Learn From My Experience: Some Thoughts for New Estimators

0519 Estimating
Photo credit: Shutterstock / Kim Britten

I was a new estimator once and certainly wish I knew then what I know now. I learned a lot simply by completing estimates. I learned even more at the school of hard knocks. To minimize the pain and stress for new estimators, I hope to share some of the more important lessons I learned.

The first thing that comes to mind is the specifications. It is not good enough to just skim through the text. Many paragraphs and sections require close scrutiny. Usually, the first section contains pitfalls, including a couple of my favorites. I saw one yesterday that required the electrical contractor to absorb all of the costs related to another trade changing the size and electrical characteristics of an item. For example, if some HVAC equipment is upsized, the EC has to cover the larger feeders, conduit and switchgear. This phrase and its cousins must be excluded.

My all-time favorite dangerous language is when a specification tries to make the EC responsible for completing the design. Although most of these phrases have been nullified in the courts, engineers keep coming up with new wording that may be enforceable. It is always best to exclude such phrases.

Here’s a good practice. If you are not familiar with a specified item, research it. You can get into a lot of trouble making assumptions about material you don’t understand. In particular, light fixtures and lighting controls are constantly changing.

That thought leads to another fact. “Assume” is a dirty word. Never assume anything about a bid document’s requirements. If you don’t understand something, contact anyone you can to get your questions answered. If the answers are not forthcoming, send a request for information through the appropriate channels.

When electrical estimating software arrived on the scene, many users assumed the information coming out of the computer must be right. Well, maybe if you are talking about the computer’s ability to do math with no mistakes. However, it quickly became apparent we needed a new acronym, which came to our rescue: GIGO, which stands for garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if you input the wrong information, you get a bad estimate.

Computer hardware and software are only tools. It is up to the estimator to know how to use them correctly. Most software vendors include some training in the cost to purchase an estimating system. You can pay extra for more advanced training. If you don’t know how to use your computer and its operating system (usually Windows in the construction world), there is an abundance of classes and books. For classes, look at community colleges because their fees are relatively low in most places.

Early on, I decided to start keeping bid records. I used a spreadsheet to keep track of to whom I was bidding, the prices I gave to each general contractor, and if I did not win the project, who did and at what price. I also recorded the price per square foot and, if the project was residential, the cost per unit. This spreadsheet was a great analysis tool. It revealed the kinds of projects I was most successful estimating and which general contractors were awarding me the projects. I could also prepare budgets based on the square foot and per unit pricing I recorded.

Another difficulty I had as a young estimator was budgeting my time. I needed a way to know in advance how long an estimate was going to take to complete. Eventually, I began tracking how many hours were needed per plan sheet. For each project I completed, I divided the hours used to finish the project by the total number of electrical plan sheets. Remember to include telecom and fire alarm if they are separate plan sets. For instance, if a set of 20 plan sheets took 40 hours to estimate, the time needed is two hours per plan sheet. Add this information to your bid records, so it is available when needed.

One final thought: organizing my estimating information became more difficult because the number of jobs I was able to bid began increasing and the types of jobs became more complex. I had sheets of paper and Post-It notes everywhere. Eventually, I discovered notetaking software that automatically syncs my information between my computer, phone and tablet. I keep my bid calendar, article research, marketing ideas and many other things in this software. There are many that do this, including Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, Zoho and Simple Note. I started out using Evernote but switched to OneNote, simply because it came with Microsoft Office.

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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