So you’ve taken the leap into commercial plumbing jobs and need to learn how to bid plumbing jobs. The kind of jobs where you need to put together a real deal comprehensive plumbing bid, not just a standard contractor estimate.
This is a lucrative and rewarding approach to winning new business but not without its headaches.
And often, those headaches start at the bidding process. You’ll be potentially dealing with construction managers, developers, architects, CEOs, electricians, and more – and that’s before you even win the job.
While some of the skills of basic estimation for a plumbing job carry over, a plumbing bid is an order of magnitude more complex.
Use this guide to understand what considerations you should have when putting together your new job quotes, and how to bid plumbing jobs for big clients.
The invitation to bid, or ITB (sometimes abbreviated as IFB for “invitation for bid”), is just that: An invitation to propose who you can best provide the plumbing services and work required for a project and beat out your competitors.
In general, a client seeking an invitation to bid plumbing bobs will be looking for a fixed-price contract with your business, though you are welcome to (and should) bake in some price adjustment based on the variables that can occur on the job site.
Similar to the ITB is the Request for Proposals or RFP.
Compared to the ITB, an RFP is more general: There’s a task that needs to be completed by the precise parameters are up at least in part to the person making the RFP for the potential client.
Therefore, one outcome of an RFP is a cost reimbursable contract. It’s one of the few times that a client is expecting there to be wiggle room in the pricing, materials, and scope.
The ITB, on the other hand, will usually result in a fixed-price deal, even if it contains options like price adjustment to account for inevitable holdups and variables.
But regardless of what plumbing bid type you’re developing, included in your bid should be elements that outline the total scope of work.
That should include cost and materials estimates, estimates for crew and manpower, relevant project experience, as well as a pitch as to why your plumbing company is the best one for the job.
Because a bid is work done for free and without the guarantee of payment (in some cases a lot of work, as the considerations below detail in length), it’s important to understand exactly what the potential client is expecting.
The process for bidding plumbing jobs can range from complicate government bids to a simple oral pitch.
No matter what, however, you will have to sell your professionalism, experience, and ability to complete the job. You will have to convince the client you can do it within their budget and on time. And you will have to be able to complete the bid in a timely manner with either enough precision or enough budget flexibility (again, depending on the client’s expectations) so that you come out in the black.
This guide assumes a bid on the higher end of the complexity scale, so if your ITB is less complex – great. These questions can still help you polish your pitch while you bid plumbing jobs and bring the contract home.
For instance, the cost of materials will vary greatly depending on the type of construction (new or existing structure) as well as what the client is looking for. Is it a high-end construction with all the bells and whistles or more or a penny-saver?
Will they be looking to you to get the best quality materials or to consult on what the best materials within their budget are?
Will the materials the client wants you to use require special tools and/or expertise to install?
All of these minor variables add up to additional costs if you don’t have the answers upfront – and know which questions to ask when you bid plumbing jobs.
Next, you’re thinking about how to crew up the job if you win it. Based on the designs and parameters of the bid, you’ll need to price out per head (and add extra on top for profit and unexpected circumstances) on the job site.
This can pricey fast if you don’t have a clear idea of what the job entails from the client. How many master plumbers do you need supervising apprentices or helpers? How much is that going to cost per head per hour?
You need an overall plumbing hourly rate for every member of your crew at each skill level (which you can amalgamate into an aggregate rate if you want).
These are knowable criteria but need to be factored in in advance so you can maximize profit and not take a bath on unexpected expenses – or irritate your client with overruns.
Finally, the pitching piece is one that often one that gets left by the wayside. Expecting that there are going to be multiple bidders, it’s important that you can show that you're hungry, you’re qualified, and that you stand out from the pack of other contractors angling for the same job.
While you don’t want your proposal to be overly long, strive to be as thorough and complete as humanly possible while also outlined your relevant strengths. Think of it a little like a job interview, because that’s what it is: You’re interviewing for the job you want to win from the client when you bid plumbing jobs.
For potential clients that don’t require a full-fledged bid, just a letter of intent or oral bid, it’s still a good idea to do a light version of this process for your own estimation’s sake. But in those cases, the self-sales aspect is even more important. You only get the one chance to impress and win the job.
So that’s what’s generally contained within your plumbing bidding document, but how do you determine exactly what you need to make intelligent estimates?
For that, you’ll need a full set up plumbing blueprints as well as the general blueprints and plans for the entire project.
That might seem like an unnecessary extra cost, but there are often discrepancies between the architectural drawings and the plumbing outlines.
A building project – especially new construction – tends to mean a lot of cooks in the proverbial kitchen. So it’s important to compare blueprints and be able to inquire with the client about any discrepancies.
Furthermore, it’s critical you see the Architectural Drawings since these supersede any other drawings and blueprints in terms of authority.
Trade drawings are the lowest order from a legal standpoint, so if you don’t check the work you’re going to perform against the expectations in the architectural drawings, you could be on the hook for the discrepancy.
On the whole, you’ll likely want a copy of the site plan, architectural drawings, construction drawings with general notes and conditions, demolition drawings if applicable, and mechanical drawings, all in addition to your plumbing drawings.
That way you see the entire picture of the job before you start to make bidding for that job a reality.
A quick note: Obviously, all of this printing can add up quickly, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. In addition to simply being part of the business as it runs, the hurdle of obtaining and printing these drawings should give you pause to only go after those contracts you’re seriously qualified for. That way no one’s time is wasted.
With those plans in hand for your bid, you’ll want to create a full plumbing takeoff and pricing sheet.
A takeoff is simply a precise accounting of all the material you’ll need for the job, as well as prospective workers, and any special limitations or considerations related to the job. Think of it as an estimate on steroids.
With the plumbing blueprints in hand, page down to the plumbing notes section to see what the designers and architects had in mind for your bid. These are likely to be incomplete, in the sense that these folks aren’t plumbing professionals and will likely have missed key questions or considerations.
Make notes on the notes as you develop your bid. This will not only help you in the long run but prove your professionalism and expertise to your potential new client.
A tried and true method for working on your takeoff and the pricing sheets that go alongside it is to use colored pencils on your printed plans to measure and label all the runs of pipes, fittings, and other equipment you’ll need (sinks, fixtures, sprinkler parts, etc.). Measure the lengths you’ll need and plug your calculations into your cost estimator.
Software can also accomplish this with digital plans, but many plumbers still prefer the pencil-and-paper approach.
One thing to be particularly aware of is anything in the plans that seems out-of-the-ordinary. Special sensors, custom fixtures, and non-standard materials are just a few.
These could require specialists to install or increase your cost runs, so it’s critical to identify these items so you can review it with the client if you get to that stage. You are also more than welcome to ask them about it during the bid process at minimum make a note of any exceptional requirement and build in variable pricing upfront.
What you identify in your takeoff will also shape your pricing estimates not only for materials and crew but the equipment you might need to rent to accomplish the installation of a particular water line or drain, for instance.
You’ll want to methodically take all the materials you’ve marked up and put them into a spreadsheet where you can price the inventory, labor, and other associated costs individually. This is where you will build in your profit margin as well as any slush to cover the unexpected and inevitable cost overruns (especially important on a job where you’re on the hook for those).
On large building jobs, one great piece of advice is to add a two percent increase in labor costs for each floor above the fourth.
Finally, with your takeoff and pricing sheets in hand, you’ll need to answer the question of what kinds of subcontractors you’ll need for the job.
Based on the kind of work you’ve identified in your takeoff, make a list of the subcontractors you’ll need to engage with and reach out so you can get their rates (if you don’t know them already) and make them part of your overall estimate.
If you don’t have time to do that or it overcomplicates the process while bidding plumbing jobs and timeline, take your best guess and try to bake in any potential overage.
As you finish your takeoff and materials estimation, make sure to compare the plumbing drawings you’re marking up against the architectural and mechanical drawings. The goal here is to catch anything you might have overlooked.
It’s a good idea to get a fresh pair of eyes as well. Grab a fellow worker to take a look at your bid sheet and try to spot any discrepancies between the drawings that need clarification or unique challenges.
In some ways, despite the surprises that can occur in materials needs or labor, those parts are easy. What’s occasionally harder to remember are all the side expenses you might have to account for.
First off – plumbing. While many big job sites simply rely on port-a-johns, others will have temporary toilets installed for the crew working there. Are you expected to get these online or build them? Something to consider and perhaps even inquire if missing from the proposal.
Speaking of temporary installation, it’s possible you will need to do temporary pipe runs or water boosting for other work being done on-site. This may or may not be accounted for in the existing planning documents and at least raises a question you can ask the client.
Then there’s accommodation. If the project is big enough, do you need to rent a trailer so you have adequate organizing and office space? If not, will the client provide one for you and your crew? Logistics are critical to big projects and you need a place to run them from.
Ditto considerations about parking (is there free parking nearby? do you need to pay for space?), truck rentals for the job site, union costs, and cleanup costs.
Finally, consider the needs of local regulations on your crew. What are the costs of permits and licenses you might need? What are the costs of taxes on work and materials?
Yes, we’ve asked how many master plumbers you need, but also what kind of safety training does your crew need to have? This can all cost money in time and certification.
Building in budget for when stuff breaks might sound like fluff, but it’s an important and smart part of your bid planning.
Tools break. Sinks shatter. Fixtures get bent. Workers drop stuff.
On any sufficiently large job or project things are just going to happen. A busy job site means lots of variability and that inevitably leads to things breaking. Bake in a percentage to account for this necessary evil.
Once you’ve got your best, most comprehensive guess at a bid together, contacted all your contractors and gotten estimates for your estimates, add three percent on top. This is your wiggle room to preserve profit in the face of unexpected costs and changes.
In addition to simply being the average margin of error on plumbing contractor estimates, it’s a good percentage that takes care of your needs as a professional while not being so high as to seem like you’re gouging the client. Everybody wins.
This is the bidding version of “measure twice, cut once.”
Because your bid is your outline of services rendered and costs provided – the precursor to a legal contract for work – it’s imperative that you check and double-check your numbers before submitting.
Have a trusted pair of eyes (or two) at the office review your bid in total before sending it off to catch any glaring errors or omissions. Like many mistakes on the job, this one that could cost you money.
The first bids on big plumbing jobs are the hardest because you’re doing the most work from scratch. This is where a piece of field service software can actually aid your bidding process, not just the day-to-day operation of your company.
That’s because the software tracks exactly which employees you have available as well as their skills and rates, plus our database allows you to store the cost of materials as well as save estimates for set jobs.
All of that makes your takeoff easier to execute more quickly and accurately.
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