Keeping Up With The Joneses

I have always been interested in labor-saving gadgets and how they affect an estimate. For the purpose of this article, I define a gadget as a material or tool meant to perform a task better and more quickly than the previously used material. 

Even before I became an estimator, my duties as a purchasing agent exposed me to the demand for labor-saving tools and materials. For instance, when Black & Decker came out with a good battery-powered drill motor, I could not keep up with the demand from the field. The workers all realized the value of the tool with regard to time and convenience. Unfortunately, we also had some trouble getting the drill motors back when the project was finished.

The ERICO Caddy clip was another great invention. Although this gadget came out before I got into the industry, I can imagine the effect these devices had on the supporting methods of the time. A few more have affected my career: Ty-Raps, cold-shrink insulation tubes, self-grounding receptacles, self-insulating taps for branch wire, and insulation-piercing taps for feeder wire.

More gadgets

The list goes continues to grow. Here are a few examples I’ve come across in recent months (though there are many more than I can mention in one article). One company has a new way—new to me at least—to support conduits in a duct bank. The method requires better planning than does the use of individual duct spacers but seems like it could save a lot of labor when installing duct banks. 

Prepackaged wire assemblies are another example of a labor-saving device. The first time I used preassembled wire was in a rock-crushing plant. The control runs had hundreds of No. 14 wires in them. (Does anybody remember analog controls?) We had a manufacturer preassemble each pull on a reel, with each wire labeled at regular intervals. This saved a tremendous amount of time compared to pulling individual wires.

Here’s another example: one of the first times I bid a project with a large number of 2-by-4 drop-in T-bar fixtures, the fixture representative came into my office to talk about the job. He offered to have the fixtures shipped in a way I had never heard of before—prelamped, prewhipped, vertically stacked on a pallet and blister-packed. This method made use of several gadgets, including the preassembled whip, the snap-in connectors and the preassembled earthquake wire and clip. It reduced the amount of trash that had to be handled and saved labor.

Helping the estimator

As great as all these tools and devices are, they present a problem for the estimator. How do we include the predicted time-savings in an estimate? How do we know these gadgets actually deliver measurable time savings? I asked several chief estimators what they thought.

Many of the people I spoke with believe the labor savings from gadgets should not be included in an estimate. If any labor is saved, it would contribute to the project’s profit. In my opinion, this method does not help a contractor win work in this tough market.

Some other estimators I spoke with include labor savings in estimates based on carefully researched historical data. After winning a project, they set up specific labor-tracking categories to identify the possible labor savings in question. When the project is finished, the labor used is compared to a previous project. I have also witnessed side-by-side comparisons, with one electrician using traditional materials and the other electrician using the new materials.

Another method I recommend is to call together a brain trust, including field personnel, estimators and manufacturers. At this meeting, participants work out specific labor-saving methods for a project. It can occur before or after the project is awarded.

My conclusion: Ignoring labor-saving materials and tools puts you at a disadvantage. Estimators need all the help they can get when it comes to winning projects.

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 .

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