Digital vs. Analog: The benefits of using estimating software

Do I really need computer estimating software? Do I really need to have a good computer? Do I need to spend a couple of thousand dollars for estimating software? Do I have to actually learn how to use the system?

The answer to these questions is yes. The first argument is time. I have often heard when teaching computerized estimating, “I can do it faster by hand.” This may seem true while learning and setting up a system. However, once a system has been learned, you will save about eight hours on a $250,000 estimate. You will not save much time doing the takeoff (counting and measuring) plans. Technology has done little to improve these activities, although several companies are working on it. You will save a tremendous amount of time after the takeoff is finished. Here is how it breaks down the paper way:

  • Explode all assemblies and list components on pricing sheets
  • Manually price all of the material
  • Manually labor all of the material
  • Extend the material and labor total for every line on the sheet
  • Total the material and labor columns for every price sheet
  • Have your math double-checked by some- one else
  • Transfer your totals to the recap sheet
  • Do all the math on the recap sheet
  • Make a quick review
  • Redo all the math every time a change is made

When I was a junior estimator, this process took four people about two hours, eight hours total. Then a miracle happened. A vendor demonstrated his electrical estimating system on the Apple II computer. The system performed the above work in about three minutes. It only took that long because of how slow printers were at the time. This time savings allowed me more time to be competitive on bid day, and, of course, allowed me to complete more estimates than before.

Accuracy is the next improvement. Mistakes happen whether you use a computer or do things by hand. The computer, however, does not make math errors. Consider the chaos of bid day. You are very likely to shift a decimal point or make a calculation error in your rush to complete the estimate and get your prices out. Inevitably, prices change, new quotes come in, or the boss wants the labor units changed, which creates the perfect environment for human error. After learning how to use a computer estimating system, bid morning should leave you with nothing to do but fine-tune the estimate. The computer has done all the math. Changes are instant. Better pricing? New quotes? Labor changes by the boss? No problem. Now you have time to make some calls. Get better prices. Find out if alternate fixture packages are out there. Sweet talk the general contractors. In summary, you have time to concentrate on winning the bid.

Organization is very important to error-free estimates. Accurate estimating requires a systematic approach to the takeoff. Using software, your takeoff and input tend to become more uniform to match the estimating system’s layout. Arranging the takeoff to match the layout of the estimating system saves keystrokes and encourages consistency.

Organization is also essential to meet other necessities, such as the bid form, accounting or project management requirements. Software packages offer many ways to organize your estimate.

First, let’s consider the bid form. Most small projects do not have complex bid forms. However, as you start doing larger work, you will begin to see more complexity. The bid form for an elementary school may require separate numbers for each building, while an industrial project may require separate numbers for each area. I am seeing many commercial projects that require a separate number for the generator.

If you are estimating by hand, every bid item is like a separate estimate and requires a lot more work than a project with just one bid item. Since computer estimating software does the math, you save most of that time. The only extra work required over a lump-sum estimate is making sure you input your takeoff into the proper phase.

An estimating "phase" might be known as a category, label or tag according to various software available today. Quite simply, it is just a way to obtain a subtotal for a certain part of the work.

Finally, it is crucial that you understand how to use your system’s organizational and reporting features. Do not hesitate to call your software vendor’s tech support if you need help. You will do yourself a favor by mastering the technology.

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 steve@electrical-estimating.com, and...

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