How Long Should It Take?

My role as an estimator has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Much of my time these days is spent estimating the estimates, trying to assess how long it will take my staff members to complete them. There are three simple reasons I must do this: to assess my estimators’ ability to complete the project on time; to assess our ability to perform the estimate, while keeping up with the other projects we are currently working on; and because my clients require a price before they commit to paying me to do something. In order to know what the price is, I must account for the time it might take for each estimator class (junior, associate, senior) to complete the project.

What it costs

Though electrical contractors typically do not have to actually price the cost of performing each individual estimate, it is something they should consider. Every estimate costs your company money. So it is important to know what your estimating department budget is and if you are staying in line with it.

The time alone is not the only cost. There are many other materials and labor costs to consider: printing; project meetings; job walks; telephone calls; administrative work; and time for organizing bonds, organizing vendor quotes and reviewing vendor quotes, in addition to all the crazy rushed time of bid day. All this and more needs to be considered.

Knowing what your team can and cannot do also is important. Keep in mind overtime and any weekend work can have detrimental effects on the following week. Fatigue, attitude and interest all play a role in efficiency. Taking on a rush project in the middle of an already tight schedule could be detrimental to the success of the other estimates.

No secret formula

I can’t tell you the secret of estimating a takeoff. Each estimator is different, as is each job. To the bosses I say: observe your estimator(s). Work with them. Get to know what they can and cannot do and how fast or slow they do it. To the estimators: get to know yourselves, your speed and your abilities (or lack thereof). Communicate your findings to your boss. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth. This is critical information your boss needs. Know what your boss wants and expects from you. Work together. Review the jobs together. Eventually, you should be able to look at a drawing and say, “this will take me eight hours to complete.”

What does “complete” mean? To me, it means the entire drawing is taken-off, everything counted. All sheet notes are fully understood and accounted for, all issues resolved, all counts and roll-offs entered into the estimating program. Then, a senior estimator or the boss should review the drawing along with the audit trail entry. Also, the database items and assemblies need to be reviewed. An extension of this sheet should be made and thoroughly reviewed. Once all this is done and everyone confirms it is accurate, then the takeoff (for this drawing) is complete.

How many hours per sheet?

I’ve heard many contractors boast about simply counting the number of drawings, then multiplying by a job type factor: four hours per sheet for standard commercial jobs, six or eight for more complicated ones, etc. But what does this mean, and does it really work? Which sheets do you count: all of them or just those with actual design? What about one-line risers and detail sheets? The specs? These require time to study and often require takeoff time.

I’m not an advocate for this method, but I admit it sometimes works. Just be careful. The one time you rely on this system is the one time you get ruined by it.

For me, the best way is to review every sheet, applying the time I think an average estimator will take. I also add in more time for notes, addenda and a few other tasks I know will occur, all based on the size of the project. Then, I review the job with my estimators to get their opinion on what it will take.

Winning the bid

The estimated time and costs should be weighed against the realistic chance your company might win the project. Why waste time and spend money needlessly? If you don’t have a real, solid chance to win the bid, don’t waste the money, apply it to better opportunities.

When you estimate a project should only take three days to complete, make sure you considered the other required work. You may want to add another couple days for things such as notes, phone calls, addenda, interruptions, breaks, sleep … (the writer’s voice fades as he rambles on about estimating).

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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