By following a few simple procedures, you'll be churning out bids at an unprecedented rate.

Trying to understand the new features of one estimating software system is difficult enough, much less trying to compare the advantages of several competing solutions. But don't let the flood of information and marketing claims distract you. From my experience using our new estimating system, I've come up with a short list of key items you should pay attention to, and one you should flat out ignore. After the purchase, I also have some recommendations on pain-free implementation.

With so many competing software solutions on the market you should be able to find one that satisfies all the requirements of your company. Make sure the software you choose is:

  • Designed For Your Business. First, make sure you look only at software designed specifically for mechanical contractors. With so many construction cost-estimating software programs now designed specifically for mechanical contractors, you don't need to try to make a general contractor's solution or an electrical contractor's solution work for your business. An estimating program designed specifically for mechanical contractors will be more useful, and the company's training and support staff will be more knowledgeable about your specific needs.

  • Easy To Implement. Good mechanical estimating software will come prepackaged and ready to roll with most of the industry-standard specifications and labor and materials databases already installed. Of course, no two companies do things the exact same way, so these specs and databases need to be customized to your individual standards. And making these changes shouldn't be brain surgery -- the software should be designed to make it easy for you to customize every setting imaginable, so make sure they show you how this is done and let you try it yourself before making a decision to buy.

  • Easy To Use. The most important requirement of any software system is ease of use. It seems like every estimator I talk to these days has more work than they can handle, so none of us can afford to be slowed down by our software. This is particularly true for a smaller mechanical contractor where one person may do several jobs in addition to the estimating.

    And while several of the products on the market have some or even all of the important new features like graphical takeoff, automatic fitting generation and connected mode, make sure before you buy that the software doesn't just offer all these bells and whistles, but that they all make music at the same time. The integration of these features into a single process is what creates the dramatic savings in time.

  • Accuracy. Good estimating software shouldn't just make you faster; it should make you better. My estimating software makes it hard for me to commit silly mistakes. For instance, when I'm moving down a run during takeoff, the software displays the line I am taking off on the computer screen, leaves a red "hot spot" every time I touch a branch connection, and inserts a reducing fitting when I change pipe sizes. I can finish the main, then easily come back and finish all branch lines later; if I miss one, the software reminds me. The software also automatically fills in assemblies, joints, tees, hangers, etc., making it nearly impossible for me to leave out fittings.

    However, automatic shouldn't mean autocratic. Your estimating software should be flexible enough to allow you to customize the specifications to your company's standards or even for individual projects.

  • Solid Training And Support. Any company selling you high-end software should have adequate training facilities with qualified instructors to get you started and good support services to keep you going. Today's new, more efficient estimating technologies depart from old methods enough that, on first look, you may be confused -- I certainly was.

    Good training can make you an expert quickly; bad training can make your new software useless. Same goes for support: a reliable software company should have an organized, well-staffed support team to answer your questions; a Web site with good, easily accessible information; and an e-mail form for support questions.

When implementing any software you can expect to have questions. That's only a problem if you don't get answers. With an important investment like estimating software, you need to make sure your system -- and the company who built it -- will last.


So you've decided to take the plunge and try out one of the new, fancy cost-estimating software solutions. In fact, it's sitting right there on the desk in front of you in its box. Now what do you do?

If you're like many companies, the answer is "Nothing." That's how it was for my company. When we bought our new software, we let it sit around gathering dust for months before we even tried to use it. Unfortunately, we're not unusual in our procrastination. Whether because past implementation nightmares have made estimators gun-shy or just because they're way too busy already, many are afraid of the time and effort required to implement new software.

But just as software companies have made dramatic improvements in the speed and accuracy of their products, they've also made implementation much less painful. This was definitely the case with our new system. Once I got serious about implementing our new software, I found it was pretty close to being able to run right out of the box -- labor tables, material pricing, and industry-standard specifications were all in place, with only minor modifications required.

If you've chosen the right software for your company, your experience should be the same. Follow these three easy steps below and you can quickly get up and running with your new software.

1. Look At It: I know this sounds basic, but you'd be surprised how many people don't even take this first step; like us for instance. When your software arrives, install it. If you're going to install it on a new computer, buy the machine and get it set up. Then spend a few hours and run through the software -- view the different screens, familiarize yourself with the menus and buttons, even perform a basic takeoff. This should have you ready for the next step.

2. Get Trained: Because the new takeoff methods are different than what you will be used to, you aren't likely to get everything just by exploring on your own. I had been tinkering with the new software for half a year before I went to training, and I still hadn't completed an estimate. But one week of training really opened my eyes to what these new technologies and estimating methods were all about.

After that, I was able to implement and start using my software immediately. You should consider the cost of training as part of the initial purchase price. Even with tuition, airfare, hotels, per diem and rental car, it's worth the money to spend three to five days with a qualified instructor learning how to get the most out of your new investment.

3. Fine-Tune: When you get back to the office after training, you will need to check the setup of your new system. Inevitably, a few settings will need to be adjusted to meet your company's needs, and you must find out what those are. When I implemented our new system, I took a small job that I had estimated before with my old software and ran it through the new system to see what adjustments I needed to make. I changed a few settings and was basically ready to roll.

By completing these three steps along with the implementation procedures you receive from your software provider, you should quickly be churning out bids at an unprecedented rate. The most important thing is to not be afraid of implementing your new software. Just remember, it will make you so much faster once you're up and running that you'll quickly make up for the time you spent setting it up.

What Not To Look For

Don't tell my controller I said this, but ignore cost. That's right. With estimating software, you really do get what you pay for, so don't be scared of a high price tag. If you're going to be saving yourself weeks worth of time, as I have, the initial cost shouldn't be an issue. That doesn't mean the most expensive software will automatically be best for your company, but it does mean you can disregard price and look just at the features and performance you need.

Since implementing our new software system I've been able to triple my bid rate while improving my accuracy, and I've talked to other estimators who say they're as much as five times faster with the new technology. With results like these, the right estimating software is definitely worth the investment.

Will New Technology Really Make Us Better?

If you're already using an estimating software system, you may be wondering, "How can new software be that much better than what I've already got?" After all, these are big investments of both time and money, and aren't we doing just fine with the software we have?

True. But today's estimating software systems are employing important new methods and techniques that make takeoff and bid creation faster, easier and more accurate. Just as when you switched from manual to computerized estimating, the improvements in speed and accuracy may just be too much to pass up.

Today's estimating systems provide capabilities far more impressive than those systems of just one generation ago. When we switched from our old package to new software, my productivity tripled. In the last year of using the old program, I completed about 50 bids ranging from $50,000 to $500,000. The next year, with the greater capabilities and speed of the new system, I bid 150 projects, with several larger projects in the $2 million range. The bottom line: The new software allowed me to do more bids, for more expensive projects, in less time. And how accurate were the estimates? Well, I don't think it's a coincidence that last year, the first full year of estimating with the new system, was also our most profitable year ever.

Whether you are a small shop still estimating manually or a larger shop reluctant to upgrade from your "tried and true" system, the new capabilities in recent releases of estimating software deserve investigation.