Twenty years ago electrical contractors had no alternative but to run their businesses the old-fashioned way using their heads, hands, hearts and calculators. While the personal computer stood in the wings ready to take center stage and go mainstream contractors of every stripe and size still flew by the seat of their pants.

They manually organized inventories, estimated projects, tracked tools and made purchases. They used everything from bewildering charts cluttered with magnetic pins to pencil-smeared logbooks laden with paper-clipped reminders. They wasted time, made mistakes and got home late for dinner every night. Does this scenario still ring true for your business today? Then maybe it's time you took a close look at electrical estimating software.

Computer technology has forever changed the way electrical contracting is done. The proliferation of personal computers not only lightened contractor workloads, it also opened up a new market wiring office buildings for computers. Before the personal-computer explosion, electrical wiring accounted for a much-smaller portion of the total construction project. Contracting was also a much more straightforward field: Before beginning work, a contractor would estimate the approximate cost, double the results for profit and overhead and then bid.

Today, contractors that want to keep tabs on every piece of electrical equipment they purchase, warehouse and install turn to sophisticated estimating software that offers detailed descriptions and pricing information on each and every electrical product. Today's contractors use computer software to perform diverse tasks estimating, project management, tool tracking, computer-aided design (CAD) accounting, e-mailing and product purchasing. More than 70% of electrical contractors now work with computerized estimating, according to data supplied by National Electrical Contracting Association (NECA), the Independent Electrical Contractors, and CEE News surveys. Interestingly, more than 50% of electrical contractors now win work without any competitive bidding. So bidding contracts probably is no longer the primary reason that contractors buy estimating software. But without a doubt, estimating is the most popular and important tool in the contractor's software belt.

WHY TO BUY ESTIMATING SOFTWARE

Estimating software programs can organize and streamline any contractor's business. These programs don't just estimate time and cost, they also reduce overhead, inventory and financing. Simply put: estimating software saves a contractor time and money.

If a contractor does bid projects, estimating software makes a night a day difference. Or as CEE News contributing editor Mike Holt puts it: Estimating software allows a contractor to spend more time with the family, more time organizing and managing the company and more time estimating additional jobs for business expansion. Further, says Holt, a computer-assisted estimate is more complete and more accurate than manual estimating and can be completed in less than one-fourth the time. Also, computer estimates make you more confident about your bid price being correct, so you'll communicate a higher level of professionalism.

A rule of thumb for estimating projects is the larger your firm, the larger your projects and, therefore, the larger your problems. Even today, some smaller contractors that perform fewer than five jobs simultaneously don't use estimating software or for that matter any software to run their projects. The boss either has a good memory or devises an uncomplicated system for estimating. Some small firms don't even keep a word processor in their shop.

As a contracting business grows, the number of computers and software programs he or she needs also increases. But many mom-and-pop size shops, with plenty of other problems on their minds, count on estimating software to speed their projects and keep their costs accurate. And technology keeps making it easier, particularly when vendors join forces to combines technologies within their own companies and with other vendors.

For example, Dexter + Chaney, a Seattle provider of Construction Management Software, recently partnered with Accubid Systems of Toronto, Ontario, to integrate their products. Electrical and mechanical contractors who use Dexter + Chaney's Forefront construction management software and Accubid's estimating and billing software (Pro, BidWinner, PowerBid, Change Order and T&M) are now able to transfer estimating information electronically from Accubid to Forefront. The integration of the two products eliminates double entry of identical data into both Accubid and Forefront. After a bid is awarded, an electronic file from Accubid containing estimate information can be transferred to Forefront with a few keystrokes.

Meanwhile, Dexter + Chaney more recently partnered with Trade Service, a supplier of electronic price books for estimators. Under the agreement, Trade Service's 1.5-million item electronic price book TRA-SER PRO will be integrated with Dexter + Chaney's Forefront. Users of Forefront will be able to access TRA-SER Pro, which automatically maintains and updates current price and product information in their Forefront database with pricing from their local distributors.

Most recently, on January 17, Dexter + Chaney partnered with ConEst Software Systems to provide their customers with integrated estimating, job costing, and accounting software. We cultivate partnerships with companies such as ConEst Software Systems in order to make our customers' jobs more efficient, said John Chaney, Dexter + Chaney president. It can be very laborious setting up an entire job budget manually.

THIS YEAR'S MODELS

Electrical estimating software gets smarter, faster and, in most cases, less expensive each year. But the programs aren't cheap. Though some simple programs can be had for as little as $19.95, prices for intensive, professional-quality programs range from $500 to $5,000 or more.

A good estimating system should help you quickly and accurately determine the cost of a job, and includes all anticipated costs, said Mike Holt. The system must be efficient, accurate and attempt to prevent common mistakes. It should have a method to verify that the estimate is accurate. (See www.mikeholt.com for more estimating tips.)

Some of the more popular estimating software programs include the dozen products that follow.

Accubid. This company produces several estimating and billing software programs. The company's estimating line (Accubid-Pro, BidWinner Plus, BidWinner and PowerBid) are said to be the only estimating software packages authorized by Microsoft to use the Designed for Windows NT and Windows 98 logo. In addition, the products are now Windows 2000 compliant.

Cert-in Software Systems Inc. This company produces the popular, multifeature TRF Estimating Software. They recently announced a partnership with Trade Service to integrate the TRF with the TRA-SE electronic price book.

Conac. Conac's Trackpoint, with a true multi-user capability available, allows several estimators to input into a single estimate. The system is designed to upload all major pricing catalogues. City Cost Indexes allow instant cost adjustment for 130 cities.

Durand & Associates. Durand makes Doubleclick, which they say is the most simple and easy to use estimating program in the industry. The entire program is based upon standard (NECA Type) pricing sheets. The software features Point & Click Pricing and a 29,000 part database with price updates three times a year.

Estimation Inc. Estimation's Bidmaster NET Series estimating system is a fast, accurate program for bidding. Based on the input of thousands of electrical professionals, the software's head-down approach to estimating is developed specifically for the needs of electrical contractors. It allows users to focus on job plans during takeoff, not the computer screen. A Customizable Database, Bidmaster NET's comprehensive database is equipped to handle all phases of electrical work.

Jaffe Software Systems. Jaffee offers the Power Estimator!, a fast, easy-to-use program for, itemized estimating, proposal/contracts, bid summary, labor-hour units, purchase orders, work orders, quote requests, part lists, job phasing, and estimate reports. The company also offers the Scalex PlanWheel, which scans info from prints, maps, and blueprints.

MC2. Estimating has been this vendor's only focus for the past 32 years. Software ranges from conceptual estimates down to nuts and bolts for electrical contractors.

McCormick Systems. More than 7,000 companies are said to use this vendor's estimating products. Back in 1997, McCormick reported that it sold estimating software to more than 47% of the nation's top 300 electrical contractors. The other 53% either did not use estimating software, had their own in-house programs or used estimating from other suppliers The company offers the Win6000 and Win8000 estimating products.

Timberline Software Corporation. Timberline's Precision Collection estimating software streamlines the estimating process from conceptual estimate to final bill of materials. The software is said to be 50% faster than typical systems, offering accurate takeoff tools and a variety of ways to view and analyze the estimate.

Trade Service. The computerized price book people are best known for their TRA-SER Pro price book, Electrical Price reference guide, and the Electrical Trade Book products for electrical contractors.

Vision Infosoft. More than 6,000 electrical contractors are said to use Vision's software programs. The company's most popular products include the Time and Material Billing Program, the Material Express instant real-time pricing and the Electrical Bid Manager estimating software for windows. The company also offers the Scalex PlanWheel, which scans info from prints, maps and blueprints.

WinEstimator Inc. They were said to be the first company to offer both Cost Estimating and Cost Accounting solutions in the Windows environment. They have more than 3,000 users worldwide.

ESTIMATING SOFTWARE VENDORS

Accubid Systems Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio. Accubid.com

Applied Computer Systems Inc., Knoxville, Tenn.

BHS Inc., Lees Summit, Mo.

CDCI, Atlanta, Ga.

Cert-In Software Systems Inc., Coral Springs, Fla. Certin.com

COBRA Microsystems, Minnetonka, Minn.

Construction Computer Software, Dublin, Ohio

Craftsman Book Co., Carlsbad, Calif.

Deneb Inc., Dayton, Ohio

Durand & Associates, Folsom, Calif.

Elecon Business Systems, Milpitas, Calif.

ESI/Engineering Software Inc., Glendale, Ariz.

Estimation Inc., Linthicum Heights, Md.

Intac International Inc., Burlington, Mass.

Jaffe Software Systems, Vista, Calif.

Litek Inc., Grants Pass, Ore.

Micro Estimating Systems Inc., New Berlin, Wis.

Mike Holt Enterprises, Tamarac, Fla.

National Information Systems Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.

Omware Inc., Sebastopol, Calif.

Orloff Computer Services/Elecrical Engineer, Santa Ana, Calif.

Scitor Corp, Menlo Park, Calif.

SIRIUS Software Inc., Dayton, Ohio

Small System Design Inc., Boulder, Colo.

Timberline Software Corp., Beaverton, Ore.

Trade Service Corp.

NOW THAT YOU'VE BOUGHT THE ESTIMATING SOFTWARE

Bar coding, also called automatic data collection (ADC), could be another technology worth looking into. The scanning products continue to make its way from retail checkout counters and storage warehouses to construction sites. Bar coding, which complements the functions of both estimating and project-management software, gives users a faster and more accurate way to keep track of inventories and job-site tools. The old hammer-and-chisel and hand tag ways can be too time-consuming in today's fast paced competitive market.

Bar coding involves scanning bar-coded labels for each piece of equipment and then placing the information in a database for later use. A bar-coding system can pinpoint the exact location of tools, documents and drawings. More specifically, a tool management program can provide an inventory of assets and the location of each assigned tool and quickly review supplies, service histories and more.

Though presently most popular among large electrical contractors, bar coding systems are also finding their way into smaller shops. One Indiana contractor, with annual sales of $3 million, lost from $3,000 to $5,000 worth of tools yearly until he invested in a tool-tracking system. Now he loses few tools.

Look for a software package offering many outputs from simple tracking reports to advanced calculations for depreciation values. A contractor should be able to check the complete history and current whereabouts of given tools or group of tools, then generate reports on tool use and equipment by either employee or project.

Bar-coding software manufacturers include:

Almetek Industries Inc., Hackettstown, N.J.

Anixter Inc., Skokie, Ill.

Brady Worldwide Inc., Milwaukee, Wis.

CIE America Inc., Tustin, Calif.

Contact East Inc., North Andover, Mass.

Electromark Smart Sign Co., Wolcott, N.Y.

Express Label Inc., San Diego, Calif.

Graybar Electric Co Inc., Clayton, Mo.

ID Solutions Div/Intelligent Controls Inc., Lynnwood, Wash.

Idesco, New York, N.Y.

International Technologies & Systems Corp., Brea, Calif.

K-Sun Corp., Somerset, Wis.

LEM Products Inc., Doylestown, Pa.

Monarch Marking Systems, Dayton, Ohio

Omron Electronics Inc., Schaumburg, Ill.

Panduit Corp., Tinley Park, Ill.

Permacel/a Nitto Denko Co., New Brunswick, N.J.

PurchasingCenter.com, Burlington, Mass.

Qube Corp., Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Seton Identification Products, Branford, Conn.

Tech Products Inc., Staten Island, N.Y.

Ziptape, Tempe, Ariz.