Even the best project managers run into trouble. Here are six tips to keep you from tripping up on what many consider common sense considerations.

No one ever said juggling multiple electrical contracting projects and their deadlines was easy. To be an effective project manager, you must not only work hard, but also put in long hours, pay strict attention to detail, and maintain excellent organization. Although it sounds difficult, rising to this challenge is easier than you think. Here are some practical tips to help you achieve success.

Tip 1: Prepare detailed system drawings for the field. You may ask: "Why do I need to make any drawings at all? I have working drawings the foreman and electricians can use." Sure you do, but they probably show a lot of diagrammatic information.

Let's look at a fire alarm system as one example. You'll see this system shown in the form of a riser diagram. Each device may have a location designator, such as "Stair 3" or "Main Hallway," but there is no plan view showing the actual device locations. The lines connecting the devices on the riser diagram denote cabling between the specific devices, but there is no conduit sizing or routing.

As a result, someone has to count cables, plan cable grouping, size conduits, and plan conduit routing. Should your foreman do this? The answer is a resounding "no!" Unless you like having a very expensive draftsman/designer, his or her responsibility is to supervise, not make drawings. Instead, you as the project manager or your firm's electrical designer (with your estimator's and foreman's input) should do this. Then, your electricians can work with a plan view drawing showing the best conduit routing and cable grouping. Do this for systems like public address, nurse call, security, clock, intercom, etc. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the resulting labor and material savings.

Tip 2: Compensate for retainage. Most contracts have a retainage clause, whereby the owner (or his or her representative) withholds a certain percentage of the monthly billing (and resulting payment) until completion of any punch list items and final acceptance. This percentage can vary from 5% to 10%.

You can somewhat compensate for retainage by using a process known as front loading. When preparing your cost breakdown for a specific project, identify those items you know you would install at the early stages. Examples of these include embedded conduit in slabs, device boxes in poured or bricked walls, underground duct banks, concrete foundations for electrical equipment, and light pole bases. Then, slightly increase the installed cost of these items (usually on the labor portion). Conversely, reduce the noted installed cost on those items you know you'll install toward the end of the project. These include light fixtures, lamps, wiring devices, and systems (fire alarm, P.A., etc.). Obviously, the total installed cost of all items cannot exceed your contract price. This way, retainage won't negatively affect your work. You'll also improve your cash flow for the project.

Tip 3: Take care of oddball items early. There's nothing more frustrating than having relatively inexpensive items hold up your final payment. We've all been there before, with these items remaining on the punch list for various reasons. For example, the promised delivery date of a 12-gang combination device plate in a special finish with custom engraving continues to be pushed back. The required spare sets of keys to every panelboard on the project are supposedly "on their way" but never seem to arrive. No one ever ordered the required set of spare fuses. Unfortunately, the list can go on and on.

To prevent this from happening, here's what you should do. At the beginning of a project, go through the specifications and your original estimate with your firm's estimator and purchasing agent. Then, highlight those items that are somewhat extraordinary, will have long delivery times, or are special orders. Jump on them immediately. By focusing on them early, your final punch list items should be miscellaneous repairs and/or adjustments, not missing equipment.

Tip 4: Check architectural drawings before ordering light fixtures. Here's a problem you may have encountered. You've ordered lighting fixtures based on the catalog numbers provided in the contract specifications and drawings. They arrive on site, and you store them until the area is ready for installation. You're notified the plasterer willbegin work shortly, and you should have the necessary plaster frames ready. You ask: "What plaster frames? The fixtures are for a lay-in ceiling." You find it's definitely a plaster ceiling. You check your purchase order, and the listed catalog numbers agree with the contract documents. Yet, you have to scramble and have plaster frames air shipped in to keep ahead of the plasterer.

Because your contract drawings or specifications included catalog numbers, you may ask: "Wasn't specifying the correct catalog number the consulting electrical engineer's responsibility during the design process?" The answer is "yes" and "no." Yes, the consultant coordinates the electrical design with the other disciplines, including architectural. But changes can occur after the fact. That's why specifications have wording we like to call "boiler plating." Basically, this wording says you, as the contractor, are responsible for reviewing all project drawings and coordinating your installation with all trades. It also says you're responsible for providing product finishes and constructions compatible with wall and ceiling types based on your review of all project drawings.

So, regardless of what the fixture schedule says via catalog numbers, you're responsible for ordering the correct fixture type and mounting for the specific area.

Tip 5: Keep your eye on as-built drawings. You're nearing completion of a project and find out the set of as-built drawings that were supposed to be updated as construction progressed are nowhere near complete. In fact, the updating has gone by the wayside, in the heat of meeting a construction deadline. You're sure this will show up on the final punch list, so you embark on a "crunch" input process; where speed, not accuracy, is paramount. Sound familiar?

To prevent such unnecessary stress, have your foreman or general foreman instruct his or her electricians or foremen to write down and explain any changes from the working drawings and return them to the field office daily. Then, assign an estimator or designer to visit the job site weekly, review and discuss the changes with the appropriate person, and input the information into the record set of as-built drawings. At a minimum, the input should include:

  • Actual feeder routing (overhead, in slab, and underground) with dimensions.

  • Location and sizing of any feeder pull boxes.

  • Revised locations of panelboards, switchgear, transformers, etc.

  • Correct panelboard circuit schedules.

  • Catalog numbers of purchased light fixtures (if different from specifications or fixture schedule).

  • Any HVAC or mechanical wiring schematics not included in original bid drawings.

Tip 6: Take advantage of any prefab work. Suppose you're doing a large office building with lots of lay-in fluorescent troffers. Instead of making all the fixture pigtails in the field, make them up in your shop. You can use an electrician and/or an apprentice to do this in a much more efficient manner and comfortable location.

Another example: Suppose you have a large number of long radius conduit sweeps to bend in large-sized galvanized rigid steel or aluminum conduit. Why set up a hydraulic bender in a cramped area (possibly with little heating) when your shop is a much better location?

There are other prefab possibilities as well:

  • Assembling and prewiring light fixtures.

  • Fabricating large or odd-shaped pull boxes.

  • Doing large numbers of drillings and tappings.

  • Doing all types of welding.

  • Doing any work requiring special tools, jigs, or templates.

Yes, these are all common sense activities, but you'd be surprised at how few contractors consider them. Keep these guidelines in mind on your next project and watch your profits increase while your headaches decrease.