The Estimating Industry is Changing!
Are You Changing With It?
By Linda Candels, Candels Estimating LLC
If you are a seasoned estimator or construction professional, you probably
remember when construction documents were printed on paper, and the thought
of anything digital was very Back to the Future. Fast forward 5 or 10 years,
and the world of estimating has changed dramatically. Yes, we still
determine the material and labor requirements of a construction project, but
HOW we determine it is totally different than years past.
Technology has changed the estimating world and has also enhanced product
innovations that save material or labor costs. This is important to note as
historical construction data costs are used to either check the price of an
estimate or are used for budgetary purposes for a proposed project.
From paper and pencil to computer screen and mouse – from weeks to days
Although some estimators may still use the old “paper and pencil” method
of estimating, technology has brought us more effective ways to get our jobs
done more quickly and accurately. First of all, we don’t have to have piles
of construction prints and spec books hanging around our offices, because
plans and specs are now available digitally. We no longer have to wait for a
delivery tube to arrive with construction documents; they now arrive in our
inboxes or via e-mail links so we can quickly download them. Not only does
this give us our information faster, it also provides more space around the
office. We now have the opportunity to take advantage of technology that was
not available years ago.
The digital world has also brought us on-screen take-off software that is
very similar to using a highlighter and linear scaler/counting device on
paper, except that the highlighting and counting is done from a digital
drawing on screen. It has also replaced the older programs that utilize a
digitizer with a wired or wireless pen or puck. Depending on your trade and
take-off requirements, you may even be using an “auto count” feature
utilizing “optical character recognition” to recognize and count a
Because of these digital documents, soliciting vendor quotes has never been
easier. Do you remember having to use your copier to duplicate a piece of a
drawing so you could reduce it and fax it to your vendors? In the case of
duplicating an electrical service riser, believe me, it was not an easy
task! To solicit a quote from a switchgear vendor now, all I have to do is
extract the appropriate pages from a PDF file and email it to the vendor.
And, if the file is particularly large, an estimator can use a “drop box” or
“share file” to send the file. If you have a “Request for Information” or
RFI, you can simply use the “snapshot” tool in Adobe or the “snipping tool”
in Microsoft and paste it in an email or RFI form with your question, and
away it goes! Effectively the time involved in tasks such as RFI’s and quote
requests has been reduced by at least 75%!
Although specific vendors are still required for high ticket quoted items,
such as lighting packages, switchgear and panels, fire alarm and other
systems, the power of the internet now puts information at our fingertips!
If an estimator encounters a piece of equipment or a device with which he
has no experience, Google becomes the estimator’s most useful tool! A simple
search by manufacturer and part number will undoubtedly lead to results such
as suggested pricing, a product sketch or photo, wiring requirements, and
also useful information regarding the installation of the item, which is a
key to the labor component for the item. Additionally, there are many
national pricing services that will update your catalog pricing of items in
your estimating software, further enhancing the accuracy of your material
pricing. There are also some online digital catalogs that will link you to
the manufacturer’s data sheet with the simple click of a link.
Estimating software has also come a long way in the last 5 to 10 years.
On-screen take-off software can link to an estimating program, effectively
eliminating a step in the estimating process and making an estimator more
efficient. And, estimating programs now contain more information than ever
before! Some programs incorporate “code” requirements for an installation,
such as number of conductors that can fit in a raceway. Canned “assemblies”
can be taken off and usually they provide all the “pieces and parts” that
are required for installation of an item and some software also provides
illustrations of the item for visual reference. Most programs roll up your
take-off items into a summary or extension - which is a useful tool during
the project “buy” phase.
The downside to technology (if there is one) is that the pace of estimating
has become much quicker! As estimators, we are no longer given weeks or even
a month to bid a project. Sometimes contractors want prices submitted within
days or a week, substantially reducing the time to put a bid together.
However, social media applications, such as LinkedIn, has helped open doors
to relationships between contractors and sub-contractors. We all know that
relationships are a key component to business success. In addition to
LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook can help enhance your company profile, taking
you from a relative unknown into a more “known” entity. Company websites
serve the same purpose. Did you ever notice that you don’t want to do
business with a company that does not have an active website? How did you
learn about potential business associates before Google, LinkedIn, Twitter,
and the rest of the internet? Indeed, technology has helped link people
Product innovations have helped tighten up labor factors
Part of a contractor’s advantage on bid day is applying labor-saving
ideas into the estimate. Many electrical contractors pre-fabricate items in
a shop (where conditions are more controlled and labor is less expensive) in
order to gain labor advantage for a proposed project. In addition, certain
product advancements and improvements can help gain a labor advantage on bid
day. Some of these products may carry a higher material cost, but are often
used because the higher material cost is offset by much lower labor costs.
For example, “plug and play” devices (such as switches and receptacles) not
only save time (and money) on installation, they also provide UL approved
assemblies and flexibility for future device upgrades.
Other product innovations lessen lifetime costs and energy efficiency
While some new product innovations provide an immediate savings to
material and/or labor, other product innovations impact the lifetime
installed cost of an item. More often than not, these items have updated
installation requirements that should be considered when estimating the cost
of a project utilizing these items.
For example, changes to lighting can save a lot on energy costs. Much of the
new lighting is programmable so not only does this lighting have a 120V
circuit, it often includes a CAT5 wire for lighting control and even
wireless controllers are making lighting controls an easy solution. Managing
lighting control based on usage, daylight harvesting, and other conditions
can save the building owner thousands of dollars over the life of the
building. LED lighting is quickly gaining prominence. Although the labor
factor is really no different, the material cost of an LED bulb is
considerably higher, but the lifetime cost of LED lighting is much lower
than its predecessors.
Building automation can also save the building owner money on operating
costs. While the installed cost of a home, office, school, or hotel
automation project is considerable, the energy savings can be impressive.
Imagine an intelligent system that “senses” whether a guest is present in a
hotel room and will adjust lighting and heating/cooling based on occupancy.
What energy savings! Home automation is not just a cool way to control your
lighting or shades, it’s about keeping your home cool (or warm) based on
changing environmental conditions. Again, it’s all about energy savings.
Speaking of energy savings, solar energy is still a way to boost the energy
efficiency of a building. Photovoltaic arrays have come down in price as
more contractors have gained more experience in the installation of these
Construction changes need to be applied to your estimate
The final way that estimating, bidding, and planning projects have
changed has a lot to do with changes in construction. Technology has brought
about different building imaging programs, such as BIM modeling. One of the
benefits of BIM modeling is identifying potential conflicts in building
systems before construction. For example, if HVAC piping conflicts with pipe
runs for the electrical distribution system, the path of either can be
quickly altered to avoid problems. In effect, building BIM modeling also
effective serves as “as builts” of the project as it is built, saving a step
Have you ever used Google Maps to check out a job site? By using Google
Maps, you can “see” the jobsite and the surrounding areas. This is
especially useful if you are estimating a project that is not near your
office. It may show location of utilities and potential obstacles, and also
help identify potential issues such as parking, job laydown areas, and more.
Know your local code
Building construction does change from time to time based on the changes
being adopted in local, state, and national building codes, such as the
National Electrical Code or NFPA 70. In the 2014 NEC for example, there is a
provision for a house to be wired entirely on ARC faults, including the
kitchen. AC or “armor clad” cable can now be used where approved by local
codes. This product represents a 30% savings on labor and material over
traditional MC cable.
For as many times as us seasoned professionals think that things don’t
really change much, they actually do. I never would have thought how much
easier my job has become due to changes in the estimating process. Digital
construction documents have allowed us to rid ourselves of bulky plotters
and scanners, piles and piles of construction prints, and specs books. They
have also helped us to convey information to our vendors much more quickly
and accurately. Time for the estimating process has shortened but that’s
okay, because we have more resources than ever before – Google, online
catalogs, pricing services, and more all help the flow of information.
Social media helps us connect to associates, suppliers and customers we
might not have linked to otherwise. Technology has helped build
relationships. Our online profiles and websites assist in making our
companies visible and help build our brands.
What more will the future hold? We probably can’t fathom more than we have
right now, but inevitably changes will occur further changing the role of
the estimator for the better.
the author: Linda Candels is an estimating consultant and one of the
founders of Candels Estimating LLC, an outsourced electrical estimating firm
located in Fort Myers, FL. Both Marc and Linda Candels have written numerous
articles regarding the estimating process, spoken at numerous industry
events, and are considered the leaders in electrical estimating consulting.
Both of the Candels are members of the Consulting Estimators Roundtable
(CERT – www.certusa.org).
Contact her at