Covering the Bases

Much project estimate information can be readily gleaned from the plans and specifications, but some requirements are hidden in “boilerplate” wording of the contract documents. A typical area that is often left in limbo is the utilities that are to be connected to the project. It would be unusual if a utility did not have specific requirements; therefore, familiarity or at least a reference to these requirements should be readily available to the estimator. It’s not only utilities, but also the various data and communication systems that must be considered. While power installations may be familiar, data transmission is a comparatively new item in the estimator’s bundle of skills. Much of the information required for accurately estimating these costs is geographically related. Varying locations may well have differing requirements, even within the same company or agency jurisdiction. Specifically pinpointing the project’s exact geographic and governmental location will ensure that the right agencies can be contacted. Aside from the installation requirements, many jurisdictions assess a variety of charges for their portion of the serving utility. These costs must be considered in the estimate as either a firm fixed cost, or an allowance that will cover the expected costs. Usually, informing the utility of a project is the designers’ responsibility. Too often this item is neglected and the estimator finds out too late, or the utility claims to need more time than is left before the estimate is due. Under these circumstances, the best that an estimator can do is to include an allowance based on past experiences. Most utilities will provide some of their system without cost, but an excess footage will cause dollars to mount. Utilities don’t all use the same basis for their charges. In my experience, it’s possible to come up with a rational figure by taking the base charges, and figuring in the excess charges, usually cable, based on the cost of the cable, without any labor, installed by the power company. High-tech systems are becoming an increasing scope of work for electrical contractors. Voice/data/video (VDV) systems and local area networks (LANs) have unique system requirements, but the estimating task varies only with the materials being installed, and labor adjustment for the particular nomenclature. A complete database for the proprietary system being used is critical to an accurate estimate. Unlike standard electrical work, these systems vary with the manufacturers and their unique requirements. These must be considered when looking at labor and material costs. Proper installation of these systems requires applicable tools and specific training. Most manufacturers are anxious to assist with both training and tools if their system is specified. Some tools required to splice fiber optic cable, for example, can become costly. A variety of other testers are required for testing the VDV and LAN systems. These are further considerations to cover in a job’s direct costs. Some systems require installers to be company certified to meet their quality assurance edicts, and obviously, to limit their exposure to problems caused by unqualified installers. Certainly a valuable sales tool for any contractor is the ability to state that it has a fully qualified staff in a particular system, and also to meet a variety of other manufacturers’ installation standards. There are many training opportunities. Certainly the local Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee can advise where to find these courses. Manufacturers also have training references. Many community colleges, such as the one where I teach, offer low-cost training for these systems. Estimators should become knowledgeable in the systems to assist a customer of a design consultant. Understanding the installation methods and problems will assist in preparing a viable estimate. I’d suggest attending trade shows, such as NECA’s, where excellent workshops are offered. Process logic controllers (PLCs) have been available for many years, but the technology increases with the advent of new systems. If the housing industry ever settles on a particular standard, the home of the future will be a miniature office system. Here, computerized systems would enable various chores to be accomplished. Understanding PLCs is not difficult for those who understand motor controls. There are all sorts of profitable work opportunities for those companies willing to take the risk. To limit the risk, having a trained workforce, especially one that includes estimators, is critical. The industry’s share of the total construction dollar was once a mere five percent of the overall building cost. “We’ve come along way, baby,” and the percentages have climbed to a degree where the electrical contractor has the major share of the work on most projects. DAVID is a professor of electrical technology at Long Beach City College, Calif., and a consultant, and expert witness. He can be reached at (562) 597-1877 or by e-mail at

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