Contractors need to really read the specs

There are things I needed to know in order to give Steve the advice he sought: 1.      Were you given a full set of plans from which to bid, or just the “P” sheets? 2.      Were you given a full specification book or just copies of the 15400 plumbing section? 3.      How specific was your proposal? 4.      What was in the contract you signed?

Sometimes, when thinking of a topic for this column, one comes along completely out the blue. Such is the case this month. An acquaintance of mine is a newly licensed plumbing contractor. He was, at one time, an apprentice who worked for my company. He has worked in the trade for the past ten years or so, with two or three different shops, before making the leap into his own contracting business.

The story

“Steve” called me the other day for some help with a problem, and some advice. The short story is this: Steve bid on the plumbing portion of a project for a contractor who was expanding an existing residential development. Along with the sanitary soil/DWV, domestic water, natural gas piping, condensate drains and fixtures on four semi-custom model homes, there was some site development that involved plumbing.

Steve had covered everything that was on the plumbing pages of the blue prints. Unfortunately for Steve, there were several (five I think) very expensive water fountains with dog watering attachments spread around the site that did not show on the plumbing plans. They showed on the site layout plan, but were called out in the plumbing fixture specifications.

You can almost see the rest of this happening can’t you? Steve placed the low bid on the project, was offered a contract and signed it. He commenced work on the job and had gotten to the top-out stage on the four houses. In other words, he was right in the middle of the job. 

The contractor is insisting that Steve provide the fountains and attendant services. Steve is saying that he didn’t bid on the fountains and the attendant services because they were not on the plumbing plans. As an aside; this is Steve’s first project of any size since becoming a licensed contractor.

The facts

There are things I needed to know in order to give Steve the advice he sought:

1.      Were you given a full set of plans from which to bid, or just the “P” sheets?

2.      Were you given a full specification book or just copies of the 15400 plumbing section?

3.      How specific was your proposal?

4.      What was in the contract you signed?

Steve said he was given a full set of plans and a fully bound specifications book. He faxed me a copy of his bid proposal and a copy of his contract. Since I needed to be in town later that week, I made arrangements to visit him at his office to help him sort out the problem if I could.

The reality

After reviewing the plans, specifications, Steve’s proposal and his contract, this is what I found:

1.      The plumbing and/or mechanical plans did not show the fountains.

2.      The fountain specifications were included in the fixture specifications.

3.      Steve’s proposal did not exclude the fountains or other site work.

4.      The contract contained language that made it clear Steve was responsible for all work relating to the plumbing portion of the project, among other things.

In other words, Steve was responsible for the fountains and ancillary plumbing work. An argument might have been made that since the fountains appeared on the site plan, they were the work for the site contractor, but that ship had already sailed when Steve signed the contract. 

The best advice I could give him was to try and work with the general contractor and the supply house to mitigate his exposure. He had signed the documents and was contractually bound to perform. Walking away from the project was also an option, but that involved an altogether different set of problems, not the least of which was putting Steve out of business.

20/20 hindsight

Using Steve’s dilemma as a cautionary tale, this is how he should have handled the issue… First, he should have completely reviewed every page of the plans, using colored pencils for emphasis, with an eye toward anything that could remotely apply to his trade.

Next, he should have questioned the fixture specifications when the fountains were called out but did not show on the “P” sheets. By bringing the issue up during the bidding phase, he could have clarified the discrepancy and either put the fountains into his bid or excluded them from his bid. Then, in presenting his proposal, he needed to be crystal clear on exactly what and was not included in the bid. 

Lastly, he should have reviewed the contract he was asked to sign, striking out those paragraphs and items with which he did not agree, and incorporating his proposal as a part of the contract. Instead, Steve signed a typical boilerplate subcontract which made him responsible for everything since the sinking of the Titanic.

The answer to avoiding Steve’s dilemma? Thoroughly read all the documents involved in any project you are bidding and leave nothing unwritten or uncovered when it comes to contract time.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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