My column “Computerized estimating: The a,b,c,d,e,f and g’s,” which was published in the March 1999 issue, generated several nice conversations with fellow contractors, who had some further questions about digitizer-based estimating systems. I’m always willing to talk with anyone either by phone or e-mail about any issue related to mechanical contracting.
From these conversations, a core group of detailed questions, concerns and perspectives emerged. Below are some of those more detailed issues, in the form of questions and answers.
Question: I do mainly residential plumbing, both single-family and multifamily. How can a system help me prepare better estimates?
Answer: It can’t. In North Carolina and most other places I’ve been, most general contractors start off with a “ceiling” number of how many dollars inside per fixture and how many dollars outside per foot of sewer and water service they are willing to pay. Then they throw that number out on the street so their subs can do the limbo to see how low one of them is willing to go to get the work.
When you price work mainly by the fixture or by the foot installed, you don’t need a computerized estimating system cluttering up your office. All you need is the clean back of a matchbook.
Question: I do a lot of commercial work with conceptual bidding from narratives. Can a system help me?
Question: I price the interior piping for most of my commercial work on a square foot basis, then add allowances on the capsheet for fixtures, insulation, etc. Can a computerized estimating system help me prepare more accurate bids?
Question: I price most of my work by “feel,” i.e., I was taught how to pull good numbers from my rear and make them stick. Can buying and learning how to use a system improve my profitability?
Answer to all three: No. Digitizer-based computerized estimating systems are dependent on operators entering every single little, teensy-weensy length of pipe, fitting, accessory and fixture into the running bid total, just as they would normally do during a manual bid process before laboring everything out.
Unless you have a consistent estimating paradigm of picking out, pricing and laboring every miniscule item from a plan sheet that could affect job cost, then buying a computerized system probably wouldn’t be worth your money.
The strength of the system is its inherent accuracy, but you’ve got to have a knowledgeable estimator picking the plans apart to actually input the correct data to get the super-accurate base-cost estimates you desire.
Question: I do very little new commercial work but do a lot of fit-ups instead. Could a system help me get more jobs and become more profitable?
Answer: Yes, yes, yes! The system doesn’t know or care what kind of job you’re inputting data from, all it knows or cares about is that you are inputting data from plan sheets.
Question: I’m basically computer illiterate: would I still be able to use a computerized estimating system?
Answer: Yes, but. Not having any preconceived notions about computers and digitizer-based systems could be a good thing. But at least a cursory, working knowledge of Windows 95, Windows 98 or whatever operating system that the vendor’s program needs to run under is prerequisite. Unless you live way out beyond the boonies somewhere, finding appropriate training to learn the basic operating system residing on your computer should not be a big problem.
As mentioned in the original article, all vendors offer training on their particular system, for a price. Said price of their school is far cheaper than wasting untold man-hours trying to learn their estimating software just from the manuals and from telephone technical support.
Question: I’d like to see a system in operation before committing further time or money into the possibility of buying one. Is this possible?
Answer: Not only is it possible, it’s normally quite easy. All the major vendors such as Quickpen and Estimation will usually arrange to have a salesperson come by your office and give you a free dog-and-pony demonstration of their system.
Such a demonstration normally takes one to two hours or a little longer, and then you’ll have a chance to actually put your hands on their system and play with it some and ask more detailed questions to see if it meets your needs.
Vendors may also offer show-and-tell demonstration disks, or perhaps (though this is becoming a less frequent possibility) arrange a live demo at an office of a local competitor of yours who just happens to be a big proponent of a given system.