When an estimator does a material take off for a project, any project, they will do a piece by piece, three-dimensional, reconstruction of that project. It is not unusual to bulk price things like copper fittings below, say, 1” rather that count out every 1/2” 90° but that would be an individual preference on the part of the estimator. Some will take off every single 90°, hanger, nut bolt, washer and anchor. If the estimator has been at his job for a bit, he (or she, or ze…) might consider throwing in a number for some small missed items, but generally, the take off stands on its own as regards the materials necessary to do the job from start to finish.
In order to be successful in a bid, an estimator must make his takeoff as close to reality as possible. Throwing in WAG numbers (Wild A$$ Guess) when you are in a competitive bid situation is not how you get work. No, you get jobs by bidding as tightly as you can reasonably expect the work to be performed and keeping your profit and overhead in line with what the current market will bear and then doing everything possible to beat that number and increase the profitability.
That’s how it’s supposed to go. Once the job has been won and the project starts, things don’t go exactly as planned. There is an old saying that “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy” and it got to be an old saying because it is invariably true. Have you ever seen a project finish where there is no material left over? Have you ever been on a job where you did not have to augment the estimated materials in some minor or major way? The reasons are numerous, but they can call be sifted down to one indisputable fact: no two people see the same thing the same way, blueprints or not.
Try as they might, architects and engineers can only provide guidance in a two-dimensional frame (presently BIM is trying to change that) and micromanaging installations is not time or cost effective. You have to let the field do what the field does, estimates or not. Therein lies the point of this column.
While you can provide your supply house with your (hopefully) accurate takeoff for ordering purposes, your field crew can, and most likely will, change things to suit the site picture that they have to deal with. That is simply a fact. It is not that the field guys will change your “perfect” takeoff to suit reality that is the issue, it is the materials that are damaged and destroyed by mere carelessness that can affect your profit. Most estimators, bosses and supervisory staff do not take such materials into account when putting a project into motion.
Some readers may never have walked onto a job site and found materials ground into the mud or smashed and laying alongside a job trailer—new, paid for, yet unused—but I’m willing to bet that some of you sure have! Where is that in your bid? Do you account for a certain amount of waste in your estimate, or anywhere? The larger the project, the more likely that materials will be destroyed, damaged or otherwise devalued, and somewhere that needs to be considered.
Once, on a large job site, my field superintendent and I walked around our materials trailer and collected over $100 in materials that had been damaged, but not used, in the first two weeks of a one-year job! Now some things just happen, like a cracked cast iron fitting, but suppliers will usually replace them and/or the manufacturers will credit you. Some things. NoHub couplings trod into the ground? Unistrut bent because it was used to lever something heavy? Copper fittings misshaped by being inadvertently stepped on? China fixtures carelessly piled up? This type of waste is not only costly to your bottom line, but it is preventable. You cannot “estimate” this cost when bidding because if you did, you probably wouldn’t get the job to begin with. So you need to try and control it after the fact.
Today, seminars and classes for employees are much more common than in previous years. Why not take advantage of the trend? Setting aside a small amount of time with your field crew before starting a project can pay dividends in loss prevention once the project gets under way. Simply making them aware of the issue can save you money. Of course, that does not preclude them “policing” the areas when they know a supervisor is going to visit to hide the evidence, but at least they will be aware of the situation, and that’s half the battle.
Adding monetary incentives for bringing in materials under estimate is another way to get the field involved in cutting waste. Nothing will get your guys’ attention faster than the possibility of making a few extra bucks for doing nothing more than watching how they handle materials. Consider it a form of profit sharing.
Communicating with the field as regards material waste and damage on a regular basis, and emphasizing it to your field supervisory people, will keep the issue alive and in front of everyone who matters. Also, management making regular visits to the job site can help drive home that the issue is something to be taken seriously.
In small to medium sized shops, where personnel are more likely to know each other, the process is easier to implement. Larger shops which might include all the mechanical trades (plumbing, HVAC, electric and fire protection, waste management, etc.) will by necessity have to be delegated downward through the management structure. On that note, it is even more imperative to control waste when dealing with such diverse trades. In a particularly large firm, it might even be advisable to hire someone to keep the job site materials in good order for all the various trades.
The dollars that can be saved (or spent unnecessarily) are considerable. A program to reduce and/or control materials waste is definitely worthwhile no matter how large or small your shop is. Now labor? That’s another column.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a 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].