The Letter of the Law: Bidding per the specifications, redux

Published On
Sep 11, 2020

I have been reading specifications since 1980. My first projects as a trainee estimator were small to medium-sized commercial and institutional buildings. As I have mentioned, my first project was a new Bank of America branch building. While the product and execution parts of the specifications were mostly clear, the legalese at the beginning of the document befuddled me. I was quite the pest, peppering my boss with questions every five minutes. He eventually threw me out of his office, instructing me to write up a list of questions, which I was allowed to present only when I completed my review of the specifications.

The first part of an electrical specification is really scary today. Authors keep coming up with new language that endeavors to make the electrical contractor wholly responsible for scope that is not shown on the electrical plans. For example, a relatively new paragraph making the rounds goes something like this: “The electrical contractor is responsible for studying the plans and specification of all trades and shall include any electrical work found in those documents in his proposal.” While this kind of language cannot be enforced in all states, it should be excluded from your proposal. For example, write “Specification Section 260010, A, 3 is excluded.”

You also need to read the substitutions carefully. Gone are the days when you could install any brand or type of material you prefer. While you may get away with that on some projects, you will eventually get burned. Even the process of proposing a substitution is more difficult. You are often required to pay a fee to the engineer for a review, even if your substitution proposal is rejected.

Let the games begin

It is almost impossible to win a competitive bid by simply following the plans and specifications. The game is how can you be the low bidder while complying with the bid documents? Your competitors are most likely taking every shortcut they can, by the book or not. I have adopted several strategies to combat this. First, exclude any work that can be done less expensively by the general contractor, such as formed and finished concrete. Second, shift unclear scope to an alternate add while excluding it from your base bid.

Some of my customers have seen a growing trend since the last recession started that many bidders are ignoring the specifications. Some add a qualification to their proposal, stating they are bidding to the minimum National Electrical Code requirements. They believe this relieves them of the responsibility to follow the specifications. Others are bidding to minimum Code requirements with no qualifications or exclusions at all. This is a dangerous practice. The only strategy I have for this is to specifically state in your proposal that it is based on the plans and specifications.

The shell game

I have always believed—and my employers have required—that the base bid be per plans and specifications, with substitutions and value engineering added to the end of the proposal. However, as the industry gets more competitive and the low number gets noticed first, my beliefs have changed. Now, I recommend that my customers make these kinds of substitutions for their base bid, but keep them above board by writing detailed qualifications in their proposals. For instance, many contractors are basing bids on MC, even if the specification requires EMT. Qualify your proposal that it is based on the use of MC and provide an add alternate for EMT. Remember, the people receiving your bids will look at the number first, and then the exclusions and qualifications. Get your preliminary proposals (without bid numbers) to the general contractor or customer as soon as you can. I have seen this kind of proposal prompt the GC/owner to ask if the other contractors are bidding to the plans and specifications. Of course, many GCs don’t care what’s in your bid. That’s another story.

Hide and seek

Another recent trend is showing electrical work on other than the “E” plans or not in the traditional electrical specification sections. For all projects, I now review the index for the plans and specifications. Some alternate plan numbering is fairly obvious, such as “FA” for fire alarm. Others are not, such as “XS” for security. Regarding specification sections, 16000 or 260000 are not the only place electrical work is specified. I have found electrical work in odd sections such as 130000 and 410000.

The endgame

As you can see, ensuring your scope is complete is much harder than it used to be. Take the time to review documents carefully.

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, and...

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