Category Archives: General

Should You Use Electrical Estimating Software? (Part 2)

After saving time, the next thing that comes to mind is accuracy. Mistakes happen whether you are using a computer or doing things by hand. The computer however, does not make math errors. Consider the chaos of bid day. It is very likely that you will shift a decimal point or make a calculation error in your rush to complete the estimate and get your prices out. Inevitably, prices change, new quotes come in, or the boss wants the labor units changed. I have literally erased right thru a recap sheet because of the number of changes made on bid day. All this rush creates the perfect environment for human errors.

 Assuming you have not started procrastinating after getting a computer estimating system, bid morning comes and there is nothing to do but fine tune the estimate. The computer has done all the math. Changes are instant. Better pricing? New quotes? Changes from the boss? No problem. Now you have time to make some calls. Get  better prices. Find out if alternate fixture packages are out there. Sweet talk the GC’s. In  summary, you have time to concentrate on winning the bid.

 You can still make mistakes entering information into a computer. The saying is “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. Regarding accuracy, the point of using a computer is giving you the time to not be rushed. Remember from Part One of this post, time is saved because the computer explodes the assemblies, creates the listing, prices and labors the material, and does all the math. You are not rushed into making errors on bid day.

 In Part Three, we will discuss organization.


Should You Use Electrical Estimating Software? (Part 1)

I know that many of you have heard this discussion before. However, I have had many requests for this information lately, so here is my take on it.

 The first argument is time. I have often heard when teaching computerized estimating, “I can do it faster by hand”. This may seem true while learning and setting up a system. However, once a system has been learned, you will save about eight hours on a $250,000 estimate.

 You will not save time doing the takeoff (counting and measuring) the plans. Technology has done nothing for these activities, although several companies are working on it. You will save a tremendous amount of time after the takeoff is finished. Here is how it breaks down the paper way.

  1. Explode all assemblies and list components on pricing sheets
  2. Manually price all of the material
  3. Manually labor all of the material
  4. Extend the material and labor total for every line on the sheet
  5. Total the material and labor columns for every price sheet
  6. Have your math double checked by someone else
  7. Transfer your totals to the recap sheet
  8. Do all the math on the recap sheet
  9. Make a quick review, and give it the boss for approval
  10. Do all the math over every time a change is made

 When I was a junior estimator BC (before computers), this process took 4 people about 2 hours, or 8 hours total. Then a miracle happened. Jack McCormick came and demoed his electrical estimating system on the Apple II computer. The system performed the above referenced work in about 3 minutes. It only took that long because of how slow printers were at the time. The time savings allowed me more time to be competitive on bid day, and of course allowed me to complete more estimates than before.

 That’s it for part one. The next part will cover, well, I don’t know yet.

Document Quality and Electrical Estimating

We completed an estimate recently for a truck stop. It contained numerous scope coordination problems. Consider this example. The homeruns from the fuel pumps for the various systems were indicated on a number of different plan sheets. Each plan sheet contradicted the next. One claimed that we were to install the conduit system complete in PVC 40. Another claimed that the fuel system contractor was installing all conduit to the fuel pumps. Yet another claimed that we were only responsible for stub outs from the fuel control desks. And a final note claimed that we were to extend the conduits to the fuel island in PVC 80.

We did eventually worked out the real scope. The point of this discussion however, is that we had to do it at all. This may be old news, but documents continue to get worse. Every once and a while, I think that they have gotten as bad as they can get. I am usually proved to be wrong fairly quickly.

 There are many impacts from this trend. Here are just a few:

  • Estimates need to be prepared earlier, so that RFI’s can be submitted in a timely manner.
  • Estimates take longer to prepare because of the time it takes to solve the problems on the drawings.
  • You will be less certain that your competition is including the same scope you are. If you make a call on a problem and include the work in your scope, will the other bidders do the same?
  • Your bid schedule may be affected by the addendum required to correct the problems.
  • If the addendum does not extend the bid time, you may be working overtime to complete the estimate. This happened to me on the truck stop estimate. I worked over the weekend to complete the estimate for a Tuesday bid date. The project was postponed on Monday.
  • If you win the project, will you have enough overhead and project management time to handle the clarification of the scope? It can be hard to recover this time in change orders.

I am very interested in hearing your thoughts on this matter. Is there anything we can do as estimators? I have heard that there are organizations working on national standards for electrical drawings. Is this true? Can they actually make a difference? I have more thoughts on this subject to be discussed in a future post (that is, if you do not bring them up in this discussion).

Auto Count Software for Electrical Estimating

I was asked my opinion regarding auto-counting software recently, so here it is. Specifically, I was asked about SureCount Symbol Recognition Software. This kind of software can automatically count the symbols on your drawings. It does so by asking you to select a symbol with your mouse. The program can then count every similar symbol on the page. Sounds great, doesn’t it. The reality is that this type of software has inherent limitations. Let’s look at them.

Say you select a duplex receptacle. The software then goes looking for every symbol that looks like it. But what if the branch conduit comes in from the left, instead of the right? What if some of the receptacles have background elements of the drawing showing through? The answer to this problem is a “tolerance” setting. The tolerance setting tells the software how much different the symbol can be, and still be counted. If you set the tolerance level @ 70%, then the symbols can be 30% different.

The tolerance settings can lead to false or missed counts. Consider this quote from the SureCount website. “When you use Auto-Count, you will want to visually check the drawing to ensure that all the correct symbols are marked”. That said, the software authors are continually improving the “intelligence” of the system. For instance, if you select a 2’ x 4’ fixture with the letter A on the upper right side, the software will find all of the fixtures, even if the letter A is in a different position.

There are also many strategies for getting around the technology’s limitations. Let’s say you are working on a set of drawings that use the same symbol for many different fixtures. The engineer has put notes on the drawings such as “The fixtures in this room are all type A3”. The software allows you to count the only symbols in that room.

Another strategy for dealing with similar symbols is this. Assume the drawings use the same symbol for most receptacles, with text to identify the differences, such as IG, GFI or WP. If you select and count the receptacles with text first, the software will not count them again.

I have been saying that this type of software is not ready for prime time for many years. That opinion is changing. If you are a little on the “techy” side, and like to figure out new software, auto-count software may be ready for you.

On-Screen Electrical Estimating – Chapter Two

As mentioned in my last post, here are some of my likes and dislikes regarding on-screen estimating. The likes are first.

  • No Paper Handling – Some of our larger projects show up on a pallet. Even small project documents add up after awhile, requiring substantial space for archiving.
  • A Minor Point – No more paper cuts.
  • Faster Estimating – Time is saved during takeoff. When you click on an item, it is counted, highlighted, and listed in a takeoff. All this is done in one step, instead of three. It also eliminates data entry errors.
  • Overlays – No more light tables. You can overlay any plan sheet (or portion of a plan sheet) on another plan sheet. Need to see where the homeruns go to on another floor. Just overlay the two floors. Got change orders? Overlay the new plan sheets over the original plan sheets, and the differences are clearly shown.
  • Ergonomics – About 5 years ago, I started experiencing neck pain. The doctors concluded that over thirty years of looking down at a desk was starting to create damage. I was sent off to the chiropractor. I have been using an on-screen takeoff program for about eighteen months, and have not been to the chiropractor for about twelve months. Not looking down at a set of plans for eight hours a day has been very beneficial.
  • Portability – I think my UPS driver is mad at me. He does not deliver here very often anymore. Being able to obtain and deliver documents with the Internet and email is a boon. It also makes collaboration on a project easier.
  • Supplies – I think the local Staples Office Store manager is also mad at me. I no longer purchase box after box of highlighters and pencils.
  • Advanced features – These programs all have special features that make estimating and plan handling easier. For instance, you can create a snapshot of a feeder schedule, and display it on a second screen while doing takeoff on your primary screen. Another is the ability to create bookmarks, which make it simple to move around large projects.
  • Vision Issues – For those who need vision correction, the ability to set a monitor at a fixed distance makes it much easier to manage. You will no longer need to move closer or farther from the plans, put glasses on or off, or be adjusting to look over and under your bifocal line.
  • It’s More Fun? – One of my estimators told me that working on-screen is more fun. Maybe I’ll get more work out of him. For a while.

Here is my dislike.

  • Screen Size – These programs do work on smaller monitors. I currently use a 22″ wide screen monitor. The zoom and pan controls make it very easy to move around the documents on this screen. I am however, keeping an eye on large monitor prices, and will soon purchase a larger screen. It will probably be sized around 30″. Take note that large screen TV’s may not have a very high resolution for the PC input. I have seen 37″ TVs with only a 1366 x 768 resolution. By comparison, my 22″ monitor has a resolution of 1680 x 1050.

Well, that’s it folks. let me know wht you think.

On-Screen Electrical Estimating – Chapter One

Also known as on-screen takeoff or digital takeoff, the time for this type of software has come. If you are not familiar with these programs, they allow you to perform takeoff on your computer screen. You will not need to obtain paper documents. 

The concept has intrigued me since I first ran across an on-line plan room that offered one of these programs as a free on-screen plan viewer. When I downloaded and installed the viewer, I was offered a free trial of the “complete” version. This version allowed me to count and measure items right on my computer screen by pointing and clicking the mouse.

 I played with the program for a couple of weeks, and discovered a few problems. The most significant was that very few projects were available as digital files at that time. It was also expensive to purchase and maintain. Most of us already have multi thousand dollar estimating systems with annual maintenance fees. At the time I did not believe that I needed another $3,000 program and more maintenance fees.

Fast forward to 2007. We had been receiving about half of our estimating projects as digital files this year, so I did another survey of on-screen estimating programs. I found many more offerings with a price range of $1,000 to $5,000. These new programs had many more tools, features and improved interfaces. I did a free demo on the $1,000 program and found that it had the power to takeoff and organize the most complex of electrical projects. We have been using it for about 18 months now, and purchased another license today.

 On my next post, I will talk about what I like and dislike about on-screen estimating.

BIM and Electrical Estimating

Several people have asked me about BIM lately. For those of you not familiar with BIM, it is an acronym for Building Information Modeling. According to Wikipedia, “Building Information Modeling (BIM) is the process of generating and managing building data during its life cycle. Typically it uses three-dimensional, real-time, dynamic building modeling software to increase productivity in building design and construction. The process produces the Building Information Model (also abbreviated BIM), which encompasses building geometry, spatial relationships, geographic information, and quantities and properties of building components”.

In some ways, this is a digital product similar to the physical models we used to have available for building oil refineries. If you needed to see how a conduit is routed, or solve a space conflict, look at the model.

To electrical contractors, this means that a three dimensional computer model will be available that shows all of the electrical work as it will actually be installed. Furthermore, estimators will be able to extract this information as the counts and measurements needed to prepare an estimate.

Do I believe this technology will have a major impact on the way most electrical estimators do business? Not likely. The principal reason I feel this way is that in my experience, and in the experience of most of my customers, the quality of  bid documents has been declining for many years. It seems unlikely that electrical engineers would be willing to incur the additional expenses required to create a 3D model on hard bid, competitive projects.

Second, in my 28 years of estimating, I have never been able to obtain a CAD file for estimating purposes (To be fair, CAD has not been a major factor for 28 years, but you get the point). In my opinion, this is because they do not want any liability for quantities of materials. If they are not willing to to give us 2 dimensional files, why should things be any different for 3 dimensional files.

The third point is in regards to the diagrammatic nature of electrical drawings. Unlike the refinery models mentioned above, today’s electrical documents do not show us exactly where to install materials. Most specifications point out that the drawing are diagrammatic, and require the electrical contractor take responsibility for installation locations. Again, I believe it is unlikely that 3D models showing electrical installations will be available for most electrical estimates.

BIM is however, making advances into the electrical contracting industry. Some of the larger electrical contractors are using BIM on design assist projects and for constructability reviews. We are also beginning to see contractual requirements involving BIM. There is a great article in the March issue of EC&M. The link is below. I am interested in your opinions, so let me know what you think.

EC&M Article Link –