After an hour or two of training, most estimators are ready to go on their own.
AN EASY-TO-USE Windowsbased estimating program for commercial, industrial and heavy-gauge HVAC ductwork is Quote-Express HVAC/SheetMetal (www.quotesoft.com, 800/813-7020). Featuring a customizable materials database of about 7,000 items and pre-loaded labor tables, the program accepts digitizer pen, template, keyboard and mouse input at any time in any order and will connect to any CAD drawing for an automatic estimate and to a Palm Pilot for a remote takeoff estimate.
The software enables estimating the cost of raw materials and labor to fabricate and install ducts, spiral pipe and fittings.
The user-friendly interface allows the estimator to primarily use plain English construction terms and picturedriven icons, rather than computer terms and function keys, to do an estimate for rectangular duct, spiral duct and fittings. Much of the input can be done via point and click.
The company provides a remote walk-through demonstrating the operation of the program for prospective customers and direct remote online training after purchase. (We recently took the "tour," which required downloading a small ActiveX file onto our computer that allowed us to see what was on the demonstrator's computer screen as we proceeded.) After just an hour or two of training, most estimators are ready to go on their own, according to the developer.
Starting a project is quick. The estimator need only key in the name of the project and select the zone and the type of ductwork (round or rectangular and the pressure class). Clicking again on the add-zone tab sets up the next phase of the estimate.
Initially the screen shows all the items that can be selected, on the belief that it is easier to exclude stuff than have to remember to include various features. Though the initial default screen is crowded, users quickly learn to click off items they don't want, simplifying the workspace down to the essentials for each contractor.
As the estimator specifies the dimensions of any part, for example, a little snapshot onscreen displays the part, showing the gauge and the length to verify that it is the right item. A change in any dimension is reflected immediately in the graphic.
Unlike software that works with batch files and that does not take advantage of high-performance computing, QuoteExpress offers real-time takeoff data. Contractors can instantly see and adjust labor hours and material costs before entering them into the bid. Each contractor can customize and maintain the database with its own factors. According to the developer, upkeep of the database requires two to three hours a month.
The program allows the estimator to see exactly how much labor each piece of ductwork takes for engineering and drawing, fabrication and installation as the estimate builds. When desirable, the estimator can override various default factors, extend the data and do the calculations on-the-fly.
Contractors who sub out their fabrication work to fab shops that use the QuoteExpress companion program buyduct.com — and there are more than 80 ductwork and spiral pipe fabricators nationwide that subscribe — can send an electronic file over the Internet with a request for pricing and get back a quote within minutes, avoiding extra typing of numbers and details, speeding preparation of the estimate and helping ensure accuracy.
According to QuoteSoft, about 90% of the contractors nationwide using the program buy spiral pipe and fittings from fabricators and about 40% of the contractors buy rectangular ductwork and fittings from fabricators, with the numbers for online shopping indicating a growing trend West Coast to East.
QuoteExpress HVAC/SheetMetal comes with 40 templates ready for exporting the data to Excel. When all the items in the database are entered, the estimator then transfers the data to Excel for compiling and extending it into a formalized estimate.
Quick online shopping
Contractors who are thinking of buying materials online or are interested in expanding their online suppliers may want to find out if their distributors are using software that allows the contractor to find out, in real time, whether the parts needed are in stock. While some distributors use software that updates only periodically, others use solutions that update in real time, enabling contractors to see what is in stock at the time they place the order anytime day or night.
Typically, the software operates on secure sites with password-protected log-in access. With some Web-based solutions, such as Activant B2B Seller, contractors can also track invoices, check the status of an open order and view past purchases and even download data into Excel spreadsheets.
For smaller contractors, this type of service can be helpful in planning the day because it helps ensure that one trip to one distributor can result in getting all the necessary parts for the day's schedule.