Dirty Dancing

When I started to write this article, it came out as a rant, which seemed unprofessional. Assuming I should be professional, I pared the rant down to a summary of the way I feel about the current state of engineering practices. While preparing a free estimate, we estimators have to review the engineers’ work (for which they are being paid), make corrections and finish the engineering. All of this is done at no additional cost, except, of course, to the electrical contractor.

Risky business

Electrical engineers are shifting more of their traditional responsibilities to the EC. This has been going on for the 30 years I have been an estimator, and the trend of this practice seems to be accelerating. The effect on estimators is tremendous. We have to first identify the causes and then defend our employers from all of the risks this practice leads to. Listed here are a few examples of the risky specifications I have seen during my career.

One of the first changes was in regard to voltage drop on branch circuits. The engineers had been doing the calculations and marking the plans when a circuit had to be upsized. A few years after I started estimating, the engineers stopped marking the drawings. Instead, they added language to the specifications that stated we were responsible for up-sizing circuits if they were over a certain length. A few years later, I started seeing a specification that simply stated we were responsible for correcting any voltage drop of more than 5 percent.

The next change was in regard to heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) control wiring. This wiring used to be clearly shown on the electrical plans. Now, we are most often referred to the HVAC drawings and specifications, and we are responsible for interpreting those documents, designing the control wiring and including it in our bid.

A rather sneaky change: engineers have been describing scope in the specifications and not on the drawings. Now, an estimator needs to read the specifications very carefully to find work that is not shown on the drawings. I have seen a 10-word sentence be worth $30,000 in materials.

Another significant change has been the addition of phrases in the specifications that endeavor to shift completeness of design responsibilities to the EC. I’m sure you have seen them. They usually start with something like, “It is the intent of these documents to provide for a complete and operational project,” and then go on to state that we are responsible for anything the electrical engineer missed.

Within the last few years, a very dangerous specification has become prevalent. These phrases require ECs to be responsible for reviewing the drawings and specifications of all divisions for electrical work and to include all electrical work for those divisions in their bids. This requirement could have a significant effect on the time it takes to complete an estimate. There also is the question of being sure of your interpretation of those documents. For example, does that unlabeled line on the reflected ceiling plan indicate a fixture?

Legal eagles

By shifting these responsibilities away from themselves, engineers are, in effect, requiring estimators to complete the engineering on their projects. This opens up a large can of worms in regard to legal questions. Are estimators legally responsible for their contributions to the engineer’s design? Is there a procedure for accepting estimator designs into a contract? Does the engineer’s errors and omissions insurance cover estimator contributions? Unfortunately, these and other legal questions do not have clear answers and are being decided by the courts on a state-by-state basis.

The proposal

Although some of your customers may not allow it, you should try to exclude or qualify any phrase in the specifications that requires you to do the engineer’s work. Many of the phrases contain the words “at no additional cost to the owner.” You should also try to limit your scope to what is shown on the documents you are bidding. Start your proposal with a statement that says your bid is based on the following documents, and then list them. In your qualifications, make a statement that you are only including in your bid the work that is shown on those documents. One of my employers gave me the following phrase, which I still use today: “The correctness and completeness of the contract documents is the sole responsibility of those who have prepared them. This proposal covers only that work that is adequately shown, described and/or detailed in the above referenced contract documents.” Finally, you should work with a construction lawyer in your state to keep up with the latest ways to protect yourself from the practice of shifting engineering responsibilities to the EC.

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 .

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