Estimating Electrical Rooms

When trying to determine where they might lose labor on a project, why would an electrical estimator focus on the switchgear and electrical rooms? Can there really be much to worry about? These rooms pale in comparison to the rest of the project, right?

True. However, in electrical construction, sometimes the smallest installations or the smallest areas of work can carry large amounts of labor. As these rooms are very specific in their nature and function, they require great attention to detail and allow little margin for error. Thus, these labor-intensive installations fall prey to deep labor impacts and inefficiencies.

Take your typical main electrical room, for example. A large switchboard, a couple of transformers, several panel boards, a main dis-tribution board or two; lighting control panels and a few other signal system panels. All these units must be accurately laid out and their locations measured precisely, their mountings true and level. All the feeder conduits running in and out (I recommend using basket tray and MC cable, if you can) must be coordinated as if they were part of a knitted sweater, each stitch fitted perfectly with the next. This is the type of stuff unproductive labor soaks up like a sponge.

These rooms are rarely sized with the electrical contractor in mind. Architects typically apply the minimum code require-ments to electrical rooms, barely leaving an inch to spare. This makes working there very difficult and labor prohibitive.

Much of the conduit work for these rooms is overhead and done on ladders. As a few of the larger feeders are installed, the overhead working space gets tighter. This often requires special conduit bends, which for the larger conduits requires bending equipment. Did you carry additional costs and labor for bending the larger feeder conduits? One of the common “old school” ways in estimating is to simply count three elbows and two connectors for every feeder run and say “that should cover it!” Maybe this works, but I bet you will see a lot of unaccounted-for bends when you walk the finished job.

Also, what if these rooms are above the ground floor, say on the fifth, seventh, ninth, 11th and 14th? Do you have additional time to accommodate the material and equipment handling to get it up to all these floors?

In your estimate, you might have all this equipment: the conduits, elbows, cutting, bending, racking, strapping and anchoring—and it is all labored correctly, right? Well, maybe not. If you are using the standard labor units that typically apply to straight, uninhibited runs of conduits and longer wire pulls, you might be leaving out a large chunk of labor. Additionally, if your panels and gear labor do not account for “lay-out” time, you again will find yourself short.

What about your termination time? Did you account for this in your estimate? Every three-wire, 20-amp panel termination, 42 of them typically for lighting panels, takes about five minutes per termination. That’s 210 minutes or 3.5 hours. Where are these carried in your estimate? If you have 10 panels, this could easily be another 35 hours of labor. Did you have this in your estimate?

Larger wire terminations associated with your feeders become another serious labor consideration. Larger wires are not simply stripped with a pair of dikes or small stripping tool. Additionally, they must be properly terminated and secured to the lugs using the correct torque. What did the specifications require for these terminations? Anything special or different from what you normally figure? I’ve seen many specifications that require a compression lug on every feeder wire. This not only is a labor issue but an expensive materi-als issue as well.

Lastly, there are labeling and identification and signage specifications that need to be fulfilled. Every panel, transformer, switchboard section, breaker and feeder wire must have a label or identification tag. Yes, I know. I’m focusing on the little things, but if your electrical room has 20 pieces of equipment and 30-plus feeders with four wires at each end (that’s 240 ends by the way), you have a bit of labor to cover.

If you can, I recommend segregating the electrical room(s) from the rest of your takeoff and then running separate extensions to de-termine how much time you have in these rooms. Once you have this information, you can factor this labor higher without impacting the other areas of your bid. For those who think this approach is too tedious or time--consuming, you can always just add a simple labor item called “gear room labor factor” and add some extra hours in.

Maybe you aggressively trimmed your labor in other areas just to win the bid, so you certainly can’t afford to lose any more labor. Electrical rooms are high profile areas where you want your company’s work to shine. There is nothing more marketable than a well-installed electrical room. They are literally works of art, and quality art takes time. They should never be underestimated.

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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