Can You Relate?

Spreadsheet software is made for crunching numbers, but database programs are made for crunching data, and they do it better. Consider the following reasons why a database is a good platform for electrical estimating systems.

• Databases can be relational, which means data can be drawn from multiple related tables. For instance, an electrical estimating database will have a table for material items and another table for assemblies of material items. Let’s say the assembly table has 20 different assemblies that contain the same receptacle. The assembly table does not have to contain that receptacle 20 times. Instead, it refers or relates to the material table each time that receptacle is needed. This simplifies maintenance immensely. If you need to edit the receptacle’s properties, you would only be required to do it one time instead of 20.

• Databases can hold a lot more data—into the billions of records—and are faster than spreadsheets at retrieving the data.

• Multiple people can access databases at the same time. Only one user can access a spreadsheet at a time.

• Databases are better for reporting. For instance, you may need reports from your estimate broken down by material categories, bid items or zero priced items. Reformatting your spreadsheet for each report is very time consuming. With database software, once the report template is created, you never have to do it again.


How do we get the information out of the database and into the estimate? By using a structured query language (SQL), which is a program created for managing the data in a database. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not an estimator’s problem. This is where the estimating software vendors come in. They create interfaces between you and the database that are simple, visual, point-and-click systems. The user never has to do any programming. The interface is one of the main places the various software vendors make their software stand out from each other, and this is what you should concentrate on most when selecting an estimating system for your company.

Creating your own spreadsheet estimating system could require thousands of hours of effort when it comes to adding items to your database. Database programs come preloaded with very complete tables of material and assemblies. Some of the estimating software vendors update their database constantly, adding new items and technologies as they become important to our industry. Database estimating systems also have additional tools and features designed to simplify the input of your takeoff.

Price updating is another area where the database programs have an advantage. Most systems have multiple ways to automatically update your pricing built in to the software. Updating the prices in a spreadsheet is not done as easily.

The downsides

The main downside to using database programs is they can be very pricey compared to the cost of a spreadsheet program. The leading spreadsheet program, Microsoft Excel, is about $110 for the 2013 version. Full function database estimating programs can cost anywhere between $1,000–$7,000 per license. Many of these companies also have an annual maintenance fee, which covers tech support and program upgrades. 

Some companies eliminate the large upfront cost by offering their software on a monthly subscription basis.

Database programs generally have a steeper learning curve than spreadsheets. On the other hand, a complex spreadsheet system could be very difficult to learn and use.

Final analysis

The original argument was that spreadsheets are prone to errors, and database programs force users to do things one way. In my opinion, the argument against database programs is off the mark because they are created to match and enhance standard estimating methods. 

Spreadsheets can contain structural errors during their creation. However, once a new spreadsheet has been well audited, that is not a problem.

When making a decision about which type of estimating to invest in, take the time to analyze your needs, finances and long-term goals. Making an informed choice will pay off for your company.

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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