Mistakes, I've Made A Few

Nobody’s perfect, and I’m no exception. My first job in the electrical construction industry was driving a truck for a wholesale house. Within the first month, I didn’t secure my load well enough and lost a 10-foot stick of strut though the side of my stake bed truck. The customer did not want the strut after it was wrapped around the truck’s axle, so I learned to secure my load better.

Within the first six months, I got three speeding tickets—a rolling-stop ticket and an exhibition-of-speed ticket—all in that one-and-a-half-ton stake bed truck. I almost lost my job because the insurance company would no longer cover me. Fortunately, the boss saw something in me. He promoted me to warehouse man instead of firing me. However, I did have to pay the fines for the tickets, so I learned to drive responsibly—both on the job and personally.

Sales and purchasing

Eventually, I was promoted to the sales counter, where I made another big mistake. A customer asked for a conduit fitting, which I told him did not exist. He left, returned in 30 minutes, and gave me one of the nonexistent conduit fittings. So, I learned that I don’t know everything. It is important to research the subject before sticking your foot in your mouth.

A few years later, I accepted a job as a purchasing agent for an electrical contractor, where I managed to make another big mistake. On a fueling project for an air freight company, I received an order from the field for about two dozen large explosion-proof boxes with custom hub configurations. Of course, the purchasing agent wanted them now, and the factory needed 12 weeks for delivery. I found a source for the boxes with no hubs and then found a shop that would weld hubs onto the boxes in the required configurations. I even made sure the shop had UL ratings for its work. The problem was the electrical inspector. He turned down the boxes based on his belief that the boxes lost their UL rating when they were modified, so we were forced to submit a box to the city testing lab for approval. After it was all done, we could have gotten the boxes from the factory faster. 

I was only partially responsible but felt that, if I had researched a little better and asked more questions, I could have prevented the mistake. So, I learned to be more careful about things I’ve never done before.


I bet you’re wondering if I’ve ever made estimating mistakes. The answer to your question is—hold for the drum roll—yes! I’ve made plenty. Fortunately, most were caught before the bid went out or were small enough not to matter.

Once, when estimating without a computer, I made a mistake by using a per-foot calculation instead of a per-thousand-foot calculation. Because of this mistake, I lost the job. So, I learned to review my work before turning it in, no matter how much of a hurry I’m in.

I was fortunate to have a great teacher at my first estimating position. During my training, he taught me to read specifications word by word. The lesson was reinforced later in my career when an estimator at my company missed one 10-word sentence in the specifications. That mistake cost the company $30,000 in material, plus the labor needed to install the system required by the missed sentence. So I learned that my instructor was right when he required a thorough reading of the specifications. Eventually, as I began reading more complex specifications, I started outlining the specifications in a Word document, which evolved into the bid notes template I use today.

I believe the biggest mistake I have made is not reviewing a vendor proposal closely enough. I bid a project that required 14,400 feet of 12-kilovolt cable and about 100 12-kilovolt terminations and splices. We went with the low bidder because his numbers looked comparably reasonable. However, when it was time to award a contract, he backed out, claiming he had missed half the cable. So, I learned to demand bills of material before the bid and review them closely.

I think you are probably getting my point by now. Don’t deny your mistakes. Own them, and learn from them. Develop simple procedures to keep them from happening again.

I will close with a few of the basic procedures I have developed or adopted over the years: KISS (keep it simple, stupid), be consistent in everything you do, and do your estimates the same way every time. Finally, in regard to taking off the plans—if it’s not marked off, you missed it.

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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