Are You Looking for Trouble? Estimating with no experience

Published On
Feb 15, 2022

I was fortunate to have great teachers early in my career. One important lesson I learned was, “Do not try to estimate project types you have never estimated before.” That sounds rather limiting for expanding your knowledge, so let me add “without help from someone who knows that type of work.” At this point, I can estimate almost any type of project. However, it wasn’t always that way. I started out knowing very little about estimating.

My first teacher was the chief estimator for a mid-sized electrical contractor, and he started me on small commercial projects, such as bank branches and retail spaces. I found that you grow as an estimator by estimating projects and picking up something from each one. I still learn something new from almost every project I complete. How do you get into trouble when estimating unknown types of work? Very easily. Here are a few examples from my past and how I avoided getting into trouble.

Old buildings

I soon got bored with office tenant work and tilt-up buildings, which led to looking for more complex types of projects. I went to work for an electrical contractor that specialized in historical building remodels. Those projects were the definition of complex. As I had not done this before, I was assigned to work with the contractor’s experienced electricians to ensure my estimates were complete and accurate. The boss or an electrician always went with me on job walks, which were more like investigations to determine if the design was possible to install.

During the walks, I researched possible routes for new branch and feeder conduits and we looked for ways to improve on the design and make it practical. I also learned that the labor units required to perform work in these buildings needed to be increased substantially. For instance, we often used 10 hours for 100 feet of ½-in. flex. This was one of the most intensive learning experiences of my career.

Keeping them flying

I had some experience estimating airport terminals when I took on a new terminal at a major international airport. My job was to estimate the telecom, security and audiovisual plan sets for this project.

Right away, I noticed some massive conduit runs that made a complete circle around the terminal’s inside ceiling area. They mostly consisted of 12–16 4-inch conduits on strut racks. After reviewing my estimate, the customer called and asked for the support labor to be tripled and additional components be added. He explained that this airport has very stringent codes for support racks. I imagine the requirements are due to the earthquake activity in the area. Leaving out those requirements would have caused serious losses on the project.

Going industrial

I started out working on commercial and institutional jobs. My third estimating employer introduced me to industrial projects. For my first industrial estimate, they threw me in the deep end and I almost drowned.

Fortunately, one of the project managers threw me a lifeline and taught me what was needed to complete industrial estimates. These projects are very complex compared to most commercial work. The specified materials are more expensive, the methods are more difficult and the control systems are more extensive and complex. I would advise to start small on industrial estimates to make your learning curve easier.

Filling in the blanks

If you do not have a mentor and need to estimate projects you do not have experience with, proceed with caution. Read the specifications very carefully, because they contain requirements and procedures you may not have seen in your previous projects. One missed sentence can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.

Understand the work. I never complete an estimate for any project unless I fully understand it. As an estimator, it is your responsibility to identify design problems. Poor plans and language in the specifications that require you to provide a complete and operational project are very dangerous. The owner will not pay for work you missed, even if it is only mentioned or implied in a short note. If it looks like expensive work is missing, send a request for information through channels right away. Finally, by wording your proposals carefully, you can limit the risk created as the result of incomplete bid documents.

Part of an estimator’s job is to protect employers from financial losses. You cannot accomplish that when you don’t understand the work.

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, and...

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