Supercharge Your Output

Even though computers are sometimes troublesome and frustrating, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Current computers are very reliable and relatively inexpensive. A laptop with the power to run the most demanding programs can be found for under $1,000. A desktop computer with the same specifications would be under $500.

I have been using computers for so long, I sort of take them for granted. While teaching a class recently, I started thinking about just how much they do for me.

The electrical estimating software saves me from having to make thousands of calculations every day, and it contributes to my accuracy because the computer does not make math mistakes. Word processing is another everyday tool that has improved my life immensely. I was a lousy typist, and mistakes meant throwing away a piece of paper and starting over. I cannot imagine writing this article without a word processor because I am constantly editing what I have written.

Second to estimating software, spreadsheets made the biggest impact on my workday. The Apple II computer I used in the early 1980s came with VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet program. After attending a basic computer class, I realized this software could save time by doing calculations for me. The first thing I did was recreate our estimating recapitulation form as a spreadsheet. This was an important move, as more than any other part of estimating, this form was repeatedly changed and updated on bid day. Every time a new quotation or price came in, the form had to be erased and recalculated. The spreadsheet eliminated all of that. All I had to do was type in the new number, and the computer recalculated it almost immediately. It was a huge time-saver.

I started using a PC-based estimating system in 1982, which made an immediate impact on my work. I had been using standard manual estimating methods: paper forms, pencils, erasers and paper tape calculators.

After the takeoff (counting and measuring the electrical plans) was finished, it took four of us two hours each to complete the estimate. First, the boss, receptionist, project manager and I had to explode the takeoff items into their component parts. Next, the parts needed to have material pricing and labor units added. The material dollars and labor hours needed to be multiplied by their quantities, and then added up to get total amounts for each. The totals then had to be transferred to a recapitulation form, in which labor hours are converted to dollars. Then, quotations, subcontractors, rentals and other miscellaneous costs were added. Finally, markups were added to arrive at a bid number.

Using the PC, the eight hours was reduced to about five minutes, which was how long it took to print the completed price sheet. Even better, if changes needed to be made, we simply entered them into the computer and printed the price sheet again.

With today’s PCs, we can get instant reports on screen and print them in only a few seconds. In general, modern estimating software is far more capable and feature-rich than what I used in 1982.

When it comes to estimating with computers, software is only half of the picture. Paperless, or on-screen takeoff software, is the other half. This software brings your paper plans to a computer screen, where you can count, measure and markup the plans similar to the way you do it on paper. I started using this kind of software in 2007, when about half the plans for bidding were being made available as computer files, typically as a PDF. It did not take long before all of the projects we bid could be delivered to us as PDFs.

I do not miss paper at all. The cost of printing, handling large documents and storage space are three big reasons. A minor benefit is no more paper cuts. Like other computer applications, paperless takeoff systems make it very easy to correct mistakes in your takeoff. If you have ever tried to erase an ink highlight on a paper plan, you know what I’m talking about.

So yes, I still appreciate computers very much. When I try to imagine what the world would be like without them, it seems like a very dark place. Images of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dimly lit office of appear in my nightmares of working without computers.

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...

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.