Does knowing software make me an electrical estimator?

You took the electrical estimating software training. Are you now an estimator?

One of the biggest fallacies in the electrical industry is that knowing how to operate an electrical estimating software package automatically “makes you an estimator.” While knowing software is very important to the estimator’s role, this is only a piece of the estimating process. There is that old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” which may apply when a software operator randomly takes off items with no thought to reviewing any of the bid documentation. As you may know, apprentice electricians must complete 4 to 6 years of education and training to be a licensed journeyman electrician. What makes you think that taking a software class could make you an estimator in a week?

The estimator’s role is to determine the true cost of the project.

One thing that I think owners should remember is that the estimator’s role is to determine the true cost of the project. In that regard, an estimator has a fiscal responsibility to the company to determine the costs so that the company makes the anticipated profit, or at least doesn’t lose any money. We had one customer say “If I read the specs and covered everything, I would never get a job.” That is dangerous thinking right there. Determining the true cost doesn’t mean you have to bid at that price. The true cost becomes a guideline to make cuts to the costs based on known factors and historical data that you have collected over the years. That’s how you become more competitive on bid day.

This estimator not only knows the electrical estimating software, he knows how to estimate too!

Software does not teach you to think.

Every estimator’s career needs a foundation. In other words, an estimator must be taught to think and interpret drawing notes, specifications and other documentation. If you are never taught to look at the building construction before starting your take-off, how would you know that devices in block walls require different labor units than those in a sheetrock wall? If you never look at the reflected ceiling plan, how would you know to take-off a fixture in a grid ceiling versus a hard, gypsum board ceiling.

Is there demolition or existing walls that need to be chased or snaked? Different ceilings may require different wiring methods, flange kits, or even lifts depending on the height. Does your software determine this for you? No! Will software help you with project acceleration or delays in the schedule? The simple answer is no.

Electrical estimating software is great, but can it……????

You are back from your week of software training. Now you are back and ready to work. Where do you start? Does your software lay out a systematic approach? Will it help you get the counts out to the vendors for lighting fixtures? Or help you determine wiring methods for the project? Does the software calculate what you will need for homeruns? How does the software handle both human and non-human factors of labor effectiveness such as overtime work, compressed schedules, or building height adjustments?  Will the software prepare your scope letter, detailing what it included in your proposal and our legal terms and conditions that may protect you from lawsuits?If you are lucky to get a project, will the software put together your schedule and manloading chart?

Electrical estimating is part science, and part art!

Perhaps being a great software operator will help you with the science part of estimating. However, there is an “art” to bidding and negotiating work. Determining the bid price has a psychological element to it. Software doesn’t think for you. Software is merely a tool that you use, just like a pencil. Electrical estimating software also does not help you to negotiate work. It doesn’t help with the human side of developing relationships with general contractors in your area. They don’t care what software you use! They care that you can do the work for the price that you quoted. Let’s not forget that there are many electrical estimating software systems available. All operate somewhat differently. If you aren’t a professionally trained estimator, how do you know which electrical estimating software is right for you? Some of our clients use multiple software systems due to estimators rolls and requirements within the company as well.

It’s like learning to drive…………

A software operator (versus an estimator) is like a new driver that never took driver’s ed. Sure you may be able to get in the car and drive down the road. However, you won’t know what to do when a light turns red, or there is a school bus stopped in front of you because you never learned the rules of the road. This may be a rather simplistic example, but estimating is just like this. You learn the rules of the road first, such as estimating theory, building construction, how to read and interpret the bid documents and more.

Want to learn more about electrical estimating? Candels is offering its premier “Electrical Estimating Apprenticeship” from January 29 through May 30. Visit our website or call for details 877-CANDELS.


Women in Electrical Estimating

The best students have a combination of aptitude and attitude!

When we teach our electrical estimating apprenticeship, we often say that the best students have a combination of aptitude and attitude. To our delight, some of our most successful students have indeed been women, women without any electrical experience.

How can a woman with no electrical experience be an estimator?

You might be asking yourself, how does that work? Well, the truth is that most women are detailed oriented, are able to follow directions (or ask for them when they are lost!), and are willing to prove that they can be very good estimators.

Candels teaches a systematic approach to estimating. We start with theory to build a solid foundation. Then we review things like building construction and why it is important to note how the building is being built. We spend a lot of time going over specifications because the devil is in the details! If the student follows our approach, success is ensured!

Any related experience can be helpful!

Aptitude is a subjective thing. Any experience related to some part of the estimating process can be the springboard into an exciting, lucrative career. We have had students that are office assistants with electrical contractors (logical fit). My background is marketing analysis so, believe it or not, part of my job used to be to compare and contrast products that I didn’t understand and knew nothing about. Estimating is kind of like that too! You don’t necessarily have to know how something works, you just have to know what to do with it in the take-off.

Think about your life and your work experiences. Is there something that relates to the estimating process? Call me to chat about it……….. 877-CANDELS.

Construction Labor: Unforeseen Job Factors and How They Influence Job Performance

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” or so goes the saying engraved in the front of the US Postal Service Building in New York City.

Unforeseen circumstances can affect your job labor costs!

Just as snow or rain will not stop the mail from being delivered, it just might take the postal carrier longer to complete his route, which is exactly the point of this article. Many factors, including weather, environmental conditions and abnormal working hours, just to name a few, can and will affect your construction labor units on a project. This effect can be managed as long as you factor it into your estimate, and your ultimate layout of the job. Failure to do so may not only result in an overage on hours on your project, but also burnout of you or your crew!

Actual installation time is only part of a labor unit!

A construction labor unit represents the amount of time it takes to install any piece of a construction project, be it conduit, wire, light fixtures, feeders, and so on. A quantitative take-off will detail the material required, the quantity of each and the labor units required to install each item. The actual installation time, however, accounts for only 68% of a labor unit. The balance of a labor unit is comprised of time to lay out the job, study plans, receive material, mobilize, clean up, take coffee breaks, and other non-productive time.Construction labor-Hensgstream

A typical project can generally be defined by building size and shape, location, construction and work schedule, and by typical site conditions. The basic construction labor requirements should be adjusted in the estimate summary to tailor the bid to the special requirements of the building under consideration.

All of the following can influence job productivity!

Building height
Labor units for buildings over 4 stories should be adjusted by a factor of 1 to 2% per floor. Your electricians will wait to enter the man lifts or they will take the time to walk up to the designated floor! Material will need to be hoisted on all jobs over one story high.

Extremes of weather
Temperature, humidity, precipitation and wind velocity will all affect a worker’s productivity. According to actual laboratory studies, 100% efficiency of workers can be achieved only when the temperature is between 40°F and 70°F and the relative humidity is below 80% (the “10 best” days of the year.) Humidity plays more of a role in construction labor when the temperatures are higher. When it is extremely cold, temperature will influence a job more than humidity.

Scheduled overtime
A loss of productivity will occur whenever overtime is worked. More efficiency is lost when more hours are worked each day, more days per week are worked, and even more depending on the duration of the project. For example, working 10-hour days, 5 days a week will experience a productivity loss of 17% after 6 weeks.

Abnormal project durations
Electrical contractors have very little control over project schedules since their work cannot be started or completed until work by other trades has been performed. Many times bid documents do not detail the work schedule. The ideal efficiency is achieved when the contractor has time to ramp up manpower and tools to the time when the peak workforce is achieved and maintained until the electrical work is substantially completed. Often, however, scheduled target dates are missed causing increased costs for the electrical contractor. What do you do to compensate for this? First and foremost, you should document the series of events and put the contractor on notice if you feel that the work cannot be completed on schedule through no fault of your own.

Abnormal work schedules
Basic construction labor units are based on working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, during daylight hours. Any deviation from this standard schedule will impact labor productivity. In other words, 40 hours is not 40 hours, regardless of the time of day, because humans, by nature, are not nocturnal.

Building size and shape
The larger the building size and the more spread out the project is the less efficient your labor force will be. Issues such as material delivery/receiving areas, proximity of parking, access to tools and materials, job site security, and many other issues can come into play. Please keep this in mind!

Maybe you are thinking that if you factor in any or all of these items you will never get a job. However, the whole point in estimating is to determine all your project costs before submitting a bid. Then, and only then, can you strategically cut certain items based on known factors. Your bid price ultimately comes down to strategy, but the more you know about your job before submitting your price, the better off you will be in the long run.

Win the Bid: Key Points

Win the Bid: Key Points for the Bidding Process

Win the Bid: You know by now that the estimating process involves much more than the take-off. The process starts before you even look at a set of plans, and the process never really ends. This process involves an almost endless loop of deciding which projects to bid, working on relationships, completing take-offs, submitting your bid, and most importantly, following up with everyone involved.

Rather than recap all the nitty gritty, I would like to leave you with some key points to focus on.

Win the Bid: Relationships are beneficial!

To help win the bid, first and most importantly, never underestimate the power of relationships! Cultivating relationships with construction professionals and with local business people has long-term value and will help with any future estimate you need to make. If you think you do not have time, please reconsider. The more effort you put into relationships, the more you will get out of this process.

Make sure that the general contractors to whom you are bidding know who you are! When all other factors are even, I truly believe that the company “with the relationship” will win the bid almost every time. And, although I really did not touch on this previously, keeping in touch is easier now than it has even been. Social media outlets, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, make it easy to help you connect with industry professionals and to keep abreast of the construction industry in your area. Look for links in common if you need an introduction.

Keep Bidding

  • Always bid work while you are busy! If you think you don’t have time, make some. I know a lot of you may not have a healthy backlog of work, but the only way to get a backlog, is to bid, bid, bid! That is not to say that you should be indiscriminate about what you bid, but you should bid enough work to keep your electricians busy and productive. Contractors tend not to make the best decisions when there is no work on the books and you bid jobs below your cost just to “keep the guys busy.” This leads me to my next point.
  • Never bid a job below your cost (unless there is a solid strategic reason to do so)! This statement assumes that you know your costs, so please always complete a detailed take-off so you can determine all the material and labor requirements of a project. You can always check your take-off versus a tried and true square-foot number, but you should never base your bid on a square-foot number. Remember, every job is different, and you should always review the plans and specs to know what you are dealing with. Reminder: cultivate relationships with your vendors as well; they are the ones that will ensure you have the “right” number on bid day.
  • Sell your company and its benefits! Please do not assume that every company to which you are submitting a bid knows exactly who you are and what your company is capable of. Again, when all things are equal, the company that presents itself the best will have an edge over its competition. To help win the bid, package your proposal so it stands out. For example, before bid day, send a package to the person in charge of receiving the bids. Include your scope (proposal) letter with “price to follow,” as well as a company capabilities flyer/brochure, and your business card. Follow up on bid day with your price. That way the company gets exposure to you twice in the same bid process. And just a little food for thought, if you do not have the experience or capability within your company to develop a flyer or brochure, contact your local community college or university. There are a lot of students out there clamoring for experience that would welcome the opportunity to help your company at a fraction of the cost you would pay going to a big marketing agency.

Follow Up!

Finally, follow up, follow up, follow up! As the saying goes “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” While I am not advocating being a downright pest, you should absolutely follow up after you submit your price. Try to find out where you are in “the mix” of bids and see what you can do to close the job. Also, please do not chase someone else’s number unless you know you can absolutely do the job for that price, and that the number you are chasing is actually based on a quantitative take-off. (And again, remember that general contractors tend to “bend the truth a little” so be aware you may be bidding against yourself!)

The process of bidding projects never really ends. It’s a continual loop. I can tell you from experience that producing an estimate does get easier over time if you follow at least some of my advice.


Specification Review Checklist


Specs explain the entire project.

Reviewing the specs is important to the estimating process.

When completing a construction specification review, an estimator should follow a systematic approach. The specifications, include information for each CSI division, however, none should be reviewed in isolation. Even though our focus is electrical, also known as CSI Division 26 (and previously Division 16), information related to the electrical specs will be shown in other sections and must be reviewed.

Why do we look at other specs sections other than electrical?

An untrained estimator may think that reviewing the electrical specs is enough. It’s not. A thorough construction specification review must include the “front end” of the specs (CSI Division 0 and CSI Division 1). This information includes the drawing list, Invitation to Bid, bid scopes, and summary of work. It may also include the project schedule, (Can you get it done it time with your team and tools?), walk through information (Often this in mandatory!), existing conditions, alternates, and allowances. This section also includes bonding information.

Never bid a job you cannot bond! Knowing your bonding capacity is important. Believe it or not, some contractors don’t know that there is an individual project amount bonding capacity, and an aggregate amount. The aggregate amount is the total dollar amount of all projects. If you have never bid a job with a bonding requirement, know that it takes time to get a bond. If you would like to work on projects requiring a bond, find a local agent and work on your bonding before you bid your project!

Before we move to reviewing the electrical specs, let’s talk about some other spec sections that are worthy of review.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned construction specification Divisions 10, 11, and 12 which detail specialty equipment and furnishings. The reason to review these specs is to determine if there is an electrical component with any of the equipment, and the requirements for the electrical contractor. You don’t need to spend hours reviewing these specs; it’s more like a quick review so you can watch out for these systems in the electrical specs and on the drawings.

Existing Conditions

It goes without saying that you want to know existing conditions. Will there be demo involved? Will the demo involve the removal of hazardous materials, such as ballasts containing PCB’s? If so, as an estimator, you want to be sure to cover the removal cost if it is part of your scope. Sometimes salvaged materials will be required to be returned to the owner so it is best to have this information before you bid the job.


Concrete is a related spec section to electrical because some electrical equipment will require the use of a concrete foundation, such as a transformer or generator pad. Pole lighting may require bases made of concrete. Know your scope. Sometimes another contractor is responsible for concrete work, all or in part.

Fire and Smoke Protection

Fire stopping is required on projects. Generally this is a boilerplate spec section, however, be aware of specialty devices that cost more than the norm. Some pathways cost hundreds of dollars, so it is best to give this area of the specs a quick review to be sure to cover the cost of potentially expensive items.

Building Modules

We have seen more modular building. As a matter of fact, yesterday I reviewed a job for a KFC. I did not realize that the building was going to be built in four sections at an offsite warehouse. The customer wanted a price for a “stick built” electrical estimate as well as an idea of what it might cost for the electrical including modular construction. We have also seen projects where a portion of the building is built offside. One such project was a hotel where only the bathrooms in certain areas of the building were modular. It’s good to know this up front because you may unknowingly cover the costs for lighting fixtures, receptacles and other devices that are part of the modular construction and therefore not in your scope! With the rising cost of labor, I would suspect that modular building will become more prevalent.

Heat Tracing

Heat tracing is one of those gray areas where it’s not always clear “who owns what.” It’s good to review the specs in this area to see if the electrical contractor will be providing the circuit for the heat trace only, or the cable as well. The same would apply to electric heating mats, snow melt, and the like. If you have a question about your scope of work and cannot find it in the project documentation or specs, always consult with the general contactor and/or issue a Request for Information (RFI).

Next time, we’ll discuss all the hidden gems in the electrical specifications!



Project Specification Manual

The project specification manual is also known as the specifications.

Always review the entire project specification manual!

You’ve heard me say this many times before. “The devil is in the details.” The project specification manual, also known simply as “the specs,” contains a lot of details! You will notice as you review Division 26, or the electrical specs, to refer to other construction specification sections. Always review those sections for related work and how that pertains to the electrical scope of work.

Division 00 is where it all begins!

An estimator should review Division 00, or the “front end docs” first. Review all project information here, such as alternates, allowances and special job conditions. Always refer to the construction specification index for all specification sections, so that you can easily review information that is pertinent.

Always review Division 10, 11, and 12, Specialties, Equipment and Furnishings!

Divisions 10 through 12 of the construction specification detail information about special equipment and furnishings. While the electrical contractor might not have to furnish these items, every project is different. Always review and never assume what you own and don’t own! In class today, we reviewed a rather extensive project’s construction specification. It included photoluminescent egress markings, exterior sun control devices, dock levelers, projection screens and motorized project lifts, and roller shades.

What are photoluminescent lights?

Photoluminescent egress markings have become much more prevalent because they mark the egress path when both normal and emergency power fails. They are not electrical and recharge with regular light. We have seen some projects where the electrical contractor provides and installs this lighting. However, on the project we reviewed, the specifications clearly stated that the items must be installed by a contractor having 10 years experience. That still doesn’t solve the mystery of whether the electrical contractor on this project had to furnish the lighting with installation being subbed out to a qualified contractor. Honestly, we discussed that the construction specification does not stand alone. Sometimes you have to get additional information from the drawings, and other contract documents. You never know where you will find that missing piece of the puzzle to answer your question.

Sometimes sun control devices are just awnings!

We determined that the exterior sun control devices were not motorized, so we moved on.

Dock levelers may or may not require additional devices to be provided by the electrical contractor.

The dock leveler was provided with a disconnect and the control switch, so we will look for the electrical requirements of this item when we start the take-off. I just finished a project on Friday that had a dock leveler and control switch, but the electrical contractor was responding for providing the “traffic” (red/green) light at the dock. Look for notes on the drawings for additional items that you have to provide! In this case, there was a lighting symbol shown and a part number, so we added this to our list of items that need a quote.

Projector screens and lifts often require control wiring provided by the electrical contractor.

Rarely, if ever, does the electrical contractor have to provide the projection screen or projector lifts, and that was the case here. We were more interested in determining the control conduits and wiring that would be provided by the electrical contractor. Again, more information regarding this was shown on the actual construction drawings.

Roller shades can be motorized and they might be hidden on the drawings!

Finally, roller shades are often a stealthy item! We did determine that the roller shades were motorized, so that we could look for the circuits on the electrical drawings. I cited an example in class of a recent project we completed in Massachusetts. The roller shades were not clearly marked but were shown as a dotted line around the perimeter of a large room. All that the drawings mentioned was a simple note. Upon further review and a subsequent RFI document that was issued, we determined that there were 51 shades! You never want to not cover the circuits and small equipment connections for 51 items!

The project specification manual review can be a daunting task! It does get easier with practice!

We warned our students that it would take us about 16 hours to review everything that you should know about the construction specification. So far, we have reviewed related sections to electrical, as referenced in the specs. Always review the entire spec, paying close attention to related construction specification sections!

Construction Addenda and Scope of Work

Candels uses the acronym “B.A.D.A.S.S” to remember the steps in construction estimating. The “A” represents addenda and the “S” represents scope of work.

As you may recall from previous blog posts, we discussed B, bid forms and invitation to bid; A, alternates and allowances; and D, drawings. Having this acronym to refer to will ensure that you don’t miss anything when reviewing the project documentation.

The “A” (Addenda) and the “S” (Scope of Work) of B.A.D.A.S.S.

Sometimes an addendum will be a simple narrative, while other times and addendum will include new drawings. These new drawings may have changes “ballooned out” so they are easily identifiable, however there are times when there are changes that are not identified! Always try to overlay the drawings to ensure that you cover any changes!

You learn something new every day!

Every time we teach the electrical estimating apprenticeship, I make the statement “You learn something new every day.” While Marc and I have had this business for 15 years, during this class, Carrie noted that she has seen in the specs that if the addenda received are not listed on your proposal, your bid can be automatically rejected. Honestly, I never knew that! That is why I love class participation. You never know who will come up with a great idea or comment about the estimating process!

Pay attention to the scope of work!

A statement about the scope of work is important to review before you start your take-off. You may assume that a certain system is part of the work, but the scope of work may prove otherwise! Pay close attention to “materials supplied by others” and “work under separate contract.” Sometimes the owner may supply lighting fixtures while the electrical contractor will install them. Other times, a complete system will be under a separate contract, such as fire alarm or tel/data wiring, devices, terminations, patch panels and racks for example. Note: even if a system is under a separate contract, you, as the electrical contractor may be responsible for raceways! Be sure to review all the documentation so you cover the costs appropriately.

Other Things to Look For: Mock-ups, extra materials, and warranties!

At the risk of running long on this blog, I do want to mention three things that can potentially impact the cost of your project.


Mock-ups are common, especially in hotels. A mock-up is usually set up in a warehouse and an entire room, such as a hotel room, will be built so that the designer can see if the room will work as intended. What this means for you as an estimator is that you have to carry the material and labor costs of lighting fixtures, devices, and wiring for the mock-up. These devices are usually retained by the owner. Make sure to carry enough labor for your electrician to “adjust” anything that the designer deems necessary.


A one-year warranty is pretty standard on most projects, however, some projects require two or even a five year warranty on some parts. If that is the case, you want to be sure to carry the cost of the extended warranty. The cost will depend on the item(s) you are covering. A good tip, if the warranty is not specified, is to put a statement in your proposal to the effect of “warranty limited to the extent of the manufacturer’s warranty.”

Spare Parts

Extra materials and spare parts should be covered in your estimate. If your project requires supplemental fixtures as noted in the specs, make sure that your vendor quotes these items! We like to include notes to this effect on our count sheets to ensure that the vendor is aware of the extra materials. Spare parts are also known as “attic stock.” Again, make sure that your vendor quotes these items.

Next up is a discussion about the specifications. We always say that the “devil is in the details” and the specs prove that most of the time! Stay tuned!

Electrical Estimating Apprenticeship – B.A.D.A.S.S. (Day 3)

The electrical estimating apprenticeship Day 3 started with a review of take-off components which we call B.A.D.A.S.S.

Be a B.A.D.A.S.S.

Years ago, we developed this acronym for our new estimators to remember all the components of bidding documents.

B – Invitation to Bid and Bid Forms

A – Allowances and Alternates

D – Drawings

A – Addenda

S – Scope of Work

S – Specs

B stands for Invitation to Bid and Bid Forms

Just because you receive an Invitation to Bid doesn’t mean that you should bid the project. We discussed having the time, tools, and resources to be able to complete the job per the requirements. Needless to say, if you are deficient in any area, you may have to reconsider bidding that project. 

The Invitation to Bid is your first introduction to the project. It will include project name, location, and bid date, as well as what trades will be required on the project. It will also include information on pre-bid meetings and walk-throughs. Pay attention if attending the walk through is mandatory in order to submit a bid! Also, look around and see who is there. It will give you a good idea of which competitors are considering bidding the project.

Minority participation may be also be required. If you are bidding as a prime, you will have to be sure to satisfy the minority requirements. If you are a minority contractor, pay attention to the bid forms and what your advantage will be. Often you will receive a 10% consideration for the work.

The Invitation to Bid will also include information about whether bonding will be required. We discussed bid, payment and performance bonds. Simply, a bid bond ensures that “you will complete the job for the quoted price.” A payment bond ensures “a contractor will pay your subs and suppliers.” A performance bond ensures “a contractor will complete the job as stated.”

Jobs can either be public or private. Public jobs are bid strictly by “plans and specs” and no exceptions are made. Private jobs, on the other hand, have a lot more latitude.

A stands for Allowances and Alternates

Always review the bid documents, including the bid form and front end specifications for allowances and alternates. Allowances could be required for just about anything. Sometimes it will be a fixed dollar amount to be “used at the discretion of the GC” sort of like a pre-paid change order. Other times, the specs will state to carry a dollar amount for a system that is not designed.

Look at the alternates before you start your take-off so that you can identity the areas of the alternates before you start your take-off. Believe me; this is a time saver!

D is for Drawings

If I have said it before, I will say it again. Always ask for a full set of drawings because you will be responsible for anything electrical regardless of what drawing it is on. Look at the drawing index and make sure you have all the drawings. Review the RCP’s for ceiling type and height and the architecturals for wall construction.

If you follow a systematic approach to your electrical estimating process, you will undoubtedly identify the true cost of the project, which is the estimator’s role.

Day 4 follows with more BADASS tips! Stay tuned!