Things I Have Noticed: Short stories from the estimating trenches

I have been wanting to write about several topics that are not long enough to fill this column by themselves. This month, I decided to combine a few subjects into one column, so I could finally get them off my mind.

To export, or not to export

I have many customers who do not use the same computerized estimating system I do. For these customers, I export the project to a spreadsheet, which automates the math, so the customer and I can concentrate on the content. Before I send the spreadsheet, I do some fine-tuning, rearranging and highlighting to best present the information. While completing this process on a recent project, I noticed something. Because of the abilities of the spreadsheet program, I was spending more time working with the data than I typically do on my estimating program, and I liked it. Even though it is time-consuming to export the data, the spreadsheet’s flexibility and features gave me more power to fine-tune the project. 

This doesn’t mean my estimating program is a slouch. It has dozens of features I could not live without, including some great features for polishing the summary. When exporting and fine-­tuning the data in a spreadsheet, I noticed a couple of new features I would like in my estimating program, so I called my soft-
ware vendor.

Estimates from hell

As I have ranted about in the past, document quality continues to plummet. A side effect of this is addendums, and I have had some very bad experiences on more complex projects. I often get addendums that require re-estimating large portions of the project. The worst example was a small wastewater plant in Florida. On the day I finished the estimate, an addendum was issued. It replaced the entire drawing set, changing absolutely everything. This one addendum doubled the amount of time it took to prepare the estimate. This really made me angry because the engineers knew this change was coming. They could have warned us, allowing us save a lot of time and money on the estimate. I learned an important lesson on this project: estimators need to stay in touch with the design team. Since that incident, I have saved many hours of estimating time by asking, ahead of time if changes are coming.

Backing up

Computers are very reliable today. However, when I first started using them, data loss was was a definite concern. Hard drives crashed, deleting meant it was gone forever, and smoke regularly poured from your computer. You had to back up your data every day. Today’s computers rarely crash. Therefore, some people are not so rigorous about backing up their data. It is not a good idea because bad things still happen. One of my customers recently lost his data to a virus. It cost him money and several work days, and he was not able to completely recover his data. Backup is easy now, so there is no excuse. There are a number of off-site backup programs that cost as little as $60 per year. Your data is automatically backed up, all day, every day. It is also important for at least one backup to be located off site. I knew an estimator who backed up his data every day but kept the backup media in his desk drawer. The media did not look too good after the fire. Also, keep your antivirus software up to date.

Miscellaneous materials

I am surprised by the number of electrical contractors who do not put miscellaneous material markups on their estimates. My first teacher introduced me to the concept, and then estimating classes reintroduced me to it. My estimating education happened in the early 1980s, before computerized estimating was widespread. To save time, we were taught to minimize the use of components in our assemblies, since all of the math was done by hand. For example, a duplex receptacle included a box, ring, device and plate, which required that we price, labor and extend four items. If we added wire nuts, a support strap, some screws and a ground pigtail, that would double the time it took to finish the math for this assembly. This is where the miscellaneous materials markup came in. Depending on the type of project, we used a 5 to 10 percent markup on the extended materials to cover all the parts and pieces that were not in our assemblies. Today’s estimating systems have a lot of those little components in their assemblies but still do not cover everything. We now use a markup of about 2 percent, depending on the project.

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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