Juggling multiple electrical contracting projects and their deadlines can be quite a challenge for any project manager. But staying on top of it all is easier than you think. Here are some practical tips to help you achieve success again and again.

Nobody ever said electrical contracting (or any other contracting business) was easy. In fact, it takes a lot of hard work, strict attention to detail, excellent organizational skills, and financial strength to rise above the competition. So what's the key component to contracting success? Behind every successful contracting project is an effective project management plan.

Good project management isn't simple. It requires a knowledgeable and organized person: someone who knows the "nuts and bolts" of installation products and techniques as well as the technical and financial aspects of contracting. If you have such a capable person, keep that employee happy and away from your competitors!

Why is a project manager so important? A quick look at the job's responsibilities should answer this question. A good project manager:

  • Selects field personnel, including a general foreman, journeyman electricians, and apprentices.

  • Makes sure you provide the required material at the needed time on the job.

  • Supplies plans, specifications, sketches, and any other information for correct and efficient installation.

  • Handles change orders.

  • Acts as the company liaison between the owner, architect, engineer, and general contractor.

  • Supplies storage and handling facilities for field office, material, and tools.

  • Provides information on percent completion for monthly billing.

As you can see, this can definitely keep anyone's plate full. That's why a good project manager is invaluable.

But where do you begin? To help answer this puzzling question, here are some helpful hints.

Getting the construction project going is your first task. Some like to call this job processing. Basically, you're preparing the work for the field so your foreman and crew have all they need to complete the project. Remember, there are many things that occur in the field your crew has no control over. Yet, these same things can have a significant effect on the project's success.

When you're processing a job, you're really just completing all the items listed in the Job Processing Check Sheet, as shown in Fig. 1 (in original article).

Depending on the size of your company, the job estimator (larger firm) or project manager/estimator (smaller firm) may fill out this form. As you can see, a lot of this is getting the necessary paperwork in order. Nevertheless, some items require knowledge of installation methods and processes. Examples include: Item 31 (Prepare Activity Schedule), Item 34 (Prepare Tool List), and Item 35 (List Prefab Possibilities).

When done correctly, a couple of these can save you money. One is Item 37 (Prepare Detailed Drawings For Field). You may ask: "Why do I need to make any drawings; don't I have working drawings the foreman and electricians can use?" Yes, you do have these drawings, but a lot of the information may be diagrammatic.

For example, you usually see systems like fire alarms in riser diagram format. In other words, they show no conduits; only station locations and cabling. And, you can't see the feeder grouping. So, why take time away from your foreman's primary responsibility (supervision) to plan system feeder routing, count cables, and size conduit. Instead, the project manager, with the estimator's and foreman's input, can do this and hand over a complete system layout showing cable grouping, appropriate conduit sizes, and the best routing.

The same thinking applies to wiring diagrams (with input from the HVAC and mechanical contractors), electric room layouts, and feeder conduit routing and layout.

Another money-saving technique is Item 35 (List Prefab Possibilities). Suppose you're doing a large office building with lots of lay-in fluorescent troffers. Instead of making all the lighting pigtails in the field, why not make them up in your shop? You can use an electrician and/or apprentice to do this in a much more efficient manner and comfortable location. Alternatively, suppose you have a lot of long radius sweeps to bend in large-sized galvanized rigid steel or aluminum conduit. Why set up your hydraulic bender in a cramped area with little heating when your shop is a much better location?

Other prefab possibilities include:

  • Assembling and prewiring light fixtures;

  • Fabricating large or odd-shaped pull boxes;

  • Doing large numbers of drillings and tappings;

  • All types of welding; and

  • Any work requiring special tools, jigs, or templates.

Planning and scheduling is one of the most important tasks a project manager faces. This shows up as Item 31 in the Job Processing Check Sheet. On complex jobs, project managers from every trade (again with help from estimators) contribute to an overall Critical Path Method (CPM) Schedule for the specific project.

Basically, a CPM schedule notes individual stages of construction, which you must separate so there's no work stoppage resulting from lack of material and/or manpower as well as work interference from other trades. CPM schedules can be intimidating and hard to understand. However, an experienced project manager will have little difficulty understanding and following the flow of construction. You can make this task easier by "extracting" your portion of work from the CPM schedule and putting it into a more "friendly" format. The Activity Schedule Work Sheet, as shown in Fig. 2 (in original article), is an example. Using the CPM schedule for start/finish dates, list themajor activities involved, number of person-hours estimated, crew size, and number of crew-weeks. Obviously, the estimator's input is very important. In fact, he or she may have to break down the original estimate to get to the required task hours. As you can see, this form is usable as a quick-read labor-scheduling tool. Moreover, it's ideal for computerized spreadsheet formats.

You can also use it for other scheduling tasks, such as setting material shipment dates. Looking at Fig. 2 again (in original article), let's pick an activity. (Item 11, for example.) Suppose you want to set a shipping date for the motor control center (MCC) noted. Work backward from the activity starting date, subtract the MCC's quoted shipping time, and arrive at the last possible day of shipping. By subtracting the manufacturer's lead time from the shipping date, you get the last possible date of ordering the MCC. You can also use the Activity Schedule Worksheet to set tool requirement dates and monitor your crew's output.

Preparing an accurate bill of material is an absolute must in contracting. Some contractors use the original estimate as its source. Of course, this depends on the amount of detail in the estimate, the estimator's ability, and the amount of time he or she had in preparing the bid. (We all know what rush bids are like.) Many contractors do another takeoff, taking time to make a detailed count of lighting fixtures, wiring devices and plates, system devices, branch and feeder conduit, wire and cable, etc. A good Bill of Material should have correct quantities, correct catalog numbers, and good item descriptions, including color, finish, and/or size.

To make the bill of material more useful, try breaking it down so it directly correlates to the Activity Schedule Work Sheet. Using Fig. 2 (in original article) as an example, break down your bill of material into the following categories:

  • Embedded work

  • Feeder conduit work

  • Power distribution equipment

  • Branch circuit work

  • Wire and cable

  • Lighting

  • Finishing

Some job expenses are somewhat outside the "normal" electrical contracting functions. Yet, they can be expensive. Therefore, they require careful monitoring. Sample expenses include:

  • Crane services for hoisting heavy electrical equipment;

  • Trenching and backfilling for underground duct banks or conduits;

  • Concrete sawing or large-diameter core drilling for conduits or sleeves;

  • Carpentry work for concrete base or above-ground conduit encasement forming;

  • Concrete placing and finishing for pole and equipment bases;

  • Painting of electrical equipment; and

  • System subcontractor installation for sound, CATV, lightning protection systems, etc.

To help keep track of these expenses, you should put together a Job Expense Form with the following headings: "Description," "Where Used," "Date Required," and "PO No." Depending on the extent of work, you may have to subcontract it out. Otherwise, you would issue a purchase order (PO) and note the same in the Job Expense Form. You should be able to do this in you project management software.

Incompatible ceiling mounting is probably the most prevalent problem with lighting fixture installations. You're probably wondering how this could happen. Well, it happens for any or all of the following reasons:

  • The electrical engineer uses the wrong catalog number for the ceiling.

  • The lighting salesperson quotes on exactly what the electrical engineer specifies.

  • The estimator never checks the architectural plans in making the original estimate or preparing the Bill of Material.

A typical result: You end up airfreighting plaster frames to keep ahead of the ceiling plasterers. And, you don't get paid for it because you're supposed to look at all the drawings in preparing your bid. It states this in the "boiler plate" of the specifications.

This is where an accurate fixture schedule comes into play. First you have to look at the architectural drawings. But, you should list the most accurate information in the schedule, such as:

  • Manufacturer's name and catalog number

  • Fixture description

  • Fixture finish

  • Mounting or type of hanger (plaster, lay-in, flange, pendant, etc.)

  • Ballast voltage

  • Location

Your best bet is to make this a part of your field drawings. Make sure your foreman and electricians know this fixture schedule takes precedence over the one shown on the original bid drawings or engineer-prepared working drawings.

Installers need the right tools at the right time. Equipping the job with tools out of your tool crib isn't the only way. If you don't have the required ones for a particular job, you may have to consider buying new tools or renting them (if they're expensive, and you don't foresee repeated usage).

Probably the most important consideration is making sure you send out operable tools. What message do your foreman and electricians get when they receive a broken tool? It implies you don't care about efficiency, production, or the financial success of the project. If you don't care, why should they? Don't send this negative message. Make sure you repair or replace all tools before you send them out.

However, tools do break. Ensure your foreman tags the broken tool for service so he or she doesn't mistakenly ship it to another site. Also, provide adequate and secure tool storage. There's a lot of money invested in tooling up a job. Make sure the crew appreciates this investment by safeguarding such tools.

Make sure to supply your foreman with complete project information. This will reduce expensive field mistakes and numerous phone calls back to the office. The documentation should include the following copies filed in the noted categories:

Contract Information

  • Signed contract, including any accepted add-on alternates

  • Estimator's bid summary

  • Work orders already in place

  • Proposals awaiting acceptance

  • Log for recording contract change orders

  • Log for recording time-and-material change orders

Material Information

  • Project bill of material

  • Log for recording receipt and inspection of material

Field Drawings

  • HVAC and mechanical equipment control wiring diagrams

  • Approved manufacturers' shop drawings

  • Feeder conduit routing drawings

  • Feeder pull box drawings

  • Various system field installation drawings

Miscellaneous Information

  • Original estimate worksheets

  • Log of interoffice mail

  • Technical books and manufacturers' catalogs

  • Tool inventory

  • Project progression photos

General Information

  • Manpower charts

  • Activity Schedule Work Sheet

  • Permits

  • Log of notes and questions to general contractor and/or architect

  • Log of notes and questions to electrical engineer

    This includes much of the estimator's work. Some contractors are reluctant to have this information sent to the field because they don't want their foremen to know how much gross profit they anticipate. Others have foremen who are, in effect, full-time employees that they trust enough to share in this information with. Either way, the decision to provide or withhold information is up to the owner.

Visiting the job site on a regular basis is crucial. But frequency depends on the size and complexity of the project. On a small job, once a week may be sufficient. On a demanding project, you may have to be there full time, with an on-site office. Regardless of frequency, visiting the site allows you to find out:

  • If the right material, tools, and manpower are on site;

  • If all pertinent information is available to your foreman;

  • If your crew is using these items as you and the estimator intended; and

  • If your crew is working to maximum efficiency and productivity.

    Basically, you're trying to ensure the actual installation of material is all your foreman and crew have to worry about. Here's what your work as a visiting project manager entails.

Having the right material

  • Verify Bill of Material requirement dates against actual need and delivery dates, as shown on the Activity Schedule.

  • Plan work with your foreman as far in advance as possible, making sure both material and necessary tools will be available for future work activities.

  • Verify crews use material handling equipment, such as fork lifts, dollies, and cherry pickers properly.

  • Verify crews receive and store material properly.

Having pertinent information

  • Verify foreman and crew use the latest revision of drawings.

  • Verify wiring diagrams are adequate and no one designs work in the field.

  • Check all change orders for proper handling.

  • Verify time-and-material change orders arrive at the office upon completion.

Having correct, workable tools

  • Check that tools are workable.

  • Verify workers use tools as needed.

  • Verify crews receive, store, and secure tools properly.

Having the right manpower

  • Check size of crew during each activity against manpower scheduled on Activity Schedule Work Sheet.

  • Make sure one-person tasks are done by one person.

  • Verify everyone observes starting and quitting times.

  • Monitor length of breaks.

  • Look for potential trouble spots: professional jealousies, unproductive employees, unsafe practices, and even conflicting personalities.

So, you're nearing the end of the project; you haven't fulfilled your responsibilities as project manager, yet. You still have to close out the job. The first step is to fill out a Job Close-Out Checklist, as shown in Figs. 3 (in original article) and 4 (in original article) or something similar.

Filling out the field work form (Fig. 3, in original article) requires a walk through with your foreman. If done properly, this speeds the payment of any retention money. It's sort of a "pre-punch list" evaluation. It also "nudges" your memory about providing such things as spare fuses, panelboard keys, or any spare parts the contract requires. Remember, you're going to waste a lot of hours during this final stage if you don't account for the minor material items required. What are some of these?

  • Broken fixture glass and/or device plates;

  • Missing box covers/ panel trims;

  • Damaged light fixtures;

  • Missing panelboard directories;

  • Missing special-finish device plates; and

  • Missed "fine print" items on plans and in specifications.

This task is important to the project's success, so don't trivialize it.

Filling out the office work form (Fig. 4, in original article) forces you to do the required contract and sales paperwork to close-out the project in the accounting and job management areas.

The second task is to fill out a Job Evaluation Report, as shown in Fig. 5 (in original article). This basically accounts for any differences between estimated amounts and actual money spent. To do this right, you must accumulate the necessary information throughout the course of the project. Most differences result from:

  • Errors in the original estimate, such as wrong quantities, wrong types of material, or wrong labor units;

  • Not buying according to the original estimate;

  • Not meeting scheduled material and/or equipment deliveries;

  • Not managing the project properly;

  • Using inefficient installation methods and/or tools;

  • Planning and scheduling poorly; or

  • Supervising the project inadequately and ineffectively.

These differences may stem from circumstances out of your control. For example, factors such as a poor performing general contractor, adverse weather conditions, or even theft, may affect the project.

Most importantly, you should come away from completed project with enough information and experience to avoid making the same mistakes again. Filling out the Job Evaluation Report (Fig. 5, in original article) forces you to find out why there are differences between estimated and actual costs. That's the beauty of this form.