Estimating the Really Big Jobs Can Lead to Really Big Profits

Fire and burglar alarm companies exist to make a profit. If there isn’t a profit after the job has been completed, that company will not be in business very long. This is especially true when nearly every job a company sells ends up as a big, fat zero.

Profit depends on how much money you have left in the till after the bills have been paid and the client has paid the final invoice. It goes without saying then that the salesperson must know the cost of every component used. They must be able to account for each item up front — right down to the nuts and bolts used on a particular job.

Unfortunately, there are many security companies that estimate their jobs by the toss of the dice. Perhaps this works in Las Vegas, but it does not work in the security world. Smart salespeople will try to conduct their estimates in an educated and organized manner using a variety of tools.

Study the Specifications
Before you can generate an accurate estimate on a job, especially a large one, the salesperson must do an accurate and thorough takeoff — the counting and measuring of the symbols shown on a project’s electrical plan. This provides the device count listed on an estimate form and, in some cases, in an estimating program. Before the takeoff is performed, however, the estimator must thoroughly understand what is expected of them.

Most large jobs involve a detailed specification and a set of blueprints from which to quote the job. An accurate estimate begins with a thorough reading of these specifications and blueprints, which are often bound in book form. Within this is the key to what the client expects — sometimes right down to the make and model of the devices to be used. In some cases, the make and model is left to the alarm company. Unless sufficient time is taken to read and understand each section of the specification — especially those that pertain to the work at hand — the estimator cannot accurately bid the job.

Most of the spec book will deal with common issues, such as security at the job site, clean-up, parking of vehicles and procedural concerns. One or two sections deal specifically with the equipment and installation itself, such as the type of wiring (plenum or nonplenum and voltage rating) and the placement of devices, such as cameras (wall or ceiling).

Another example of how specification is critical is where duct detectors are specified. In some cases, the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) company is tasked with providing and installing duct detectors. In this case, the alarm firm will be expected to connect these devices to the building’s fire alarm system. In other instances, the specification will state that it is the alarm company’s job to furnish, install and connect these devices.

Another area that can lose money for an alarm company is electrical hookups. In most cases, the architect will state that the electrical contractor (EC) will provide all electrical hookups to the alarm company’s alarm equipment as needed. In other cases, it is the responsibility of the alarm company to provide for and pay all expenses associated with primary power.

Once chosen for the job, the alarm company will be expected to submit detailed information on each component to be used in the system, usually in the form of specification or simple cut sheets. Along with this, the contractor is expected to turn in a one-line drawing showing the general layout of the system with relation to the alarm panel or head-end (i.e. CCTV or access control).

Accurate Takeoff Needed to Ensure Accurate Quote
Before the estimator can generate an accurate quotation that the alarm company is sure to make money on, he or she must know where every motion detector, door switch, smoke detector, fire pull, duct detector and other devices go. Although the architect may have drawn each device on the print, it will not provide totals. The estimator must take the time to dig-out each component from the blueprint.

Although this is definitely the most boring and time-consuming aspect of the estimating job, it is the most crucial. There is no other way to assure profitability on the job. Doing a quality, accurate takeoff is not an easy matter. Perhaps the best way to begin is by starting with a pad of standard quotation forms, a mechanical pencil and good eraser, a mechanical or electronic counter, an electronic roller ruler, and a good cup of coffee. Begin by drawing the symbol of each device on each line of the estimate form and labeling each one. Then, systematically scour each page of the blueprint, making a vertical mark for each device encountered. Be sure to mark each counted device on the blueprint so you do not count them twice.

Once you have located all the devices, tally each count and place the total in the appropriate column/row. To make sure you do not count devices twice, you might want to place a small checkmark alongside each device as you count it.

Another method that estimators use involves a mechanical hand counter, which can be held in one hand with a pencil in the other. As each device is encountered on the blueprint, the mechanical counter is advanced by one item — usually by pressing a spring-loaded button. At the same time, a small checkmark can be placed next to each device with the pencil. The total number per device is then entered on the estimate form. Once this has been done, place these totals in the quantity column on a separate estimate sheet, which we will call the “total sheet.” When all the counts are complete and you have an accurate tally of each set of devices on the total sheet, you are ready to begin listing support components.

Support components is one of the areas that many alarm companies miss, simply because these items are hidden from view. Back boxes, bushings, box covers, plaster rings, conduit, conduit straps, plastic anchors and each and every item you install will cost the alarm company money. This is not only for the material itself, but also for the labor necessary to install it. Just as important is the number of feet in wire that you intend to install (see the sample estimate sheet on page 32 of the October 2004 edition of SSI).

Lists Have Labor Unit Calculations
Knowing exactly how much the finished materials and supporting hardware are going to cost is only half the battle. The other half involves knowing the number of total hours required to install the entire job, including programming, checkout and client training. Most alarm companies like to estimate their jobs off the cuff, essentially throwing the dice each time they provide a prospective customer with a quotation. Although some aspects of estimation must be left to instinct and guesswork, most of the job is actually scientific and should be approached in this manner.

There are actually companies that provide lists of labor units associated with various kinds of components. Using these labor units, estimators are able to calculate their total labor on a proposed job. Take, for example, the “Manual of Labor Units,” published by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA): It provides a starting point whereby the estimator can glean an approximate time for installing each device. Most labor units used by ECs and alarm companies, with regard to low-voltage systems, are found in the first section of the NECA book. Section 1, “Limited Energy Systems,” provides the labor units used in fire alarm systems as well as public address, telephone, access control, burglar alarm, CCTV, intercoms and more.

Section 2 provides the labor units for conduit and raceways, as well as the various fittings and other items that go along with them. In this section, you will find the labor units for electrical boxes (both steel and PVC), all the various EMT and flat raceway fittings and more. This is a good book to have, but there are others on the market to
choose from. NECA also provides this information on CD.

One of the nice things about the NECA book is that it provides labor units according to a variety of criteria. For example, it should take approximately 0.8 hours to run wire 100 feet under normal conditions.

There are schools that teach estimators to quote more thorough and accurate large jobs. These schools and the tools they bring to the table are usually well worth the investment if the alarm company plans to focus on large installations. NECA offers estimating classes across the country where ECs go to learn the fine art of estimating. For more information on NECA’s book and other services, go to

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