Scope It Out

This month, I expand on “Do You Trust the Drawings?” by talking more about establishing the scope of work included in your estimates. Let’s start with verbal instructions.

In my early years as an estimator, the way I handled the scope of work was simple. I was taught to include all of the work shown on the electrical drawings. The only problems I had were communication misunderstandings. For example, if a customer asked me to include 800 control terminations in an estimate, he really meant that he wanted 800 control wires terminated on both ends, which was 1,600 terminations.

Another instance of poor communication was when a customer asked my company to replace all of the downlights in a ballroom. He wanted “a lot more light.” We designed a layout that used much bigger downlights with much bigger lamps, which required more power. To get the power, we had to route conduit through difficult conditions to a panel 150 feet away. To say the customer was shocked by the price is a significant understatement. We should have defined what “a lot more light” meant.

The worst example I have of bad communications cost my employer a customer. The customer’s estimator asked me to throw in some HVAC controls on a small bid. Back then, the controls usually consisted of a few thermostats, contactors and time clocks, which I added to the estimate. We won the job, and were issued new contract drawings, which included a design for the HVAC controls.

My small allowance was not even close to covering the required work. Every room had individual temperature and humidity controls. My change order estimate was over $10,000. The customer strongly objected. I held my position that I was not given the

full scope. Eventually, they paid for the change, but I never heard from them again.

This, and a few similar communication breakdowns, convinced me to be much more careful with both verbal and written instructions. I solved the problem by responding to verbal instructions in writing. I also explained my understanding of the new instructions with words and phrasing that were different than my customers.

Similar problems can happen with people whose first language is not English. I was working on a negotiated project and was having difficulty communicating with the engineers. The problem came to a head during a face-to-face meeting one morning. However, before giving up, it occurred to me that the engineers I was working with had heavy accents. I talked to them for a while and discovered, not only were they from Russia, they were still thinking in Russian. That meant they had to translate technical information on the fly. I needed to confirm my understanding of their verbal and written communication. When they said “Here, put receptacles,” I replied with “OK, you want four 15-ampere duplex receptacles on one circuit, on the north wall of room 134.”

Now it’s time to talk more about written instructions, including the work represented on the electrical drawings, in the electrical specifications and in written instructions. Today’s bid documents include less design and clarity

than ever before. I have heard from several sources that this shift in engineering practices comes from the top, the project owners. They have learned that they do not need to pay designers to furnish complete documents, because the estimators will finish the design as needed to complete their estimates.

This shift in responsibility has created a problem for electrical estimators. How do you define the scope you are including in your estimate? If you include everything that may be required, your bid will be high, because competing estimators might not include everything.

Here are a couple ideas to help level the playing field: Use a request for information (RFI) to ask the designers about poorly defined scope issues. Any answers will be sent to all of the bidders, requiring them to include the same scope as you. Another important tool is your written proposal. Use wording to limit your scope of work to the drawings, specification and addendums you included in your estimate. Exclude any engineering denial of responsibility language in the specifications, such as the statements, “It is the intent of the documents to provide for a complete and operable project,” or “Include all electrical work required by other trades whether or not it is shown on the electrical drawings.”

Now more than ever, it is the estimator’s and their employer’s responsibility to protect themselves with clearly written proposals.

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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