiar with them. You may also have to include new tools and test equipment in your estimate to deal with the unique components. A site visit is incredibly important for the estimator. Blueprints are two-dimensional, which is a poor substitute for the real world. Looking at the site will show the experienced estimator where the problems will arise. In fiber optics, the cable may have to be separated from other cables or it may be pulled in the same conduit. It can be installed in the open or in innerduct. Hardware like patch panels or boxes may have to be in hard-to-reach places to clear other hardware already in place. I’ve seen fiber optic patch panels installed 7 feet high in closets because of all of the telephone punchdowns covering the walls! It is a good time to work with the customer on the components after the site visit. Fiber optics has a lot of options, which translate to big cost variations. There are usually several types of appropriate cables for any job. Indoors, installers can use distribution or breakout cables. In some areas, installing innerduct for the fiber first can save enough installation time to pay for the innerduct and can better protect the fiber. Outdoors, the traditional gel-filled cable can now be replaced with dry water-blocked cable, which is easier to use and faster to terminate. Connectors vary in costs by a factor of three, depending on the types, and the least expensive may be the most reliable. (I will write more on that next month.) The takeoff is finally getting to the nitty-gritty. Every component must be pulled off the blueprints and the specs and transferred to the estimating sheets. Grouping components can simplify the estimating process. If you are using innerduct, you need about as much of it as you need of cable. Connectors are linked to the number of fibers, since you need two connectors for each fiber. Hardware, such as patch panels, is sized according to the fiber counts of the cables. And so on. Labor should be linked to the components also. Consult the glossary of our book The Fiber Optic Technicians Manual. Use what you learned on the site visit to factor for difficulty in installation. Don’t forget yield! You will need extra cable for service loops and terminations, not to mention getting up and down walls and around corners. You will need lots of extra connectors, as the typical yield for experienced installers using connectors they are familiar with is only about 90 percent, so they need an extra 10 percent. Don’t forget the indirect labor. Supervision, training, documentation, and even delivery to the work site need to be included. Establish with the customer what training is needed and what warranty service is expected. And don’t forget cleanup. Once you gather all this information and get a cost estimate, you can translate it into a bid. The idea is not only to get the job, but also to make a profit. Remind yourself you run a business, not a charity! HAYES is the founder of Fotec, the fiber optic test equipment company and the Cable U training programs. He can be contacted at Jh@jimhayes.com.