Building Your Estimating Database

Even with the best software, training and proficient users-a program is only as good as its parts database. A parts database must be accurately built and consistently managed. Just like your company trucks, it is an important tool. You wouldn't let your trucks sit around broken and growing old, would you? No. You service, repair and upgrade them-and they continue to make you money.

Why not put the same time, care and service into your estimating database? It too was designed to make you money. Serious time should be devoted to design and maintenance in order to build it to accommodate your company's needs.

First, questions need to be asked: How is your items database built? Is it specific or generic? Chances are it has a bit of both. You probably have many industry standards built with generic names along with many specific manufacturer names.

But can it be better? Do you need it to be? Do the item names have enough information? Can your estimators share this information with the field, purchasing and accounting? Do the item names make sense to everybody? Can you buy materials directly from the estimate or does your purchasing agent spend time converting them into catalogue numbers?

Most common material items have generic industry standard names. For example: “4-square box.” What do you want to do with these? Do you want to change their names? A “4-square box” is always going to be a “4-square box,” but whose DCI or UPC code are you using for it? Bowers, Raco, Appleton? Are you going to name it: “4-square box-Raco No. 185?”

Your program may give you the flexibility to be both generic and specific. Having both could give your company more information and more flexibility.

Know your software's full capability

Do you have the capability to name a database item using a combined generic and specific name? Are the item specifications programmed to allow for enough text characters? Can you add more? This may require you to edit the parameters in the program specifications, which may involve more knowledge of how to set-up your software. It may also affect the formatting of your extension printouts. If you do not know how to do this, your software company may offer advanced training courses, something you should seriously consider before working in these areas.

Some estimating programs allow you to create temporary or job-specific items and name them any way you choose. This is a great feature for creating items you may not use again. However, if you take time to research a particular item that is not in your database and one you will most likely use in the future, capitalize on your time by entering it into your permanent parts database.

Maintain a consistent format to your database items and assembly names. Consider the searching functionality of your software and also of the way your mind likes to work.

There is a danger to naming database items with specific part numbers or a manufacturer's name. Manufacturers change part numbers, drop lines, go out of business and are sold to other companies. If a large portion of your database is entirely built on a specific brand and catalogue, and that company drops the line, you could end up with unusable items clogging up your database.

At the minimum, you will have to spend the same amount of time correcting them as you did building them in the first place. Try to name your parts database with built-in flexibility to accommodate changes.

These database building issues apply to other elements-not just the name. You must also consider the parameters of labor, cost coding, DCI or UPC numbers and apply the same organizational priorities.

Again, since you are spending precious time creating or editing your database items, make sure you build it right the first time. Edit it, correct it and review it. You may not get a chance later.

Of course, you still have take-offs to finish and must keep up with your bidding schedule. You probably don't have enough time to create a perfect items database and complete your take-offs.

When this is the case, write down or keep a list of the items you need to add, review, edit, etc. This list can be your No. 1 go-to list when you find yourself with nothing to do. If that never happens, perhaps you can assign the list to others who don't have their dance cards completely punched.

Be aware of how much time it takes to build and maintain a solid estimating database, and work it into your schedule. A well planned, clean parts database is a very productive estimating tool that will strengthen the links between your estimating department, purchasing, vendors, the field and your accounting department. It will make your estimates more accurate and more useful when they win you the contract. EC

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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