There are services available, and you can take advantage of them.

Regardless of the popular sentiment surrounding the Internet, technology as a productivity tool is here to stay. From product listings to auctions to online permits, a multitude of Web-based services are available to help make you more efficient and productive. But how do you decide which online services are the most effective, and more importantly, how do you use them?

As the Internet changes the way business is done, there are several benefits to consider:

Increase productivity and profitability. The actual time you spend purchasing is reduced because you don't have to search through product catalogs or spend wasted hours waiting for phone calls to be returned or bids to come back.

Expand your supplier base. The barriers of time and distance are removed with the Internet, allowing you to do business with the supplier who offers the best price and highest quality, regardless of geographic location.

Find better pricing. By expanding the supplier base, you can search nationwide resources for the best deal, or you can simply arrange for exchanges of order information with your local preferred dealers.

Conduct business anytime, anywhere. You can do business 24/7 from your office, on-site or at home.

Finding Products Online

Whether you need an electric water heater, hydraulic trailer pump, pipe freezing tools or sealants, you can most likely find the product you're looking for online. Many sites provide product catalogs you can browse by product category, lists of manufacturers and distributors, or search terms. There are dozens of sites that help ease the pain of purchasing for contractors and subcontractors with online procurement and auctions.

Several Web sites specifically address the buying and selling needs of the plumbing and HVAC industries. Most require you to become a member and may charge minimal fees in order to make transactions in a secure environment. By simply posting your request for a product, you can have access to hundreds of qualified suppliers and let the vendors come to you. Vendors will submit prices based upon the quantity and the product you requested. Some online systems automatically analyze prices and accept the lowest price for you, matching buyers and sellers efficiently and confidentially. Items can be posted, quotes can be checked and requests can be fulfilled on any day at any time.

Online auctions are another resource for finding the products you need. Jupiter Communications, an Internet market research firm, estimates that online auctions will reach $3.2 billion in merchandise sales by the year 2002.

How do you participate in an online auction? On a typical site that hosts auctions, you will find a list of auctions and dates with a description of the items up for bid. For example, you may find an auction titled "Water Heater Liquidation Tuesday, April 25 at 8:30 a.m. EST" with a description, "New and used electric and gas water heaters. The approximate start time for each item will be available at 10 minute intervals for Internet bidding."

Most auctions allow you to participate either as a live bidder, placing bids in real time on items as they come up for bid, or with a proxy bid. Proxy bids are posted automatically when bidding begins on the new item, and spontaneous live bids appear in real time on the computer screen, similar to a conventional absentee or phone bid in a traditional auction.

If you choose to use a proxy bidder, you determine your maximum bid and the increment you want to increase by. You can raise your maximum bid after you have posted the original amount, but you cannot reduce it once it has been posted online. For example, your maximum bid on a used electric water heater in aforementioned auction might be $100 with a $5 increment. The proxy bidder is an automated robot that will attempt to get the winning bid for the item you want for the cheapest price. The proxy robot will bid as little as possible to outbid your competitors until your maximum bid has been reached and will not increase your bid beyond that. The best part about the proxy robot is that it watches the auction so you don't have to.

There are several tips for buyers to remember when participating in an online auction:

  • Research before you bid. Read the description carefully. Search for similar items currently for sale or in completed auctions to get a sense of values and final prices. If you have any questions about the item or the auction terms, e-mail the seller and ask.

  • Determine your maximum bid before the auction begins, so you don't end up in a bidding war.

  • If you win the item, print out a copy of the auction page, and save it until the item arrives. Also, save the photo to compare to the real product.

  • When the item arrives, inspect it immediately. E-mail the seller to let him/her know the item has arrived.
Master, or seasoned bidders use several "tricks" to win a bid. The most common trick is referred to as "snipe" bidding-waiting to the last minute of an auction to place your bid. The objective of sniping is to keep the price of an item low and increase the chances of winning. By not placing a bid early in the auction, you avoid bidding wars that unnecessarily drive up the price of an item. Some users frown on sniping, but it is both legal and effective.

Obtaining Online Permits

How annoying is it to drive in traffic to City Hall to stand in line waiting for a form to fill out, then waiting in another line for verification that you completed the form completely, and then another line to pay a fee? And, then if you made one mistake, you are handed a blank permit and have to do it all over again.

Or, say you have only two installation jobs one day, but they are in two different cities. Typically, you would have to drive to both city halls to fill out all the paperwork for both permits. The information is probably almost identical, but you still have to fill them both out. Think of the valuable time you have wasted just preparing for the two jobs.

Now there are Internet applications and services that will help reduce the time and energy necessary to manage permit and license paperwork. Several Internet service companies will help you use the Web to acquire city and county permit applications and submit them electronically. With an online system, an applicant logs onto a Web site, accesses and fills out the appropriate form, pays for it with a credit card, prints out the final document and goes to work.

Cities can view online permits in real time. They can approve, reject and track applications and deliver approved permits back to the contractor. If a city official rejects an application, he or she can write the reasons - to be viewed by the applicant in real time - improving turnaround time for a contractor to begin work once a permit is approved.

Online permitting is very easy to do. For example, at one online permitting site you would log on and follow this process for a simple permit:

  • Fill in city and street name information.

  • Agree to the government's legal declaration associated with online applications.

  • Fill out your personal information and license number.

  • Lists work tasks to be undertaken.

  • Review project fee calculation, which shows the government's permit fee. (There may also be an added fee for using the site.)

  • Pay all fees with credit card.

  • Print out permit.
New construction plan permits would be filled out similarly. It all can be done in minutes whenever you have time. The process increases your productivity because you don't have to take time out of your schedule to drive to different city halls. You can submit permits for all the cities in one central system.

Most contractors work in multiple cities and need business licenses to file permits in most of the cities. Web sites, like NetClerk (which is also offered as a service through other sites, like, also provide a business license renewal center, so you can apply for new business licenses and renew existing business licenses via the Internet. With NetClerk, all you have to do is provide the names of all the cities you do work in and it will pull new business licenses for you. It will track existing business license expiration dates, automatically renewing licenses for you at the appropriate time before they expire.

You may wonder how much these kinds of services will cost. It's reasonable - and a lot more efficient than the alternative. Most sites will charge a flat subscription fee that allows you to use their proprietary technology to store, retrieve and submit your permits or business licenses. The fee can range from $100 to $2,000 per month, depending on how much you use the site. Other sites charge a smaller monthly fee but charge an additional amount per transaction.

Security On The Web

Questions about security hold many people back from doing business on the Internet. Questions such as, "Who will see my information?" "What if someone gets my credit card number?" are legitimate concerns. Before you complete your first transaction, you should check out the level of security provided on the site. Most companies, and any that you decide to use, should follow a standard Internet security protocol, which disguises the transfer of passwords and credit card information - providing a high degree of reliable security.

Secure systems separate the network in which you are transacting from the rest of the Internet with a tightly controlled firewall - i.e. traffic barrier - so that others cannot read your data. Even the staff of the company hosting the transactions, with the exception of the security officer, cannot read your credit card information. After you have entered your credit card data and it has been verified, the data is encrypted so that it's completely meaningless to anyone without an encryption key, which is kept on a machine and cannot be accessed from the Internet.

In the time it has taken you to read this article, you could have searched for a product, bid in an auction, applied for a permit or renewed a license. And, you could have done it all online, hassle-free at your home or office. After all, time is one of your most valuable resources. So, why waste it?

The following Web sites offer products, auctions and permits online: